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. (from Goodreads)
Compared to the last book read in this series (The joy of living), this was such a pleasure to read. The translator made such a nice and tidy work, with lots of footnotes and all that academic crap that I just LOVE. Absolutely nothing is left behind and that was such a relief, considering that probably this was one of the most (if not THE most) “outrageous” and “depraved” books Zola wrote.
This book messed a little with my mental timeline in the beginning, because a character we met in The belly of Paris, Claude Lantier, Lise’s nephew, a young painter, is revealed here as Gervaise’s son, less than 10 years of age. This happened because I’m following Zola’s recommended reading order, instead of reading by the chronological order of publication or the chronological timeline within the series. Zola’s order takes one branch of the family tree at a time, from beginning to end. Gervaise’s branch is preceded by Lise’s, her older sister, which finished in The joy of living, with Pauline’s story (Lise’s daughter). What a tangled mess!
Back to Claude Lantier, his presence here is little more than a mention because, luckily for him, he’s taken back to Plassans, where an old man is going to pay for his artistic education. More of Claude will be seen in the next episode, The masterpiece, his very own book.
Anyway, I should say something about this book. Just like it happened to me with The conquest of Plassans, this book was also hard to read, as one witnesses the downfall of people that began with such high hopes and morals. The same words came to mind: devastating and frustrating.
Gervaise arrived to Paris with his partner (not husband) Auguste Lantier and their two children*, in the search of fortune. Barely surviving, their money soon fades away, mostly because of Lantier’s dissolute way of life. He leaves Gervaise, and that ends up being the best thing that could happen to them: Gervaise gets on her feet and works hard to maintain her children, marries her neighbor Coupeau, has a daughter, Anna (Nana), and is able to realise her dream and raise enough money to open her own laundry. From this point on, everything goes down. Coupeau, who was an honest, abstemious and hardworking man, suffers a terrible work injury and takes first to idleness, then to gluttony and eventually to drink, turning into a wife-beating alcoholic. Eventually, Gervaise follows the same path. As if this wasn’t enough, Lantier comes back, befriends Coupeau and installs himself in their home. In this chaotic household, Nana grows until she’s old enough to get a job, and eventually runs away and becomes a prostitute (we’ll see more of her in Nana).
How do you think this tale ends?
Spoiler alert: BADLY.
I need to find more uplifting readings xD
*Fun fact (?): to the original two sons of Gervaise and Lantier, Claude and Etienne, a third one is added, Jacques, and has his own storyline in The beast within.