Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Émile Zola: L’Assommoir (1877)

Wood engraving of Pierre-Auguste Renoir's drawing of working girls for the illustrated edition of 1878

L’Assommoir is the seventh of the Rougon-Macquart sequence and the first that is still widely read, though Thérèse Raquin (1867) precedes all of them. Sometimes being a part of a larger sequence prevents due recognition. L'Assommoir is one of the supreme European novels and it really stands alone in Zola's work, despite such jaw-dropping successors as Germinal (1885) and La Terre (1887).

In English you have no choice but to read L’Assommoir through a haze of jerky interference, even in Leonard Tancock’s translation. That’s unfortunate if only because of Zola’s huge importance in the history of the British novel. If you have ever wondered why, around 1875, the amazing fertility of its own glory days, masterpiece after masterpiece, seems to yield incomprehensibly to a trifling loss of confidence, then this is why. Zola, above all, made our authors understand themselves as incapacitated (Ibsen was possibly the second most potent author in this respect – i.e the reproof was publically felt).

Thus in April 1866, Wilkie Collins wrote this, in his Foreword to Armadale:

Estimated by the Clap-Trap morality of the present day, this may be a very daring book. Judged by the Christian morality which is of all time, it is only a book that is daring enough to speak the truth.

Ten years later (January 1877), Zola’s Preface says:

L’Assommoir is without doubt the most moral of my books... It is a work of truth, the first novel about the common people which does not tell lies but has the authentic smell of the people.

In these combative prefaces the two novelists used almost the same language, but once Zola had done it you’d be laughed at if you spoke that way about books like Armadale.

There is thus a Zola-shaped recess in the English novel, and in the next generation it’s followed by a Zola-shaped idea of what a serious novel is, by now so ingrained and so coloured by the individuality of good authors (Conrad, Hardy, Joyce, Lawrence..) that we sometimes mistake it for their own idea. I’m sorry to say that they were, on the whole, very ungrateful.

Tancock sometimes succeeds brilliantly, but at such a long distance in time and place from the rue de la Goutte d’Or, he knew he had an impossible mission. At its worst the prose looks clunkily bolted together out of stock expressions that don’t quite fit, e.g.

she pitied her brother, that ninny whose wife deceived him up hill and down dale, and it was understood that the only reason why she still set foot in such a madhouse was for her poor old mother’s sake, who was obliged to live in the midst of all these abominations.

At least Zola’s text was speaking the same language as its characters – French, I mean. But then Zola’s project had intrinsic impossibilities of its own. He appropriated the speech of the streets, an essentially oral form, and tried to use it to make paragraphs in a novel, the wrong tool for the wrong job.     

“Up hill and down dale” is a phrase that you’ll never hear in real life except in some connection with transport, this being the only context where its powerful old image flames into life. There is a decorum in common speech that resists transferred usage, unless it is instantly seen to be natural (in which case it just as instantly ceases to be transferred usage, and becomes a part of the common inheritance in its own right). Extension of usage, the pressure of words placed in new contexts, is a literate practice intrinsically alien to the language of the Goutte d’Or and to any other common neighbourhood, where speech is a highly conservative medium and tiny deviations mark the outsider, the person who can never be “one of us”.

This ill-chosen phrase is presumably Tancock’s fault, but he’s not helped by having to slip these oral ready-mades into a syntactic framework that consists of essentially literary language like “deceived”, “it was understood”, “who was obliged to live”, expressions that are only used in educated settings. That has to be Zola’s responsibility, the basic contradiction in his method, which is something every novel needs to have. Fortunately for the world he had the necessary drive and insensitivity to carry it through. 

When it operates as a kind of continuous unattributable commentary the method does have a slippery potential. As the paragraph continues, we drift away from Mme Lorilleux’s thinking into wider seas:

The whole district fell upon Gervaise. She must have been the one to lead the hatter astray. You could see it in her eyes. Yes, in spite of the ugly stories, that artful dodger Lantier got away with it, because he went on with his gentlemanly airs in front of them all, strolling along the pavements reading the paper, full of gallant attentions to the ladies, always giving them sweets or flowers. After all, he was only behaving like a cock among hens, a man’s a man, and you can’t expect him to resist women who throw themselves at him, can you? But there was no excuse for her; she was a disgrace to the rue de la Goutte d’Or.

