Thursday, July 3, 2014

This one’s really worth what it cost. - wrapping up L'Assommoir

Tomorrow is a holiday, so I will be back on Monday with some Spanish literature.  It is the arbitrarily-declared Spanish Literature Month!  Or maybe I will cover Knut Hamsun first.  Who knows.

Regardless, I will wrap up L’Assommoir.  I could just keep writing about Zola.

I could pursue the ironing for example.  Actually, I would have to do some research about it.  Edgar Degas painted several examples of women ironing, including the one on the left at the National Gallery, this one at the Musée d’Orsay, and this one at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  The Oxford World’s Classics edition features yet another Degas of a woman ironing.  Zola knew Degas, and likely saw some of these paintings (most that I linked precede L’Assommoir).

The connection to painting is not coincidental.  First, Zola was so intensely visual.  I occasionally suspect that Zola, in a descriptive passage, is literally describing a painting – that he has simply inserted a painting, like maybe a Degas showing women ironing, into his novel.  Second, one of the heroine’s children actually becomes a painter.  Third, one of the craziest scenes in the novel is when Gervaise’s wedding party spends four pages touring  the Louvre:

Centuries of art passed before their bewildered ignorance, the subtle rigidity of the Italian primitives, the magnificence of the Venetians, the rich and brilliant life of the Dutch.  What interested them most, however, were the copyists, with their easels installed amid the crowd, painting away nonchalantly.  One old lady, mounted on a high ladder and using a whitewash brush to spread soft sky-blue upon an immense canvas, struck them particularly.  (Ch. 3)

The copyists, you don’t say.  There we have, by the way, an example of what I suspect are concealed puddles, proto-puddles.  The punchline of Zola’s joke is that a member of the party has taken them to the Louvre just to show them an earthy Rubens:

“Will you look at this!” Boche kept saying.  “This one’s really worth what it cost.  Here’s a guy puking.  And this one, he’s watering the dandelions.  Look at this fellow!  Oho, look at this one here!  Oh well, they’re a pretty bunch, they are!”

The painting will turn out to be thematically relevant.  The wedding party’s own drunken feast starts about five pages later.  For a few of the characters, it lasts for the rest of the novel.

How I have restrained myself, not writing about the food in L’Assommoir.  How strange to think of this book so full of hunger and misery as a food novel.  There is so much food in it, so much eating.

The Louvre trip is the only time in the novel that country girl Gervaise leaves her adopted home, a few streets and an outlying industrial area north of Montmartre.  At the novel’s end, in 1869, Gervaise finds that even her Paris is being destroyed by Baron Haussmann’s urban renewal, as long open boulevards punch through the little streets in which she has spent her life.  “The long vistas of avenues opening before her seemed to make her stomach feel even more empty” (Ch. 12).  In The Kill, Saccard makes his hollow fortune through insider trading in real estate affected by the new boulevards.  L’Assommoir is written from the other side.  “Underneath the rising tide of luxury, the miserable poverty of the Paris slums was still there to undermine and to besmirch this brand-new city that was being so hastily constructed.”

I guess this can count as my backhanded contribution to Dolce Bellezza’s Paris in July event.  Paris, je t’aime.


  1. The museum visit scene was just so great, it would make a great movie scene. I am glad you enjoyed this so much.

  2. Tom, thanks for doing this series of Zola posts: I never read any Zola, but you make him look so enticing and yummy.

  3. It's funny, but I never associate Zola that strongly with such vivid visuals. You're right, of course, but enough of his books end up having so much more grit that I don't think about it that much.

    I always thought the museum scene was like a giant wink at the future. Like, oh, here's our cast doing this utterly ridiculous thing. It feels so modern, I love it.

  4. The museum scene is a jaw-dropper.

    I really misunderstood Zola for a long time. It was that label Naturalism which kept me away (and thus why I mock the word every chance I get). In American literature, the label has been attached to some of the writers least concerned with good prose style, like Dreiser. Well, these labels have so little to do with style.

    Bilibio, which Zolas have you read? There may be some path dependency here. The Kill and especially The Belly of Paris consist of practically nothing but vivid descriptions. L'Assommoir has a less unusual balance.

  5. The best Zolas (or the best parts of Zola's novels) are the ones with full, long, rich descriptions. Yes, The Belly of Paris, Au Bonheur des Dames, L'Assommoir are real pleasure, Germinal too, but I find these two last novels are less convincing for their moral side, for the amount of dramatic events the characters have to endure, even if Zola said that he was portraying real life characters — but real life was certainly more balanced. Wholly different, but one of my favourites, La Faute de l'Abbé Mouret, very inventive in a dreamy mood, where a young priest Serge Mouret, stricken with amnesia, wanders in a forlorn garden where he meets a wild innocent girl. Of course, memory comes back to him, and guilt, shame, etc.

  6. We seem to agree on what makes Zola especially good.

    The trick in L'Assommoir is that Zola skips so much of the ordinary real life, jumping three (non-miserable, even prosperous) years in a sentence, for example. I share your doubts about the moral side. The balance, it is a bit of a deception.

    I will likely try Au Bonheur des Dames someday. La Faute de l'Abbé Mouret, which when described hardly sounds like Zola, is tempting, too, but I will probably wait for an updated English translation, which may be a while, although who knows now.

  7. When L'Assommoir was published, Christian commentators were infuriated by the immorality of the plot. One century after, I think that Zola's secular point of view is as biased as the Christian one. It's still a bourgeois look at a working class scheme of life, as seen by liberal bourgeois: concubinage against marriage, precocious sexuality, personal conflicts ending in fights. To be honest, the same clichés are to be found in working class literature (socialist one for example), written in a less interesting way, as you can also find there the other clichés (the Christian ones), poor girls struggling to raise their siblings, young boys going to night schools, etc.
    Instead of La Faute de l'Abbé Mouret, try La Conquête de Plassans, with its political and religious conflicts in a provincial town, not so far of Barchester Towers (in a Catholic Jesuitic way), and of course, after L'Assommoir, you have to read Nana.
    And of course, once in Paris, you can visit the whole town (except for Le Ventre de Paris' Halles) following Zola's novels. The district where L'Assommoir is set still exists, still poor and shabby, with the hospital Lariboisière near the rue de la Goutte d'Or — of course, today, the poorest Parisians are often African, Chinese, Algerian and not anymore Provençal.
    For such an exploration, the best guide for 19th century's Paris, beautifully written, full of stories and references, is Eric Hazan's book, The Invention of Paris: A History in Footsteps.

  8. People still, I think, connect Hemingway primarily to France (I know I do), but I'm reading Garden of Eden for the first time (what is going on there?) and remembering that Spain is just as important, it seems.

  9. Ma femme has read the Hazan book. It is in the house somewhere, I was using Google Maps to explore the part of Paris that is in the novel, as come to think of it I always do with Zola novels. Les Halles is, I think, the only major Zola setting I have visited. Now, of course, you just go to shed a tear.

    I wonder, Shelley, if the particular starting place creates the Hemingway association. The Old Man and the Sea or Farewell to Arms or "The Big Two-Fisted River" could make you think he is a writer of Cuba or Italy or the UP, all of which are true. The Zola reader who mostly knows Germinal or a few others would not know how much of a Paris writer he is. But I have only read his Paris novels!