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Book Title: L'Assommoir|
The author of the book: Émile Zola
Date of issue: June 24th 2014
ISBN 13: 9781500296933
Loaded: 1479 times
Reader ratings: 3.8
Format files: PDF
The size of the: 37.25 MB
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“A heavy man of forty was serving a ten year old girl who had asked him to place four sous' worth of brandy into her cup. A shaft of sunlight came through the entrance to warm the floor which was always damp from the smokers' spitting. From everything, the casks, the bar, the entire room, a liquorish odor arose, an alcoholic aroma which seemed to thicken and befuddle the dust motes dancing in the sunlight.”
The above is but one of the many vivid descriptions in the world of Émile Zola’s L'Assommoir, an urban underbelly of fleshy humanity emitting spit and sweet and stinking of booze; a swarm of filth and grime, grunting, gesticulating, swearing, slobbering. If this sounds like strong stuff, it is the very strong literary stuff of Zola-style naturalism, where we as readers are dragged ever so slowly through the boarding houses, streets and open sewers in the poorest slums of late nineteenth-century Paris.
At the heart of the novel is Gervaise, a young mother abandoned by her lover, who has to fight to earn an honest living as a laundress and starcher. Eventually she marries one Monsieur Coupeau and initially it appears life will be clean, decent and manageable, but her husband starts drinking and thus begins the family’s downward spiral. L’Assommoir translated as The Gin Palace or The Drinking Den or The Dram Shop caused an uproar when first published – too fierce, too brutal, too sordid. Completely unapologetic, Zola simply replied that he wrote about life as it is actually lived among the poor.
Rather than focusing on all the nasty, grimy details, distasteful and disgusting by anybody’s standards, including a scene where a child is being whipped by her drunken father, I read Zola’s work with an eye to what place, if any, literature, music and the arts have in the lives of these poor Parisians. Perhaps surprisingly, there are a number of occasions, noted below, where the men and women in this novel encounter the arts.
After Gervaise and Coupeau’s wedding ceremony, the several men and women of the wedding party pay a visit to the Louvre. When they walk through the Assyrian exhibit they adjudge the gigantic stone figures and monstrous beasts, half cat and half woman, very ugly. Then, when they make their way to the galleries of more modern art, we read, “Centuries of art passed before their bewildered ignorance, the fine sharpness of the early masters, the splendors of the Venetians, the vigorous life, beautiful with light, of the Dutch painters. But what interested them most were the artists who were copying, with their easels planted amongst the people, painting away unrestrainedly." Then the wedding party moves to another room where they encounter Ruben’s Kermesse, and Zola writes, “The ladies uttered faint cries the moment they brought their noses close to the painting. Then, blushing deeply they turned away their heads. The men though kept them there, cracking jokes, and seeking for the coarser details.”
Let’s pause here to reflect on the response of these men and women to the art on display. Is there anything unusual or unexpected in way they interact with the sculptures and paintings? Not really; seeing the ancient art of Assyria as ugly is understandable – they want to see pleasing images, not half-human grotesques. Also, understandable is their focus on the artists copying the great masterpieces rather than the masterpieces themselves – the process of creation is fascinating. Lastly, their visceral reaction to the racy country fête of Ruben is predicable, especially the men enjoying the coarse, sexy details. All this to say, in Zola’s view, members of the lower classes can appreciate art as that art relates to their own lives. True, their viewing isn’t the disinterested objectivity of a refined aesthete or knowing eye of an art historian but that’s no reason to discount the way they value art and make art a part of their lives.
One fine evening, Gervaise hosts a dinner fit for royalty. At this point in the novel, she has put forth great effort to live a life that is a kind of oasis of virtue, industriousness and cleanliness amid the city’s poor. This lavish dinner, complete with fine white linen tablecloth and expertly folded linen napkins, set up in the main room of her very own laundry shop is one of the highpoints of her social life. All those invited voraciously down wine and bread, goose and cake, and then each person takes their turn singing a song. Ah, music, the universal art; no need for instruments or special training -- simply singing songs. And through the singing we are given a glimpse into the soul of each of these poor men and women, quite a moving experience for us as readers.
There are a few more references to the arts: Gervaise’s former lover, Lantier, owns books, teaches Gervaise’s daughter Nana to dance (yes, this is the Nana from Zola’s much read novel) and invites Gervaise to a Café Concert. Also, at one point, bemoaning her bad luck, Gervaise muses about a play she saw where the wife poisoned her much hated husband for the sake of her lover. Additionally, there is also a very important event worth noting, one involving Gervaise’s sixteen year old son, Claude. We read, “An old gentleman at Plassans offered to take the older boy, Claude, and send him to an academy down there. The old man, who loved art, had previously been much impressed by Claude's sketches.” This is a significant detail since in the fictional world of Émile Zola’s social Darwinism people are bound and determined and molded by their social environment; yet, in this case, Zola acknowledges Claude’s artistic talent could develop and be recognized despite his poverty-stricken surroundings. Lucky boy! If I were raised in such squalor, I wish I could be half as lucky. Unfortunately others are not nearly as fortunate or lucky in Zola’s L’Assommoir. Read all about it . . . if you have the stomach, that is.
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Read information about the authorÉmile François Zola was an influential French novelist, the most important example of the literary school of naturalism, and a major figure in the political liberalization of France.
More than half of Zola's novels were part of a set of 20 books collectively known as Les Rougon-Macquart. Unlike Balzac who in the midst of his literary career resynthesized his work into La Comédie Humaine, Zola from the start at the age of 28 had thought of the complete layout of the series. Set in France's Second Empire, the series traces the "environmental" influences of violence, alcohol and prostitution which became more prevalent during the second wave of the Industrial Revolution. The series examines two branches of a family: the respectable (that is, legitimate) Rougons and the disreputable (illegitimate) Macquarts for five generations.
As he described his plans for the series, "I want to portray, at the outset of a century of liberty and truth, a family that cannot restrain itself in its rush to possess all the good things that progress is making available and is derailed by its own momentum, the fatal convulsions that accompany the birth of a new world."
Although Zola and Cézanne were friends from childhood, they broke in later life over Zola's fictionalized depiction of Cézanne and the Bohemian life of painters in his novel L'Œuvre (The Masterpiece, 1886).
From 1877 with the publication of l'Assommoir, Émile Zola became wealthy, he was better paid than Victor Hugo, for example. He became a figurehead among the literary bourgeoisie and organized cultural dinners with Guy de Maupassant, Joris-Karl Huysmans and other writers at his luxurious villa in Medan near Paris after 1880. Germinal in 1885, then the three 'cities', Lourdes in 1894, Rome in 1896 and Paris in 1897, established Zola as a successful author.
The self-proclaimed leader of French naturalism, Zola's works inspired operas such as those of Gustave Charpentier, notably Louise in the 1890s. His works, inspired by the concepts of heredity (Claude Bernard), social manichaeism and idealistic socialism, resonate with those of Nadar, Manet and subsequently Flaubert.
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