The Assommoir, by Émile Zola, a new translation by Brian Nelson

Weeks before I listened to this very interesting webinar about ‘The Art of Reviewing Literature in Translation’, I had referred — in this #6Degrees of Separation — to Brian Nelson’s new translation of  Zola’s The Assommoir (L’Assommoir) and specifically mentioned reading the Translator’s Note:

I have just received a brand new translation of it by my favourite translator, Brian Nelson, Emeritus Professor of French at Monash University. Published by Oxford World’s Classics, it has the same Introduction by Robert Lethbridge as the 1995 Margaret Mauldon translation, but (of course) the Notes on the Translation are new, referring to the difficulty of translating C19th French slang and to a change of approach. Where Mauldon writes that she aimed for an English equivalent not of recent vintage to convey the vigour of the original, Nelson asserts the importance of writing for a contemporary audience, aiming to use vigorously colloquial contemporary language. So I am looking forward to see how these differences are manifested in the new translation.

So, listening to the webinar, I was interested to hear that at least one prominent (i.e. paid) reviewer had complained about an aspect of translation that had been specifically explained in a Translator’s Note.  Quite rightly, this not bothering to read the Translator’s Note was judged by the panel to be shabby behaviour, but that behaviour made me realise how far I have come in thinking about translated literature since the early days when I began reading it via the home of translated fiction, Stu’s blog Winston’s Dad.

First up, yes, translators feel strongly that reviewers should acknowledge that a book is translated and has translator.  So that’s a tick for me, because I’ve been doing that for years.  But then it’s a question of how it’s acknowledged.  It’s not just a matter of #NamingTheTranslator, it’s a matter of acknowledging that the work is a co-creation which emerges when a translator reworks the original text and recreates it. That’s not something I’ve always acknowledged, and what’s more, I don’t agree entirely that a translator can or should, to use an example from the webinar, change culturally specific Israeli jokes into something else more accessible.  Firstly, there is always Google; secondly, there can be explanatory notes; and thirdly, whose alternatives do we get that aren’t culturally specific to somewhere else anyway?  Those of us who live in The Rest of the World all know how often there are tiresome assumptions that we are familiar with US culture.  (Anyone learning languages with Duolingo has to put up with this all the time).

Whatever about that, if you — whether reader or reviewer — are at all interested in the reviewing of translation, this webinar is a helpful guide to doing it well, though the speakers were all at pains to say that all reviews of translated fiction are welcome, because it isn’t reviewed enough and nobody wants to discourage potential reviewers with exacting standards…

So in the spirit of the suggestion that reviewers of TL should be ‘daring’ I’m going to assert that Brian Nelson’s translation of The Assommoir is a ‘new book’ in the sense that the panel explained it.  It is a co-creation with Zola, reworked for contemporary readers.  The most obvious aspect of this is the use of contemporary language as an interpretation of Zola’s use of 19th century French slang.  It is, as we often tag it, ‘robust’!

Reading a new translation for review has been a different kind of reading for me.  I already know this powerful story of a woman from the French underclass who starts out well but lapses into moral and financial decline, and you can read my review of the Margaret Mauldon translation here. So I was reading partly for the pleasure of re-reading, but also to note differences in the translation.  This is a kind of reading that scholars and editors do, but I don’t pretend to have that kind of expertise.  For me, comparing the text line-by-line would have killed the pleasure of reading it, but when I came across sections that seemed to me to be new or different or more modern, I compared the two texts.

But first, of course, there’s a different cover, and much as I liked the melancholy of the portrait by Edgar Degas in the Margaret Mauldon edition, ‘The Absinthe Drinker’ also by Degas more acutely depicts the sodden couple and their degradation.  They are together, and yet alone, separated by their addiction and the squalor of their lives.  To me, this new cover represents the way that Coupeau’s role in the novel and the social milieu are integral to Garvaise’s downfall, along with her own fatal flaws.

I admit to being disappointed that this new edition retains the Introduction and Notes by Robert Lethbridge.  I am unabashed fan of the clarity and accessibility of Brian Nelson’s no less comprehensive introductions, which were — from the time I first encountered the one for The Ladies Paradise — the catalyst for me to read the entire Les Rougon-Macquart Cycle.  As far as I can tell, the Introduction and Notes in The Assommoir/L’Assommoir are pretty much the same, except that quotations from the novel in the new edition use the Nelson translation, and there are amendments to some of the Notes as well. (For example, in the notes about the allusion to Pascal, mentioned on p. 89, there is additional information about the poet and song-writer Béranger as an ironic cultural counterpart.) 

