L'assommoir, by Emile Zola
Posted by elsie katz on Sat, 19 Apr 2014
Drink addiction does the working class no good. As true now as in the 19th Century when Zola wrote his tragi-comic epic, the title has sometimes been translated as The Pub or Dram Shop. Posh folks can also sometimes suffer from liver failure and permanent damage to the brain and motor system however they may be more able to get up in the afternoon without getting sacked.
At the start of the story Gervaise and Coupeau are in love and have their whole life ahead. They live in inner-city Paris, I read the book in translation, doubtless it's even more powerful in the original. They are hardworking, she is employed as a highly skilled laundress able to launder and press the most intricate lingerie, he works as a roofer, the same trade as his father once had. They know the potentially catastrophic powers of booze. Gervaise's mother is an addled wreck able only now to sell the one commodity open to all women. Coupeau's father is paralysed, the consequences of working at a height when drunk.
The young couple are happy, strong and determined to rise out of poverty through sheer hard work.
What could possibly go wrong?
The good news is that things go right for a good few years first with Gervaise opening and managing her own beautiful laundry. Zola also employs some good-spirited humour. He lives his characters, their daily chat, their grindstones, their city streets.
When alcohol relentlessly breaks them down, glass by glass, drop by drop it is heartwrenching.