Sobering Stuff

Emile Zola's novel L'Assomoir is enough to turn even the hardened drinker temporarily tee-total


There are few books more likely to make you leave the corkscrew to one side and reach instead for the tea-caddy than Zola’s L’Assommoir (1877). It was this unrelenting novel, tracing the descent into alcoholism and eventual sordid death of a Parisian working-class couple, which raised Zola to fame and wealth. He explained the purpose of the novel in the preface:

I wanted to depict the inexorable downfall of a working-class family in the poisonous atmosphere of our industrial suburbs. Intoxication and idleness lead to a weakening of family ties, to the filth of promiscuity, to the progressive neglect of decent feelings and ultimately to degradation and death. It is simply morality in action.

However, the novel is not, on close inspection, the sacred text of Alcoholics Anonymous that Zola’s note might lead a reader to expect.

Gervaise has arrived in Paris from “Plassans” in the south of France (Zola’s fictional equivalent for Aix-en-Provence). She is accompanied by her charming but womanising partner, the hatter Lantier, and their two children, Claude and Etienne. Life is hard, and seems set to become even harder when Lantier runs off with another woman, leaving Gervaise and the children to fend for themselves. However, relief is at hand. Pretty and healthy, Gervaise has attracted the attention of Coupeau, a roofer who lives in the same building. He begins to court her in a manner both clumsy and touching, laying emphasis on his freedom from the failings of other men:

“But I’d never beat you, I wouldn’t, if only you’d say yes, Madame Gervaise…you needn’t be scared, I never drink, an’ anyway I love you too much.”

To begin with, Gervaise resists. The feckless Lantier has put her off men (“I just don’t fancy ’em any more”). But Gervaise also has aspirations, albeit very modest ones: “To get on with me work in peace, always to have something to eat and a nice little place to sleep — you know, just a bed, a table and two chairs, that’s all.” Coupeau — sober, devoted, a skilled workman — seems to bring that dream closer to reality.

At first, all goes well. Coupeau is affectionate and hard-working. Gervaise, who has been trained as a laundrywoman, sets up her own business. Her standards are high, and the business thrives: “There was pots of money to be made if they were sensible.” But after an accident, Coupeau is off work for a long time, and their savings are eaten away. Gervaise begins to take less trouble over her laundry: clients desert her, takings drop. At the same time she falls prey to idleness and gluttony. Coupeau turns to drink, spending more and more time in the drinking den round the corner from Gervaise’s shop, Père Colombe’s “Assommoir” (the word means a “stunner” or a “cosh”, and evokes the stupefying potency of the coarse spirits on sale there). Previously, Coupeau had set his face against such rotgut drinks:  

He drank nothing but wine; always wine, never spirits; wine made you live longer, it didn’t upset you, it didn’t make you drunk…a workman couldn’t get along without wine, and old man Noah must have planted the vine specially for roofers, tailors and blacksmiths. Wine cleaned you up and refreshed you after work, and put fire in your guts when you didn’t feel like doing anything.

But as he degenerates so he slides down the scale of drink. One evening Gervaise is walking past the bar:

…she thought she recognised Coupeau…knocking back rounds of rotgut…yes, it really was Coupeau, tossing his little glass of rotgut down his throat with a very practised air. So he was lying, he was on spirits now! She went home in despair, filled afresh with all her former horror of spirits. Wine she could excuse, because wine makes a workman strong; spirits on the other hand were vile things, poisons that destroyed a man’s appetite for food. Oh, surely the government ought to prevent people producing that filth!

Does Zola himself endorse Gervaise’s separation of alcoholic drink into health-giving wine and death-dealing spirits? Such attitudes are not unusual — for instance, Kingsley Amis, when reckoning up his alcoholic consumption, excluded wine and beer on the grounds that they didn’t count. Such distinctions fly in the face of today’s health advice, which focuses simply on units and is indifferent to the degree of dilution in the beverage.

There is no doubt that Gervaise and Coupeau get through a great deal of wine, even during the early years of their marriage before Coupeau’s accident, and when Gervaise’s laundry business is doing well. We are told that the local wine merchant delivers the household’s wine to them in 50-litre crates. But this would have been much less strong than modern table wine. It would be the kind of thing one used until quite recently to see in French supermarkets on the lowest shelves in the wine section, in litre bottles with three stars embossed round the neck: “vin rouge ordinaire“, a generic wine marketed under a trade name, with no specified vintage and a provenance usually no more closely defined than “Produit de France“. The alcoholic strength of these wines would usually come in around 11 per cent, sometimes as little as 10 per cent.  

Even so, Gervaise and Coupeau do sluice a huge amount of it. At Gervaise’s birthday dinner there are some dozen at table, and the consumption of wine is prodigious:

And as for the wine, well, friends, the wine flowed round that table like water down the Seine, or like a stream when it’s been raining and the ground is parched…In a corner of the shop, the pile of dead men was growing bigger, making a cemetery of bottles…Glasses were being emptied in one go: you could hear the liquid flowing straight down people’s throats, sounding like rainwater pouring down drainpipes on a stormy day.

When wine is consumed in this way, the distinction between wine and spirits is meaningless. Wine, which can be a healthy drink, has become merely an induction for spirit-drinkers.

Coupeau succumbs to delirium tremens, and Zola gives an unflinching description of the final phase of alcoholic poisoning: the shaking, convulsive body, the tormenting visions, the undignified distress. Gervaise collapses into utter destitution, living in a cupboard in the building where she had once had her laundry business: “There, on some old straw, her belly empty, frozen to the marrow, she lay and starved to death…One morning there was a bad smell in the corridor and people remembered that she hadn’t been seen for two days; they found her in her hole, already green.”

Zola is a master of endings — think of the conclusion of Nana, the novel about Gervaise and Coupeau’s courtesan daughter, who lies rotting of smallpox in an upstairs room, while on the street below the Paris mob is impelling France towards the debacle of Sedan with cries of “A Berlin!” These were pages which drew a gasp of admiration from no less a judge than Flaubert. But Zola wrote nothing more sobering than the final pages of L’Assommoir.

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