There is a world of difference in the Translator’s Notes:

The Assommoir, transl Brian NelsonL’Assommoir, transl by Margaret Mauldon
The act of translation is an empathetic act in the sense that it allows translators to become the authors they admire, to recreate through language the narratives they love. This is doubly true in the case of L’Assommoir, insofar as the central effect of the novel itself is empathy: that is to say, the reader is invited to enter the character’s world, to see and feel the world as they do. This effect is created partly by the phenomenological quality of Zola’s writing: the sensory immediacy that informs his characters’ relationship with their environment. The effect is greatly heightened, however, by Zola’s astonishing invention of a narrative voice that absorbs into itself the thoughts and feelings of the characters. L’Assommoir is a notoriously difficult text to translate. No translation, however faithful its rendering of the novel’s gutter slang and obscenities, could possibly recreate the impact of that language on the nineteenth century reader. Today’s readers have become accustomed to slang and are no longer shocked by obscenity. It follows that much of the original of L’Assommoir to command attention by its unorthodox and audacious language is lost forever—and lost, of course, not simply in translation but to readers of the original text as well.

I see myself as a student encountering this book for the first time as a set text, and I know which one makes me want to read the book.  Not the edition that asserts a sense of loss, but the one that lures me with a promise of empathy.

So, onward with my reading of the edition that does not attempt to recreate French slang that was outmoded and obscure even in Zola’s day, but rather conveys the vigour of the original without introducing incompatible English or American connotations.  

An early example of the difference occurs when Gervaise is warding off Coupeau’s advances.  Gervaise is talking about her contemptible lover Lantier who abandoned her as soon as they got to Paris, leaving her with two small children to support: 

The Assommoir, transl Brian NelsonL’Assommoir, transl by Margaret Mauldon
‘Don’t be silly!’ Gervaise was saying to Coupeau. ‘Sex is all you think about! Of course I loved him… But after the awful way he walked out…’ (p.34)‘Don’t be silly! What a dirty mind you have!’ Gervaise was saying to Coupeau. ‘Of course I loved him… Only, after the horrible way he left me…’ (p.37)

Here’s another example, from the rank humidity of the laundry, where Clemence has stripped off her bodice because of the heat:

The Assommoir, transl Brian NelsonL’Assommoir, transl by Margaret Mauldon
‘Clemence, put your bodice back on,’ said Gervaise. ‘Madame Putois is right, it’s not decent… People might start thinkin’ my shop is something else altogether.’
So Clemence got dressed again, grumbling as she did so. What a fuss about nothing! As if passers-by had never seen a pair of tits before! And she took out her annoyance on the apprentice, squinty Augustine, who was standing next to her ironing easy stuff like stockings and hankies; she pushed her and knocked her with her elbow. But Augustine, with the sly bitchiness of an ugly duckling always being picked on, got her own back by spitting on her dress from behind, without anyone seeing. (p. 125)
‘Clemence, put your bodice on again,’ said Gervaise. ‘Madame Putois is right, it isn’t decent… People’ll take my shop for something it’s not.’
So the great tall girl got dressed again, grumbling. What a lot of bellyaching! Hadn’t the passers-by ever seen a pair of books, then! And she worked off her anger on the apprentice, that cross-eyed Augustine, who was standing beside her ironing plain things like stockings and handkerchiefs, she pushed her, bumping her with her elbow. But with the peevish, shifty nastiness of an ill-favoured drudge Augustine spat on the back of her dress, without anyone seeing, in revenge. (p.139)

The songs are different too.  This one is a washerwoman’s song, capturing in the Nelson translation both the drudgery of the work and the way the women expressed their sorrows:

The Assommoir, transl Brian NelsonL’Assommoir, transl by Margaret Mauldon
‘Thwack! Thwack! Margot at the wash….
Thwack! Thwack! Swings her beater— slosh…
Thwack! Thwack! Washing from her soul…
Thwack! Thwack! Misery black as coal….’ (p.28)
Bang! Bang! Margot’s wash she’s thwacking,
Bang! Bang! With her beater smacking,
Bang! Bang! Washing out the stain,
Bang! Bang! Of her heart’s black pain. (p.31)

Of course, this is not about picking out snippets to compare a different choice of words.  For most of my reading I was wholly absorbed in the story even though I’d read it before.  I was more conscious this time of Goujet, the gentle giant whose love for Gervaise is unrequited while Gervaise refuses him from the moral high ground of ‘respectable’ marriage when really, it’s her her lazy habits and easy-going ways that keep her mired in degradation.  And —having read Nana since first reading L’Assommoir— I was more alert to the portrayals of Gervaise’s daughter in this novel.  It is quite heart-breaking to read about the birth of this child, her father’s delight and Gervaise’s prescient anxiety about the risks girls faced in a city like Paris, and then to come to the end of the novel where we see Nana beginning her life as a prostitute, entering high society in a grand carriage as her alcoholic mother dies pathetically in abject poverty.  

The new edition also has a much expanded Bibliography, and the Chronology of Zola’s life has slight differences. 

Highly recommended.


Webinar: ‘The Art of Reviewing Literature in Translation’ (NBCC), featuring Tara Merrigan, Samuel Martin, Shelley Frisch, Emma Ramadan, Kevin Blankinship, Jeremy Tiang.

