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.

No comments: