I have a framed print in my study of a woman sitting in what I now know to be a drinking den. She sits slumped over with the weight of the world on her metaphorical shoulders. A large glass of absinthe sits directly in front of her with an empty jug to her side. She is neither depressed not content; despite the load on her shoulders, she is seemingly apathetic in her demeanour with time an irrelevant force in Edgar Degas’ stunning work. It is this print that was the visual backdrop to my reading of Emile Zola’s L’Assommoir (The Drinking Den).
Zola writes with a gritty realism that is distinctive for its brutality juxtaposed with dark wit. He mocks the trivialities of the gossiping classes and highlights the sullied working classes unashamedly. One thing I have learned through reading Zola previously (Thérèse Raquin) is that when a protagonist is happy and the life is easy, this will not be the normative state and a slow descent into melancholy is only a few pages away. This makes for very compelling reading and adds to the suspense that book-ends every chapter.
Gervaise Macquart is an unlikely heroine. Mildly crippled, poor, with bastard children, she is abandoned by her lover and works for meagre pay at a laundry in Paris. She is rescued from this life of near-destitution and shame by the tradesman Coupeau whose own limited wage lifts them from abject poverty to mere poverty. They are content for a while until a work accident turns Coupeau’s affections from Gervaise to the bottle. There are many stories from time immemorial that capture the seductive monster of alcoholism. This particular tale is striking because the lure of the bottle is so insidious and all-consuming that it becomes the new normal and is accepted because ‘things could be worse’. And they do become worse, like a leaking tap that starts off as a mild irritant, Gervaise’s world soon becomes flooded by one tragic event to the next.
This book is compelling and its gritty realism should not be off-putting. There are many moments of hilarity injected into the tome, supplied by Zola’s outrageous characters that provide a brief and welcome respite from the tension. It is also a significant novel of historical importance; the late nineteenth century was a turbulent period, particularly in Europe as the world crashed through enormous political and structural change through the processes of Enlightenment and The Industrial Revolution.