Wednesday, March 26, 2014


Lemongrassmusic is a German-based independent electronic/lounge music label which, according to its website, "produces high-class genre-bending music releases, widening the scope of the Lounge genre by exploring Chillout, Ambient, NuJazz, TripHop, Electronic World Music, Deep House, Soul and more." Over the past few years, Lemongrassmusic has become - like Om Records, ESL, and Six Degrees - a label I regularly check out for new music.

I don't even remember how I first heard of them. I think I must have stumbled on a label artist while listening to an Internet music feed or while bopping around on iTunes. However it happened, I ended up buying a couple of compilations (Lounge du Soleil 9 and 11, and Deep House Dreams 4), and then went on to buy albums by specific artists. The first artist album I purchased was the deeply chilled Pour L'amour by Lemongrass.  While the label's artists are firmly within the lounge, chill, and/or ambient continuum, most of them bring something unique to their sonic palette that distinguishes them from the run-of-the-mill martini/lounge, chill-out, downtempo output. The artists are from all over the world, bringing a variety of musical sensibilities to the table.

Here are some examples of the fantastic music available from this label:

Slow World (Germany): Label co-owner Daniel Voss is behind this latest project. The 2014 album, Spheres, is extremely ambient in an almost new age kind of way. However, the electronic sensibilities ensure this isn't just hippie spliff music. Extremely relaxing and, at 6 tracks totaling 39 minutes (for $4), is low risk exploration. Great for a late night drive, meditating, or just daydreaming to.

Mirage of Deep (Spain) - I've purchase two albums by this band. 2010's Talking to Stars and 2011's The Garden of Gaia. The former is very ambient and has the feel of a soundtrack to an atmospheric sci-fi movie, while the latter makes use of sounds from nature to evoke an outdoor environment. The Garden of Gaia is a little less ambient, as it makes greater use of beats. However, the beats are mostly gentle in tempo and have the feel of acoustic percussion. As with the Slow World release, these albums are about quality and coherence, not massive length. Each is about 25-30 minutes and cost under five dollars. This easily digestible length encourages repeat listening and becoming familiar with all the tracks.

MoShang (South Africa/Taiwan) - I love MoShang's 2010 album Further East. The sound is very unique, mixing a chill approach to downtempo beats with traditional Asian instrumentation. To add another layer of individuality, several of the tracks incorporate lyrics sung in native languages. The lyrics, however, are actually Chinese poetry from the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907 AD)! This album is obviously a labor of love, and is a fascinating mix of contemporary production and traditional sounds. Always takes me someplace exotic in my imagination.

Michiko (UK) - A super chilled version of deep house, Michiko's 2005 album Daydreamer goes down as smooth as Sade but has beats and grooves under Michiko's vocals that keep the music at a steady simmer.  She's had two more CDs come out since, but this one still satisfies my downtempo pop addiction.

Lemongrass (Germany) - This project of label co-owner Roland Voss has been around since 1996, and Voss continues to release albums under the moniker on an almost annual basis. Not only is Voss prolific, but there is quite a variety of sounds across these albums.  The albums vary from instrumental to atmospheric mood pieces to the sleek, sophisticated NuJazz of the absolutely stunning 2008 release Pour L'amour, which remains my absolute favorite downtempo album.  Just an amazing listening experience which at once relaxes you but also demands that you pay attention to the musicianship behind the aural candy. Kind of sorry that Voss didn't make another release directly in this vein, but then I'm glad that her didn't, as well. Love that these musicians just do what they do and that they are relatively free of the constraints that plague the creativity of major label artists.

Aside from the full-length releases, there are some great specific tracks to pay attention to:

  • Glam Sam and His Combo (Sweden) - "The Last Days of Disco"
  • Kondencuotas Pienas (Lithuania) - "So Pure" (Lemongrass Remix)
  • Tafubar (Italy) - "Rondo Romano" (Redlounge Orchestra Epic Mix)
  • Alexandra Hampton (USA) - "90 West"
  • SW (Netherlands) - "Golden in the Gaze of the Sun"

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Emile Zola - 'L'Assommoir'

...and here we are at book number thirteen in Zola's Rougon-Macquart Cycle: L'Assommoir, the novel that 'broke' Zola to the reading public of his own time.

It's not hard to see why. The harrowing power of this novel was a key reason I chose to read the entire Cycle. When serialized back in the day, L'Assommoir caused a scandal that led Zola to write a defiant preface when it was published in book format. In this preface he argued people were not really scandalized by his subject matter but only by the honesty with which he portrayed it. He was correct. The language and subject matter in L'Assommoir is unlikely to shock most modern readers. What remains is Zola's unflinching depiction of the fall of Gervaise Macquart and her family. This novel is brutal, merciless, and - at times - simply unpleasant to read.