The commentary doesn’t speak with a single voice, since for the space of a brief shimmy it seems to admit the “artful dodger” Lantier’s culpability. We’ve seen what happened between Gervaise and Lantier, or we think we have, so this commentary about Gervaise we assume to be a cloud of commonplace-sexist prejudice and something that Zola doesn’t intend us to accept. At the same time it has its influence on us, because its pattern is at least comprehensible. We have not after all seen Gervaise’s eyes. She didn’t mean to trap Lantier, but then you can argue that Lantier, pace Virginie’s conspiratorial fantasies when he turns up, is a sponger and a drifter rather than a Macchiavelli. He wasn’t really responsible for Coupeau fouling the marriage bed with lakes of vomit. And didn’t Gervaise tacitly accept what was bound to happen from the moment Lantier moved in? Goujet thought so. The neighbourhood view, unlike the one that we take as bourgeois readers of a bourgeois form, at least acknowledges Gervaise’s rare moment of triumph, even if the neighbourhood condemns it. 

You need a pattern, even if it’s far from accurate, and in the next paragraph we see Gervaise working out her own changed circumstances on the basis of more or less accepting the neighbourhood myth. It’s like a communal thought-process.

Amid the general indignation Gervaise lived on, calm, indolent, half asleep. At first she had felt very guilty, very dirty and disgusted with herself. When she left Lantier’s room she washed her hands and then wetted a cloth and wiped her shoulders hard enough to take the skin off, as though to wash away her shame. If on such occasions Coupeau tried on any funny tricks with her she would fly into a temper and run off shivering to dress in the shop. Similarly she would not let Lantier touch her if her husband had embraced her. She would have liked to change skins when she changed men. But gradually she got used to it. It’s too tiring to have a bath every time! Her laziness melted away her scruples, and her longing to be happy made her get as much pleasure as she could out of her troubles. She was as indulgent towards herself as towards others, and was only anxious to arrange things so that nobody was too put out. After all, you see, so long as her husband and her lover were happy, and the home went on in its regular routine and everything in it was fun and games the livelong day, and everybody was nice and comfortable and pleased with life, there was nothing to complain about, was there? And besides, when all was said and done, what she was doing couldn’t be all that terrible, since it was all working out so well to everybody’s satisfaction, and you are generally punished if you do wrong. So her lack of shame had turned into a habit. It was now all as regular as mealtimes; whenever Coupeau came home drunk she popped over to Lantier’s bed, and that happened on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays at least. She shared out her nights, and had even taken to leaving her husband in the middle of his sleep when he snored too loud, so as to finish off her own sleep quietly on the lodger’s pillow. It wasn’t that she felt more attached to the hatter. No, it was simply that he seemed cleaner and she could sleep better in his room – she felt she was having a bath. In fact she was rather like a dainty cat who loves curling up on nice white linen.

The paragraph begins firmly and makes its way to the phrase about changing skins as one changes men. In the same way the end of the paragraph suddenly crystallizes into the picture of the dainty cat. Both of these are things that we see Gervaise thinking, and they act like searchlights into her mind with their common emphasis on cleanliness and bathing (by the end of the paragraph, this has ended up meaning being in Lantier’s bed).

But between these illuminations the central part of the paragraph is cloudy with parallel syntax and dithering qualifications like “after all, you see... and besides, when all was said and done...”. Coincidentally or not, “fun and games all the livelong day” is another judder of the Tancock/Zola phrase-bolting machine. One of the difficulties Zola makes for himself is that he hasn’t worked out a way of representing the silences of consciousness. His Gervaise is compelled by the methodology of the novel into a discursive and verbal awareness of her situation that is exactly how she wouldn’t think or choose to think, and this is compounded by her being made to employ the street-language designed for a different social context, which is bound to make her discursiveness seem silly. She is not a novelist or a debater, and Zola has to make her into one, even when she’s sick and starving in the twelfth chapter. Nevertheless his method does lead to a dreadful effect in the final pages, when Gervaise is wandering in her mind and the prose gradually withdraws from her consciousness, eventually objectifying her as a huddled body under the stairs in Bru’s kennel.


Still from Albert Capellani's silent film of 1908


Where the method really catches fire it becomes a brilliant expression of excited awareness – this is when Zola is going with the strength of the street-talk and not trying to make it do things it was never intended to do. This is Gervaise giving way to the thrill of the pawnshop:

Gervaise would have gladly sold up the whole lot; she was seized with a frenzy for popping everything, and would have shaved her own head if they would have advanced something on her hair. It was all too easy; you couldn’t help going there for some money when you were longing for a four-pound loaf. The whole shoot went that way – linen, clothes, even tools and furniture. In the early days she took advantage of good weeks and got things out of pawn, only to pop them again the following week. But later she couldn’t be bothered about her belongings and just let them go and sold the pawn tickets. Only one thing broke her heart,....

