Monday, 25 March 2013

L'Assommoir by Émile Zola (4/5)

First published: 1877
Original title:

Original language: French
Translation to English by: Project Gutenberg doesn’t say who the translator is
Page count: 443

GoodReads says: The seventh novel in the Rougon-Macquart cycle, L'Assommoir (1877) is the story of a woman's struggle for happiness in working-class Paris. At the center of the story stands Gervaise, who starts her own laundry and for a time makes a success of it. But her husband soon squanders her earnings in the Assommoir, a local drinking spot, and gradually the pair sink into poverty and squalor. L'Assommoir was a contemporary bestseller, outraged conservative critics, and launched a passionate debate about the legitimate scope of modern literature. This new translation captures not only the brutality but the pathos of its characters' lives.

I say: Well, what can I say that will do this masterpiece justice?
Probably nothing.

Everything about this novel is full of conflicts in my head; on the one hand I loved the story, but on the other I didn’t like how it progressed and ended. I often found myself sympathising with Gervaise, but she also annoyed the hell out of me. The writing was beautifully descriptive and I could see their Paris as I read about it, but sometimes Zola went into too exacting detail and I found my mind drifting to other things. This is a proper love/hate novel for me – although, I love it a little more than I hate it.
It evoked strong feelings, is essentially what I am trying to say.

And we love that.
We do.

So, Gervais has two children by Lantier and they run off to Paris. Shortly at the beginning of the novel he leaves her, and she has to fend for herself while working as a washerwoman. She later on marries Coupeau, a roofer. They have a daughter and together manage to save up enough money to allow Gervaise to open up her own business. However, just before they move, Coupeau falls off a roof and is unable to work for a long while. As always with these stories, business is booming at the start, but after a while Coupeau spends more time and money drinking, and when Lantier comes back things go from bad to worse at an alarming speed.
Of course.

The novel is sometimes translated as The Dram Shop, The Gin Palace, The Drunkard, etc, because L'Assommoir cannot be properly translated into English. But it refers to the drinking places Coupeau regularly visits.
As I said at the beginning of this review, it was a love/hate read for me, where the hate was more due to the actions of the characters and the implications that they had no choices when they clearly did. It is masterfully written, and finding out that it was part 7 in a 20 volume series both daunted and excited me. I think this will be my next great obsession (once I finish In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust – which I have so shamelessly been ignoring for way too long).

We had a really interesting discussion about this in our uni seminar, and because I don’t want to get too technical about its literary features here, I am just going to say that this truly is a must read. And the main reason it’s not getting the full 5/5 is that a lot of the plot and characters felt forced into certain situations simply because Zola wanted to make a point. I don’t like it when that overshadows the story itself, and I felt that it clearly did here.


  1. I love Zola, I'm glad you liked this. I've read the Rougon Macquart series and am currently reading through them all again! He's such a wonderful writer :)

    I'm guessing, by the way, you might have read Ernest Alfred Vizetelly's translation (only a guess based on the fact it was on Project Gutenberg).

    By the way, I'm also reading In Search of Lost Time - that's how I found your blog - when I was doing a little reading for my post on Within a Budding Grove your post came up in the search results :) I'm struggling a bit, though started the third part and am enjoying it more.

    1. I haven't read much Zola, but I want to - I just keep getting waylaid... But I definately want to read the entire series, and so I shall.

      I've been meaning to get back to Proust, but I was so annoyed with the narrator and Albertine that I put it aside for other reads. I'll be picking it up later on this month, along with other classics that I've started and not finished (including Ulysses - ugh!, Don Quixote, The Divine Comedy, Petersburg and Divine Days).

      I'll be popping over to your blog to read your thoughts on Proust - not many bloggers are reading him.

    2. I loved The Divine Comedy - meaning to re-read it, saving it for autumn, though. As for Ulysses, that'll wait until I've finished Proust.

      Tom from Wuthering Expectations has just finished Proust, and Rowena was reading it (I think she said she was going to pick it back up when I got to the bit she was at). Aside from Tom and Rowena, though, you're the only I know!