Friday, 10 November 2000
Émile Zola: L'Assommoir (1876)
Edition: Penguin, 1970
Review number: 680
Zola's novel caused such a commotion and was considered so immoral that its original serial publication was halted. Over the next century, it has proved sufficiently influential that the reason for this is to a large extent hidden, particularly in translation. Zola's story treats of the Parisian slums, and it is written in the language which would have been used by the characters, not in the equivalent of the exaggerated, cleaned up Cockney used by English writers but one which used the vocabulary of the streets. To use swearing and slang in literary fiction is not now something shocking, but in the 1870s it was totally unheard of to use such words in print.
It is not just the language used in L'Assommoir which was considered shocking. There is a fair amount of sex in the novel, both inside and outside marriage, for one thing; and the whole story is the tale of a woman's gradual degredation through laziness and drink. (The title is a slang term for a shop which sells alcohol.) Gervaise is basically the principal agent of her own destruction; she is not the virtuous saint so often portrayed in novels about working class life from this period - there is no way that she has a strong enough character to rise above her circumstances. (There is one character who is a bit like this in L'Assommoir, a child who is bringing up two younger sisters despite the beatings and starvation imposed on her by her alcoholic father, and typically she does not receive any reward except an early death.) Gervaise is a more realistic character, and her background is also more realistic. It is not the evil capitalist who grinds down the workers and makes their situation impossible. Characters around Gervaise are relatively comfortable, and even she is well enough off at one point to rent a shop. The character who most nearly approximates the grasping capitalist is one of Gervaise's landlords, and he makes a point of his own poor origins.
The two great virtues of L'Assommoir are its rejection of stereotypes and Zola's vivid writing, which even comes through in translation. It is easy to see why it has had such a strong influence. It is a depressing and uncomfortable read, however, and so is the sort of novel one is pleased to have read but would probably not pick up again for a long time.