The Assommoir | Émile Zola #Zoladdiction

Gervaise had waited up for Lantier until two in the morning. Then, shivering all over from sitting half undressed in the cold air from the window, she’d slumped across the bed, feeling feverish, her cheeks wet with tears.

Brian Nelson | 2021

Gervaise had waited and watched for Lantier until two in the morning. Then chilled and shivering, she turned from the window and threw herself across the bed, where she fell into a feverish doze with her cheeks wet with tears.

John Stirling | 2019

Gervaise had waited for Lantier until two o’clock in the morning; then, shivering all over, because she had been standing in her shift in the cold air from the window, she slumped down across the bed, in a fever, her cheeks wet with tears.

Robin Buss | 2000 | The Drinking Den

Gervaise had waited up for Lantier until two in the morning. Then, shivering from having remained in a thin loose jacket, exposed to the fresh air at the window, she had thrown herself across the bed, drowsy, feverish, and her cheeks bathed in tears. 

Ernest A. Vizetelly | 1897 | The Dram Shop

I love comparing translations; so for The Assommoir I give you the opening lines from four different translators.

Clearly most of them agree, but what was Gervaise wearing? A shift? A loose jacket? Half undressed? or no comment from Stirling? The original French uses the word ‘camisole‘. My first thought was why not just use camisole, we all know what that means. But as it turns out, a camisole in the late 1800’s was not the silky, slinky, lacy underwear we now think of when we say camisole. An 1800’s French camisole was more likely to be a loose sleeved jacket. That’s one to Vizetelly, although it does also imply a state of undress, thank you Buss and Nelson.

It’s a good reminder about the care that all translators exercise when just one word has to be thought about so precisely. It brought to mind something that Lydia Davis wrote in her book, Essays Two (2022), “in translation, you are…not only writing – you are also solving, or trying to solve, a set of problems not of your own creation.” For Davis this is also one of the pleasures of translating. I suspect they know when they have done a good job at solving these problems when their readers are completely unaware of any such difficulties.

For Brian Nelson with L’Assommoir, the challenge was the working class slang that Zola painstakingly reproduced in the dialogue between in his characters.

Zola was able to rely mostly on his memory. When he first arrived in Paris as a young man (1859) he “lived in some of the poorest streets of the Latin Quarter, and over the next ten years had moved to a succession of less than salubrious addresses“. Working class argot was very familiar to him, but in the twenty years since arriving in Paris and writing L’Assommoir, he had moved up and out of these suburbs. To make sure his argot was still correct he also referred to two working class dictionaries – one by Alfred Delvau (1866) and one by Denis Poulot (1870).

One hundred and fifty years later, Nelson had to walk the line between exact translation of words that are inherently “highly mutable“, and therefore quickly out of date or trying to capture the essence of Zola’s language via using modern day slang (which could also date his translation very quickly).

In his Translator Notes, Nelson talks about his desire to avoid “anachronistic” language, choosing to use “vigorously colloquial contemporary language” to properly convey the “general colour and tone of the nineteenth-century Goutte-d’Or” to the modern reader. Given I will never be able to read the original in Zola’s French, this sounds like the best compromise to me.

Germinal has been my favourite Zola to date, but L’Assommoir is now pushing up against this long held position. Zola seems to do his best when writing about the disadvantage and poverty of his working class characters. Their lot is by no means happy or likely to change. There is desperation and hopelessness inherent in every action. The lack of education, food, clothing and adequate housing creates a daily grind where it becomes impossible to imagine any other life. In fact, there is no way out. The only aspiration is the simple one Gervaise expresses early on in L’Assomoir, before her marriage to Coupeau,

‘I don’t want anything special, you know, I don’t ask for much…My ideal would be to get on with me work in peace, always have somethin’ to eat and somewhere decent to sleep…You know, just a bed, a table, and a couple of chairs, that’s all…Oh, and I’d like, if I could, to bring up me kids and make sure they’re good, decent people…And there’s one other thing I’d like, if I ever lived with somebody again, it’s not to get knocked about; no, I really don’t want to be knocked about…’

Knowing Zola as I now do, I knew these words were prophetic.

When Gervaise followed up this statement with, ‘I’d like to die in me own bed…After slaving away all me life, it’d be nice to die at home, in me own bed’ we knew that this was not going to be possible for Gervaise. Zola, with his Naturalism approach and determination to write about hereditary and environmental issues from a scientific point of view, rather than relying on Fate, was never going to allow Gervaise to rise above her circumstances. It is my one frustration with Zola; that his characters can never better themselves or overcome their family of origin for long. No doubt, in nineteenth century France it was not possible for personal improvement or movement between the classes. In Zola, the tragedy is always going to play out, whether you call it Fate, or Nature or Nurture. The lack of any real choices and opportunities to advance makes it impossible for these characters to exercise Free Will or self-determination.