Like many, my primary exposure to literary realism and social criticism in 19th Century literature was via English novelists (and a few Americans too). As such, this novel was a rude awakening. It's a slap across the face when one is used to finger wagging.  Unlike other authors of the genre in this period, Zola does not soften his story. His novel lacks Dickens' black and white morality and cutesy characterizations, Gaskell's religious optimism, the Brontes' romanticism, or Stowe's melodrama (toss in Dickens here as well). The nadir of destitution depicted in any novel I've read by the above authors is nothing like the stark depictions of misery and vice to be found in L'Assommoir. And once Zola takes you there, he then drags his characters (and you) down even further. And further. And further. The answer to "it can't get worse than this" in L'Assommoir is always "yes, it can". Even Victor Hugo's horrifying depiction of Fantine's fall in Les Miserables is softened for the reader by the halo of maternal self-sacrifice Hugo casts about Fantine, as well as the Christ-like figure of Jean Valjean. With Zola, there is nothing to soften the horror, nothing to warm the coldness of harsh reality, nothing to give meaning to the suffering. 

While Zola's integrity to realism (or, in his case, naturalism) is impressive, the primary reason L'Assommoir works so well is because it's one of his very best novels in terms of structure and delivery. His command of the story and the scope of characters he paints within that story are masterful. In this area, the novel ranks with Les Miserables, Anna Karenina, Gone With the Wind, or Atlas Shrugged. Zola then uses his story and cast of characters to create the power of his bleak novel. He first introduces us to his lower class Parisian world in great detail during the upward arc of his plot: Gervaise's rise from destitution to building a business and achieving a relative degree of prosperity. Once he has built this up, Gervaise's slow inexorable decline is all the more terrible. There's something unforgiving for the reader in getting to know Gervaise and many of the other characters, seeing what could have been, and then watch it all fall apart. The involving plot and characters are how Zola brings pathos to his story. It's a much more impactful approach than resorting to melodrama or overly saccharine characterizations (which have always been my two main beefs with the overly-deified Dickens).

Zola's 'realer than real' approach is apparent from the earliest pages of the novel. L'Assommoir opens with Gervaise in Paris, where she has moved with her boyfriend Auguste Lantier after enduring exploitation and physical abuse from her father. She has had two illegitimate children by Auguste, the first when she was fourteen. While writers like Dickens, Stowe, and Gaskell would have immediately set out to build sympathy for their protagonist, Zola makes it clear there will be no sugar coating of his characters or their milieu. In the first chapter, poverty-stricken Gervaise narrowly avoids being beaten after accusing deadbeat Auguste of sleeping around with a barmaid. Then, after Auguste takes all her belongings and skips out on her and their children, Gervaise gets into a foul-mouthed cat fight with a woman in a washhouse. The hooting and jeering of the onlookers renders the episode as slimy as something from The Jerry Springer Show. Even so, Zola manages to make us sympathetic toward Gervaise. And it's not because he paints her as a 'hooker with a heart of gold' or a model of Christian virtue suffering dutifully in a world of vice, but because the situation she's in is so repellent and the people around her so unlikeable that you'd feel bad for anyone in such a spot. It's very well-done but, as a reader, you will later regret letting Zola lead you to sympathize with Gervaise.

Aside from being an excellent read and an amazing example of naturalism, L'Assommoir has plenty of Zola's theme of heredity to sink your teeth into. Gervaise is the daughter of Antoine and Fine Macquart. Their backstory - as well as that of their children - is largely contained in chapter four of The Fortune of the Rougons.  Antoine is an abusive deadbeat, who married Fine because she would unquestioningly work hard enough to support him. "From that time forward the Macquarts adopted the kind of life which they were destined to lead in the future. It became, as it were, tacitly understood between them that the wife should toil and moil to keep her husband." From her very birth, Gervaise's future seems marked out for her. "Gervaise...was a cripple from birth. Her right leg was smaller than the left and showed signs of curvature, a curious hereditary result of the brutality which her mother had to endure during her fierce drunken brawls with Macquart." Gervaise inherits her mother's ability to work, something the concierge Madame Boche observes about her within the first few pages of L'Assommoir. However Fine was also an alcoholic, and she passed this habit on to Gervaise at an early age. In The Fortune of the Rougons, Silvere's observations of Gervaise make it pretty clear that it's pretty much all over for her by the time she's twenty.
"One evening, having come rather late, when his uncle was not at home, [Silvere] had found the mother and daughter intoxicated before an empty bottle. From that time he could never see his cousin without recalling the disgraceful spectacle she had presented, with the maudlin grin and large red patches on her poor, pale, puny face. He was not less shocked by the nasty stories that circulated with regard to her." (The implication being that she was promiscuous).
I have a feeling L'Assommoir and the related background from The Fortune of the Rougons is especially important to Zola's theme of heredity. Gervaise almost escapes her surroundings, until her hereditary weaknesses take the ascendant position. She then enables Coupeau's laziness and succumbs to alcoholism. In doing so, her children Claude and Etienne Lantier and Nana Coupeau sink in terms of the moral make-up they inherit. This plays out in some of the remaining novels of the Cycle. In The Masterpiece, Claude seems to be a mixture of his mother and grandmother's work ethic wed to his father and grandfather's shiftlessness. In Nana, the talentless daughter achieves and parlays her '15-minutes of fame' with the dexterity of a modern reality TV star. As for Etienne, I have yet to read Germinal but I haven't heard anything that would suggest it is a light-hearted romp.