The prose does wonderfully with this dire over-heating, and it is still doing it near the end, e.g. in Gervaise’s fascinated participation in Coupeau’s death:

Seeing the doctors laying their hands on her husband’s body, Gervaise wanted to touch him too. She went up timidly, put her hand on his shoulder, and kept it there a minute. Good God, whatever was going on inside there? The dance seemed to be going on right down deep in his flesh, the very bones must be jerking about. From some remote source tremors and waves were flowing along under the skin like a river. When she pressed a little harder she could sense, as it were, cries of pain coming from the very marrow of his bones. All you could see with the naked eye was wavelets hollowing out tiny dimples, as on a whirlpool, but beneath there must be frightful commotion. What a sinister job was going on down there, like a mole boring away! Old Colombe’s poison was wielding the pickaxe on that job. The whole body was soaked in it, so what the hell – the job had to be finished, crumbling Coupeau away in a general, non-stop shaking of his whole carcase.

At such moments Gervaise ceases to be a case, the barriers come down, commentary gets left behind; it’s me and you, hellbent.

The novel begins in 1850 and ends some twenty years later. Zola has seamed so far into previously unworked chambers that we can easily overlook his cop-outs, but there are one or two. Generally his over-arching scheme of the Rougon-Macquart families does no good to the novels. Here, it leads Zola into beginning his book by taking the familiar path of introducing an outsider, Gervaise from Plassans, into a new neighbourhood. This has the initial advantage that he can describe that neighbourhood through an outsider’s fresh eyes, but it also means that he largely fails to confront working-class experience as seen from within the structure of a family. Zola wishes to reserve Claude and Étienne for other books, with the odd effect that Gervaise appears to have no consciousness of her sons after they have been relocated. At the time of her lonely death, she has two sons (or, as he later decided, three sons) in the prime of manhood. These sons were born to her and Lantier before the novel begins. Its difficult to decide whether Gervaise’s lack of emphasis on her own motherhood is a novelist’s insight into the reality of dispersed families or whether it’s just a convenience that frees her up to play out her tragic decline on the stage that Zola has assigned to her. It’s a matter of observation that families near the foot of the social ladder are often divided by longstanding separations that no-one feels it’s possible to overcome – it only makes more trouble – so you learn with surprise of children or brothers who live in the next street but are totally out of contact. Many people lead such extremely circumscribed lives, maintaining them with such difficulty or lassitude, unable to accept even the most minimal derangement that any leg-up necessarily entails, that contact with relations soon founders. But these observations are misplaced; such family separations occur because of distress and Zola nowhere concerns himself with Gervaise’s feelings about her sons, distressed or otherwise; in the early pages they are quietly children, and then they disappear, but this ought to mean more in the book than it does. Gervaise also has a sister in Paris, whom she never contacts.

Nana is a different matter, and yet not altogether. Conflicts between Nana and her parents are dealt with at length, but in these striking pages there remains a sort of vacuum, at least to my eyes. Coupeau’s rages and his sentimentality are comprehensible expressions of drunken feeling, but there is a blankness where we look in vain for Gervaise, elsewhere so implausibly verbal, to show some awareness of herself as a mother and Nana as her daughter. It’s understandable that Nana should be experienced by Gervaise primarily as a trouble, but what’s odd is that she seems to be only the same kind of trouble that you might incur by taking in someone else’s teenage child. For whatever reason, the bond on which all animal society is founded seems to have gone missing from Zola’s novel. What I end up thinking is that the novel is falsifying its account by omitting daily hours in which Gervaise and Nana must have interacted in undramatic ways that would in fact have seriously complicated the catastrophic image that Zola is trying to project.      


But no matter. All reservations aside, L’Assommoir directly confronts the most concealed of society’s existences with an amplitude that even now few other novels have ever managed. For hundreds of pages, unbroken by the entrance of even a single educated person, it operates outside bourgeois limits in the nearest yet most intractable of territories. Now that we are not exactly bourgeois ourselves, and a clearer understanding of the world around us at last seems possible, it ought to be one of the dog-eared books we do more than read. 


Rue de la Goutte d'Or in 2012

[Image source: https://soundlandscapes.wordpress.com/2012/08/20/le-quartier-de-la-goutte-dor/ , a wonderful post collecting the 2012 images and sounds from the neighbourhood of Zola's novel. Its present-day inhabitants are mainly N. African immigrants.] 

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