Thoughts on L’Assommoir by Émile Zola

The Hangover by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

It has been years, and I mean years since I attempted a book review. Actually, I don’t really want to call it a book review, it is more like my thoughts, as the title of the post suggests. Book reviews are for Amazon, and the 5 or 6 I have done there were a long time ago.

So what I am trying to say is, I have no idea how this will turn out, or even if there will be any semblance of a structure. I wanted this blog to be more about my notes, rather than some thought through articles, so we will just have to see where it ends up.

Where shall I start? Ok, well L’assommoir (or rather the english translation I read by Robin Buss is called ‘The Drinking Den’) is the 7th novel in Émile Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series of connected (though sometimes loosely) novels, and is the one that made him a rich and famous man. So yes, it is a big deal. This is actually the 4th novel I have read from the series; my running order is as follows – The Fortune of the Rougons, Pot Luck, The Ladies’ Paradise and L’assommoir.

The main character of L’assommoir is Gervaise Macquart, who first appeared in the first novel of the Rougon-Macquart series, The Fortune of the Rougons. It was a great help for me to read the The Fortune of the Rougons first, as Gervaise’s background is explored, including the abusive relationship of her parents (and it is suggested she was conceived during one of their drunken fights), becoming a mother at 14, and her early drinking habit. It also notes that she was born lame, and as a result walks with a limp.

Although, The Fortune of the Rougons is not hugely focussed on Gervaise, during the novel we see her escape from her father’s household and Plassans (the fictional town she grew up in) with her lover Lantier. And far away from Plassans is exactly where we find her at the beginning of L’assommoir, living with Lantier in Paris.

In Paris though, things are not going well. Very, very, early on in the novel (literally like the first few pages, so it’s hardly a spoiler), Lantier leaves Gervaise and their 2 children, for another woman. This where Gervaise’s new life and new struggles begin.

So, how do I talk about a book, without explaining what happens? Because I get it, books shouldn’t necessarily be about what happens, but what we learn from it, but I hate knowing anything about what happens in any novel or play I’m reading. I love charting unknown territory and finding out what lurks around the corner.

Émile Zola’s novels are different, for whilst the story is always present, I find they are much more of a study. Now a study was Zola’s intention when he created the Rougon-Macquart series, but I will get into that at a different time.

L’assommoir is a study of the working classes in the Paris slums during the middle of the nineteenth century, and the various forms of depravity that they full victim to. You will find here alcoholism, idolatry, domestic abuse, prostitution, adultery and jealousy. But you will also find laughter, heroism, conscientiousness and love. But it is not Happy Days. It is a moving portrayal of the struggle to live within these circumstances, and the events of life as they unfold. It’s the fallout after s— happens and the struggle to overcome.

Is it worth reading? Definitely, definitely, definitely. Yes. What Zola perhaps lacks in page-turning addiction, he more than makes up for in the great scenes he creates that help tell the story. There are memorable chapters, especially one surrounding a wedding day and another a dinner party at Gervaise’s laundry shop, which are simply a joy to read, and display how all the characters interact with each other in these scenarios.

Photo by Huy Phan on Unsplash

With the small number of Émile Zola novels that I have read, I have found that each novel has a clear uniqueness about it, in a similar way Shakespeare’s plays do. L’assommoir is at times a raucous jolly at the local drinking den, where we meet characters with great nick names (in french of course) such as Bibi-la-Grillade, Mes-Bottes and Bec-Sale (also known as Drinks-Without-Thirst) and at times a very lonely place for characters such as Gervaise to inhabit. Gervaise is also given the unfortunate nickname Tip-Tap (due to her limp) by her jealous relatives the Lorilleux. She is a determined individual, who is not shown much respect or sympathy by her nearest and dearest.

I will be reading the novel again in future. I suspect (and it is quite clear from the numerous books written on Zola and his works) that there are many different levels to L’assommoir and understanding the book fully with the first read is probably unlikely. There are social and moral lessons Zola wants to be taken from the story, and these are explored in Robin Buss’s introduction in the Penguin Classics version I read.

For the typical classics reader though, it is an enjoyable read, and we are taken to a world that feels very real and with people we could meet in any town we find ourselves in. Knowing who people really are, and the struggles they face and have faced, is perhaps a crucially under-acknowledged part of life, and with L’assommoir we very much get to understand who people really are, with all their positive traits and undeniable flaws, along with the perceptions of them made by other people, throughout the course of this wonderful novel.

Quotes

“He was wrong to think she had a lot of will-power; on the contrary, she was very weak; she would give in to the slightest entreaty, for fear of upsetting someone. Her dream was to live among decent people, because if you kept bad company, according to her, it would hit you like a blow from a mallet, break your head and flatten a poor woman in no time.”

“She was constantly running across to the pharmacist’s, looking after the most unpleasant things and taking a huge amount of trouble to try and keep some semblance of order in this room where they did everything; and, despite that, not a word of complaint, always friendly, even on those evenings when she was so tired that she was falling asleep on her feet, with her eyes open.”

“And along with the joy of being alive, he started to acquire a taste for doing nothing, feeling his limbs relaxed and his muscle sliding into the sweetest slumber; it was like a gradual invasion of idleness, taking advantage of his convalescence to permeate his skin and fill him with a delicious numbness.”

“Of course, nobody likes to be outshone: inside a family, especially, when some succeed, the others seethe with rage. Naturally. But you try not to show it, don’t you?”

“When the bran runs out the donkeys start fighting, right?”

2 thoughts on “Thoughts on L’Assommoir by Émile Zola

  1. Great review, Pete! I forgot that Gervaise first appears in The Fortune of the Rougons. Time to reread, I guess… Actually I am planning a (personal) Rougon-Macquart project starting next year, that is rereading the cycle from the beginning in about 4-5 years (4-5 books a year). Rght now I have read everything except The Dream (will read soon) and Doctor Pascal (save this one to close the project).

    About L’Assommoir, this is the point where I realized how genius Zola is as a writer. The vivid image of the life and poverty surrounding the characters are amazing. And the ending! I have never read anything as vivid as that. And that’s where I decided to read all novels by Zola.

    By the way, I’m hosting a Zola reading event every year on April (celebrating Zola’s birthday). You’re welcome to join next year! 🙂

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    1. Hi Fanda, thanks again for your comment! Yes please remind me about the Zola reading event next year, I am in! Good luck on your own Zola project next year. I have read 4 of his novels this year and will surely read at least another 1 this year, maybe 2, but having read 3 in a row, I am looking for something else next. But I am definitely addicted as well to his writing, each novel blows me away with his observations on human nature.

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