As mentioned at the start of the post, I read L'Assommoir well before beginning my project of reading Zola's Cycle (and that was nearly four years ago). So I can't do justice to the book in this post since it's been so long since I finished it. What I can say is I found L'Assommoir to be one of the best novels in the Cycle. It can stand on its own, but it has a degree of plot and character depth that render it especially satisfying if you end up reading it apart from the other books. The novel deserves its status as one of the most - if not the most - acclaimed and popular novels in the Cycle, and it's probably one of the best novels of the realist/naturalist genre I've ever read. In short, L'Assommoir is highly recommended.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Emile Zola - 'La Joie de Vivre'

Again, I'm using the French title of one of Zola's novels. While I once thought this was pretentious, the fact is that sometimes the full meaning of a phrase doesn't carry over into English (see this discussion in the post for Pot-Bouille). For example, everyone knows what joie de vivre means but, because the French phrase is so often used, the direct English translation ('joy of life') doesn't really have the same meaning. As such, it's best to use the French title because Zola clearly meant this title with some irony.

La Joie de Vivre is the twelfth novel in Zola's Rougon-Macquart Cycle and, as I read it, I found it surprisingly simple. It tells the story of the Chanteau family's slow motion decay, a familiar device in Zola's novels about the Macquart family. However, in this book, the decay never reaches the utter depths of vice and wretchedness Zola sketches in other Macquart novels. Further, no particular sector of society is embodied or depicted (something Zola does masterfully in Money, The Ladies' Paradise, or The Masterpiece). Finally, the scope of the novel and the cast of characters are small. As a result, my first reaction was that La Joie de Vivre is 'Zola-lite'.

My opinion quickly changed as I began writing this post. I began to see all of the meaning woven into each of the characters and how the comparison and contrast of various characters produces new avenues of thought. La Joie de Vivre emerges as an exceedingly well-constructed book and one in which Zola has an especially firm grasp of his characters and material. At the center of La Joie de Vivre is Pauline Quenu, the now orphaned daughter of Lisa Macquart (see the prior novel in the Cycle: The Belly of Paris). In contrast to the well-fed, pampered child we met there, Pauline is now a model of self-sacrifice and altruism who never appears to attain happiness for herself. Or does she? I went back and forth as I was reading the novel, and I believe ascertaining Zola's intention in regard to Pauline's state of mind at the end of the novel is probably the linchpin to understanding the whole correctly.

Ernest Alfred Vizetelly
In this regard, I disagree emphatically with translator Ernest Vizetelly who, in his introduction (included in the Mondial edition I read), seems to believe Zola is presenting Pauline as an ideal type, a self-sacrificing ray of altruistic sunlight in Zola's otherwise bleak, dysfunctional world. However, this is unlikely to be true as Zola - despite his often critical view of materialism and capitalism - never seems especially sympathetic to self-effacing altruists. He usually views such characters as lambs at the slaughter more than icons of morality for us to admire or emulate. I've just never had the impression Zola accepts the 'meek shall inherit/turn the other cheek' morality of Christianity. He seems too aware of human nature and the way human society works for that.

However, I believe Vizetelly knew Zola, so I might be on pretty thin ice to say he seems off the mark in his introduction. For example, he notes  that "Zola is not usually a pessimist". I have a hard time understanding how he can take this position. Perhaps it is a true assessment of the man himself, but I have found the Cycle to be a rather black view of human nature and human society. To call Zola a 'pessimist' however would presume too far, given the content of the Cycle and my limited knowledge of the man himself. More correctly, I'd lean on his loyalty to realism (which can seem very much like a pessimism depending on the subject). But I digress...