By the time that Zola was writing L’Assommoir in 1876, Paris was a city of two halves. The Haussmannisation of Paris was well under way, creating the beautiful wide boulevards we now love about the city. To do so though, slums were cleared, forcing the working class to move to the outer suburbs,

creating…two distinct cities: the Paris of Luxury and the Paris of Poverty. ‘The Parisian bourheoise eyed this new community encircling their own with a mixture of curiosity, contmept, guilt and fear.’

Émile Zola: A Very Short Introduction, Brian Nelson (2020) & Philip Walker, Zola (1985)

Many early critics of L’Assommoir declared the novel to be ‘filth’ and ‘vulgar’ with it’s rough slang and vivid descriptions of grinding poverty. In his 1877 Preface, Zola counteracted these claims by saying that his novel was “a work of truth…that does not lie and has the authentic smell of the people….my characters are not bad, but only ignorant and brought low by the conditions of sweated toil and poverty in which they live.

Gervaise’s story is shocking, yet inevitable.

No omnipresent narrator tells her story – Zola gives Gervaise the task of telling her own story. This is what makes L’Assommoir so powerful. Gervaise’s voice is ever present and the only point of view we see. We care for Gervaise and admire her commitment to her children, her hard work and her desire to enjoy the simple things in life. We want her to succeed. But the system does not work in her favour.

After Coupeau’s work place accident that eats into their savings, things can only go one way – pear-shaped. There was no insurance, no support from the company he worked for, no government assistance to help them through this time. There was no rehabilitation process to help Coupeau get back to work and the best and easiest to access painkiller around was booze.

From this moment, the downward spiral is relentless. One thing after another conspires against them and they lose the will to resist. They make poor choices, trust the wrong people and lose their way. The second half of L’Assommoir is frustrating and harrowing as their inherited flaws surface and eventually take over from their better selves.

L’Assommoir was an incredibly vivid read. Zola not only brought Gervaise to life, but the streets of Paris as well. I felt like I was strolling around, seeing and smelling and hearing everything with Gervaise. As with Germinal, which follows the fortunes of her son Étienne into the mines, Zola has produced another gut-wrenching story that I will never forget.

Thank you to Fanda for once hosting Zoladdiction throughout April. I suspect I will be reading (or rereading) a Zola every April for the rest of my life!

My Zola Bibliofile:

Title: L'Assommoir | The Assommoir | The Dram Shop
Author: Émile Zola
Translator: Brian Nelson
Cover Illustration: Edgar Degas | In a Cafe, or the Absinthe Drinker | 1875-6
ISBN: 9780198828563
Imprint: Oxford World's Classics
Published: 30 September 2021 (originally serialised in 1876 in Le Bien public. Book published 1877)
Format: paperback
Pages: 411
Dates Read: 1st April 2023 - 23 April 2023
Origin: TBR
This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are our first storytellers.

13 thoughts on “The Assommoir | Émile Zola #Zoladdiction

    1. L’Assommoir only had translator notes by Nelson. The Introduction was by Robert Lethbridge. I confess I found him to be rather heavy going so I didn’t refer back to his Intro at the end, although his Notes were far more informative.

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  1. That was exactly what I felt reading Germinal–he takes us right in the midst of those mines, every sound ringing in our ears, us standing right by as the miners experience those tortuous conditions, and also how he showcases how the parameters that one would judge them on, morality among them, are so much shaped by circumstances entirely out of their hands.

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    1. Zola’s power of description are incredible aren’t they?
      One of the things I admire Zola for his lack of judgement towards his characters. I do sometimes find the point he is trying to make about environment and heriditary a bit heavy-handed, but he doesn’t blame them or look down on them. He is simply describing what he has observed.

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  2. I love the Brian Nelson introductions – they point out themes that I had completely missed myself and thus make me want to read the book all over again with that new insight.

    poor Gervais, we really want her to make a success of her life yet we also know that it’s not going to happen

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    1. I wish this edition has full notes and intro by Nelson, but he only did the translator notes in this one. Robert Lethbridge wrote a pretty dense Introduction that made my eyes glaze over!

      I ended up with a real soft spot for Gervaise. I wish she had matter better choices for herself though.

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  3. Of your chosen translations Nelson’s was the one that to me felt the more authentic and easiest to assimilate because not revealing of its nature, of being a translation.

    Would I leap at the chance to read Zola? In past years I may well have risen to the challenge, but these days I find a need for shorter and perhaps less demanding reads – I get all the demanding stories I require about poverty, exploitation and political corruption from the daily news…

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  4. A great, comprehensive review, Brona! Isn’t Brian Nelson a great translator/editor? His introduction is always fun to read, and helps tremendously to understand Zola’s point of view.

    “I suspect I will be reading (or rereading) a Zola every April for the rest of my life!” – I, too, feel that I would do that, even if one day Zoladdiction must come to an end.

    So, next you would read Une Page d’Amour, I guess? You’d be treated with more picturesque ‘paintings’ of Paris from Zola. And as usual, Brian Nelson’s introduction is very helpful.

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