Well. I have really been out of the blogging loop the past week or so, as I have been on vacation in beautiful California. First, I was visiting my baby nephew in San Diego and then a side trip with my youngest child to Disneyland. Believe it or not, I actually got some reading done.
So what did I read on vacation? Light, fluffy beach reads? Murder mysteries? Something by a California author, at least? Well, I did bring one book by John Steinbeck, but I never even cracked a page of it. Instead, I spent my vacation reading a book about poor French people who drink themselves to death! Yes, dear readers, my choice for a light vacation read was L'Assommoir by Emile Zola, also known as The Drinking Den. Fun stuff!
Here's the setup: Set in the mid-19th century, Gervaise Macquart is a young woman of twenty-two, living in seedy hotel in Paris. In the book's first pages, she's anxiously waiting up all night for her lover, Auguste Lantier, the father of her two young sons. He finally arrives home at the crack of dawn after drinking and carousing all night; meanwhile, she's pawning all her possessions so they can eat. She goes out to do some laundry and meanwhile Lantier skips town with practically everything she owns. (Her reaction to this news while doing laundry is pretty priceless; the book is worth reading for this chapter alone).
Gervaise is no quitter, and pulls herself up by her bootstraps and works hard as a laundress. Eventually, she marries a roofer named Coupeau, who seems like an upstanding, non-drinking guy. After a rather rocky wedding day (another great chapter!), things are going pretty well for her. She and Coupeau are both working, he's a good father figure, and she's ready to go into business on her own. Sadly, she's surrounded by jealous gossips who take advantage of her and stab her in the back at a moment's notice -- and then her old lover Lantier shows up and worms his way back into her life. She and Coupeau start on a downward spiral that is horribly depressing yet so engrossing I could not stop reading it.
I've read a lot of books with characters that I like to call fascinating train wrecks, but Gervaise has to be one of the worst -- but Zola writes her and her situation so well. The characters seem so real that sometimes I just want to jump into the book and give them a good shaking. Her life is hard but things are looking up until she makes one stupid decision after another. I wanted to slap her upside the head like Cher slaps Nicolas Cage in Moonstruck (one of my favorite movies of all time):
If you've read any Zola before, this book combines the train wreck aspects of La Bete Humaine with the nasty backbiting characters of Pot-Bouille, in a Paris apartment complex in a working-class neighborhood. It's the seventh in the Rougon-Macquart cycle, and though the characters are related to others in the series, it's fine to read as a stand-alone book -- Gervaise is the mother of Nana, the eponymous main character in book #9; and also of Claude, the artist in The Masterpiece (#14); Jacques, the engine driver in La Bete Humaine; and Etienne, the mine worker in Germinal (#13). Of those, I've only read La Bete Humaine and Germinal, both of which I loved, so it was interesting to read about their childhoods and how Zola was setting up these characters for the later books.
Based on the title, I thought this book was going to be incredibly depressing and dreary, and this is somewhat true --there are some scenes of people drinking that are pretty awful and even nauseating, but they're only a small part of the book; from the title, I thought the entire 400+ pages was going to be about people sitting around a bar getting soused. Also, the ending is pretty sad, but that didn't surprise me -- I've read seven novels by Zola so far and not a single one has a happy ending! However, Zola is so good at weaving these tales I can't stop reading them.
Has anyone else read this novel? Did you find it incredibly depressing? And is it strange that Zola writes these amazing books about such wretched people? And does anyone else take classics on vacation?
Oh yes, I have read it, and so far it becomes one of the best classics I've read for 2012, I'm quite shocked by the ending. Depressing? Not really, because I think it's just everyday life of poor working class people. Maybe you wanted to slap Gervaise for not being wiser in this book, but sometimes (or often), people in this class are so under pressured that they just don't have left energy to think, to consider, and to be wiser. If I had the prviledge to slap anyone in this book, Coupeau's sister would be the first person I can think of! :)ReplyDelete
I have only read Therese Raquin and L'Assommoir, but they're enough to make me fall in love to Zola!
I just got so frustrated with Gervaise and her relationships with both Copeau and Lantier -- especially Lantier, he was such a weasel!! I couldn't stand how he kept getting away with how he used people!Delete
I completely agree, I hated Copeau's sister and brother-in-law too. They were so nasty to Gervaise from the beginning. I really wanted them to get their comeuppance.
Another Zola fan here. :)ReplyDelete
I've read two very different translations of L'Assommoir and really struggled with the modern OWC one but rather enjoyed the Penguin one. It made me feel sad and angry and spellbound in equal measure. I agree about Coupeau's sister btw, definitely in need of a slap!
Ironically, I own the Penguin copy but ended up reading the OWC copy -- I picked it up at work and since I started it, I didn't want to change editions halfway through. I did notice some rather modern slang, mostly towards the end, but it wasn't enough to bother me. But I will have to read the Penguin version someday.Delete
This book was pretty dreary for me-watching the characters' downfall is so depressing for me. Although I keep wanting to try Zola again, I really prefer books with happy endings.ReplyDelete
Was this your first Zola? I think that would be tough. My first was The Belly of Paris which isn't nearly so dire. It doesn't have a happy ending but it isn't nearly as depressing! And it's set in the Les Halles food markets of Paris, so the food descriptions are amazing, if you like that sort of thing.Delete
I don't know, I just don't know.ReplyDelete
I guess Zola is not for everyone, but that's okay.Delete
This book sounds so intriguing. I'm always astonished by how rewarding the classics is, but particularly the French classics- so different to our English language classics from the same time. I must hang my head in shame and admit that I haven't read any Zola, I've heard of him, and visited his grave in Paris, but yet to do the reading. I didn't even know that there was a cycle of books by him. My TBR just got even bigger! Sigh.ReplyDelete
Blogging is dangerous that way!! I only started reading his books a couple of years ago. They are mostly rather dark but surprisingly easy to read. Zola was a journalist before he started writing fiction and his style isn't nearly as flowery as most of the British Victorian writers of the same period.Delete
I loved it but, like you, thought it would be a depressing read. I read it with my 19th century book group which was the nudge I needed to get me started. I described it as a train wreck as well. I couldn't put it down.ReplyDelete
Zola does train wrecks better than anyone! If you liked this you should try La Bete Humaine. That was one of my favorites so far.Delete
Okay, you've helped ease my fears about this one! I think Zola does trainwreck ina way that i love. :)ReplyDelete
I was turned off initially because I thought they'd just sit around drinking all day, but that's only a small part of it. There were a couple of big blowouts by the characters, and there are a couple of scenes that are kind of disgusting, but not nearly as bad as I expected.Delete
And I totally agree, he's so good at these characters on the downward spiral. They're so messed up but I can't stop reading!
I have a hard time reading sad books. I'm a wimp, but you make this sound compelling. Did you read it in French? I started a freewheeling American in Paris book today: Here's It isReplyDelete
I wish I could read it in French!! Some of the translations of his books are really bad because the English publishers were afraid of going to jail for publishing obscene books because they were so scandalous. They cut lots of stuff out. It's so annoying that I may seriously study French so I can read them in the original language.ReplyDelete
I haven't read this yet, but it's on my list. If it's anywhere near as good as 'Germinal', I won't be disappointed.ReplyDelete