So, since I believe Zola's characterization of Pauline is the linchpin of the novel, what is he up to? Pauline is presented as sacrificing for everyone around her, denying her own happiness to secure that of her foster family and the man she loves (who doesn't earn her devotion), and even allowing herself to be bled dry of her fortune. At the end of the novel, she literally breathes life into the weak half-dead baby of Lazare and Louise, the woman he ends up marrying. Pauline loses quite a bit and is nearly ruined financially. However, despite this slow slide from security to misfortune, it's important to note that Zola doesn't end the novel with Pauline in utter destitution or dead or anything as dire as that. Instead the novel ends with the household restored to some semblance of family life, and Pauline is at the epicenter. She runs the household and everyone is dependent upon her in some way. Despite the dysfunction around her, I think this is ultimately what Pauline wants.

So it seems Zola presents Pauline, in sacrificing as she does, as achieving some level of happiness with the hand she has been dealt. I don't pick up any indication from Zola's text that he applauds her selflessness nor jeers at her foolishness. Ultimately, there seems to be two levels of analyzing Pauline. First, that she has a kind of joie de vivre within her dysfunctional life due to her willingness to give up to others. Second, Zola clearly shows that her sacrifices rarely help anyone around her. Her alms are wasted, her support of Lazare could be seen an enabling his foolishness, her friendship towards Louise is bent to make Lazare happy. In every case, her 'altruism' has no helpful impact and, in some cases, a very negative effect on those around her. She always seems to have some personal agenda deep down and one might almost be able to make a case that Pauline is a villain, stunting the lives around her with velvet manipulation.

Notably, most of the other characters fail to find peace or happiness of any kind. Madame Chanteau's obsession with raising the family's station is thwarted at every turn. This is most notable in Lazare, the son she pins all her hopes on, who is in reality a failure. Lazare fails in all his various schemes and, in one case, even sees someone else succeed visibly due to standing on the work he began. Nothing he produces, even his child, is untainted by failure. Aside from his big dreams, he can neither find modest success (through gainful occupation/employment) or happiness in marriage. As the story progresses, Lazare is possessed by a paralyzing fear of death. Louise, the frivolous heiress who ultimately hitches her star to Lazare, becomes a petulant (and penitent) wife playing the melodramatic lady in a downtrodden village. The head of the Chanteau family sinks deeper and deeper into deforming gout, and the village itself is slowly being inundated by the sea. Bad news all around.

For Pauline, in comparison, little changes aside from her bank balance. She runs the household and seems happy caring for all its inhabitants. The only servant inexplicably hangs herself, almost as if to vacate the role Pauline is moving into. Chanteau adores her ministrations to his pain-wracked joints. Louise - in personality - becomes a replacement for the now dead Madame Chanteau. Despite his marriage, Lazare remains in the family home and Pauline dotes on his baby. The alms Pauline gives help support the drunks, thieves, and deadbeats of the destitute village ('money down a rathole' was never so perfectly portrayed). In the final analysis, while Pauline's life is harsh - and by implication will become harsher still - she has what she wants and is able to take joy from it.

Still Life With Bible
Vincent Van Gogh
Oil on canvas, 65.7 x 78.5 cm
Even so, this is no 'happy ending' in any traditional sense of the phrase, and it is certainly not touting the ostensibly Christian virtue of altruism. If there is a moral judgement, as I said, it almost seems to be questioning the efficacy of altruism in securing happiness for anyone. My interpretation of La Joie De Vivre along these lines - as a Realist view of altruism - received a boost while I was searching for images to accompany this post. I stumbled on this Van Gogh painting, which depicts a family Bible, along with a worn copy of La Joie de Vivre in the foreground.

I was amazed to see this overt reference to Zola in a Van Gogh and was very interested when I learned that Van Gogh apparently read Zola quite extensively. You can read a post from a site about Van Gogh, which poses some fascinating information about Van Gogh's admiration of Zola that sets up the likely contrast between the Bible and La Joie de Vivre which Van Gogh intended this painting to convey. It sounds much like what I pulled out of Zola's novel on my own.

For me, interpreting La Joie de Vivre might have been easier with a deeper understanding of Zola himself. So it occurred to me that, given the time I'm investing in reading the Rougon-Macquart Cycle, I should get this background. This was a good time to think about doing so, because I have previously read the next two novels in the Cycle: L'Assommoir and The Masterpiece. So while I get around to piecing together posts based on my recollections of those novels (they are among the best in the Cycle), I have time to take a break from the Cycle to read a biography of Zola.

After a bit or searching on the web, the biography that seemed the best for my purposes is Frederick Brown's Zola: A Life. It sounds like it not only covers Zola's life but also contain some analysis of his output. Perfect! At 803 pages (not including notes), this should give me everything I could possibly want to know!