30 August, 2008

Zola: the low life

God, I read these before I finished my exams. In June. I'm so horribly behind with this blog. So anyway: Thérèse Raquin and L'assommoir. Both horribly gloomy books in which everyone, pretty much, comes to a bad end. I like a bit of doom and gloom.

L'assommoir is the novel where Zola introduces the parents of Etienne (from Germinal) and Nana, and it's got a lot of his theories about heredity: essentially, that alcoholism and violence are passed down in families. Thankfully, this isn't stated explicitly (I can't bear 19th century novels full of essays on science) but is made clear through the story: Gervaise has plenty of opportunity to make good, but her natural laziness and alcoholism lead to her downfall. (Etienne, of course, is a good and admirable man, but it's made clear in Germinal that this is because he manages, with great effort, to keep his inherited alcoholic and violent tendencies in check - if he ever gets drunk, he may kill a man.)

It's fantastically detailed, as a picture of life in mid-nineteenth century Paris: I like the way Zola shows the landscape changing as the slums are cleared (I guess as part of Haussmann's projects?), and he's excellent with the details of life. I always like it when authors tell you about costs and prices, and particularly here, the details of how much everything costs add to the feeling of grinding poverty in the area, particularly in the beginning where Gervaise and Lantier are first living in horrible squalor.

I also really like the way Zola captures the experience of some really ghastly social events. The big binge in the middle of the novel is so horribly evocative, as they all stuff themselves and are then sick in the street. He does a similar thing in Thérèse Raquin: the evenings above the shop with the horrible stuffy pompous guests are wonderfully cringey and awful. Otherwise, I enjoyed this less than the Rougon-Macquart novels I've read: Zola's obsession here is with temperaments and types, and how people's lives play out according to their natures, which I find less interesting than his mad heredity theories, and I can do without all the stuff about human brutes as well. But on the whole, I enjoy tragic melodrama and liked this well enough. [40] [41]

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