‘The Absinthe Drinker in a café’, by Edgar Degas: National Gallery of Victoria.

Author: Émile Zola
Title: The Assommoir (L’Assommoir)
Translated from the French by Brian Nelson, with an Introduction and Notes by Robert Lethbridge, and a map of the setting and a family tree of the Rougon-Macquarts. 
Publisher: Oxford World’s Classics, 2021, first published 1877.
ISBN: 9780198828563, pbk., 411 pages
Review copy courtesy of OUP, with thanks to Brian Nelson.

Cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers

L’Assommoir (The Dram Shop) by Émile Zola. Translated by Margaret Mauldon


L’Assommoir is a stark, emotional story of one woman’s struggle to find happiness in working-class Paris. The seventh title in Émile Zola’s 20-novel cycle about the Rougon-Macquart families, it ultimately cemented Zola’s position as a leading European author although at the time of its publication in 1877 it was hugely controversial.

French conservatives, sensitive to the political implications of the novel, accused Zola of grossly exaggerating the fetid, crowded, unsanitary conditions inhabited by his characters. Zola insisted that his depiction was authentic. It was, he said ‘the first novel about the common people that does not lie’, because it was based not only on his own detailed observations of the lives of the working class but on extensive research of medical texts on the effects of alcoholism.

Zola said his purpose in writing the novel was to show how the fate of the individual is governed by hereditary and environmental forces outside his control. No matter how hard they try, they cannot escape the moral flaws passed down through the generations and the dehumanising effects of the slum conditions that were the product of rapid industrialisation.

His main focus in L’Assommoir is Gervaise Macquart, a laundry worker treated brutally by her lover Lantier and then deserted by him, leaving her and her two children destitute. Eventually she finds a new life with the roofer Coupeau, gives birth to a daughter Nana and begins to dream of owning her own laundry. A loan from a neighbour who is secretly in love with her enables to achieve her ambition. Through determination and hard graft, she makes it a success.  Fate of course has something other than happiness in store for her. Copeau lets his attention slip one day and falls from the roof. Though he survives, he is disabled.  No longer able to resume physical work he spends his days drinking rot gut at L’Assommoir bar. Gervaise’s desire for the good things in life lead her to overspend and from there into a cycle of debt, squalor and despair from which there seems no way out.

The power of this novel comes from the way Zola commands our sympathy for this woman, showing the gulf between her modest dreams and the reality of her life.  Towards the end of the book she reflects what had been her ideal:

To be able to get on with her work, always have something to eat and a half-decent place to sleep, bring up her children properly, not be beaten, and die in her own bed.

Instead she ends up sleeping in filth in a courtyard that feels like a cemetery,  starving battered by her husband and alone, her daughter having become a prostitute.

Although we as readers keep hoping against hope that she will gain happiness, there is a sense of inevitability that this will never be the case given Zola’s view of the world.  His main characters have, like the great tragic heroes, a fatal flaw. A tainted inheritance is repeatedly invoked as a factor that loads the dice against he characters  efforts to avoid a  virtually preordained degeneration. Copeau becomes an alcoholic just as his father did, and also like him, suffers a similar accident. Gervaise, abused by her partners just as her mother was, has a physical defect also in the form of a limp.  Weakened by their inherited flaws, these figures are powerless against the forces of the poisonous atmosphere of their slum neighbourhood.

The world of open sewers and overflowing drains, of the stench of unwashed bodies and discharges from slaughterhouses, that is their mileu are guaranteed to crush the human spirit in Zola’s view. In the preface to the novel he declared:

Intoxication and idleness lead to a weakening of family ties, to the filth of promiscuity, toe the progressive neglect of decent feelings and ultimately to degradation and death.

My characters are not bad, they are only ignorant and ruined by the conditions of sweated toil and poverty in which they live.

Pessimistic yes. Grim, assuredly. But it’s in Zola’s ability to force us to confront the reality of life at a particular moment in time as seen through one woman’s experience, that the enduring power of this novel lies.

Cross-posted at BookerTalk’s blog as part of the Zola Project 

L’Assommoir (The Dram Shop), by Émile Zola, translated by Margaret Mauldon

L'Assommoir L’Assommoir, variously translated as The Dram Shop, The Gin Palace, Drunk and Drunkard is said to be Zola’s masterpiece. Well, I haven’t read all of the Rougon-Macquart cycle, this is no. 13 in the recommended reading order so I have seven left to enjoy, but I can certainly attest to the brilliance of this one…

L’Assommoir is overwhelming. Like the very best of Dickens, it tells the story of an underclass with respect and compassion and it leaves its readers emotionally bereft. Its central character Gervaise begins the novel with such hope, and she rises to make a success of her humble life, only to stumble on a downward trajectory that can have no other resolution than degradation. Oxford Worlds’ Classics have compounded the melancholy with a superb portrait by Edgar Degas on the front cover. This image becomes quite haunting as you read…

The Rougon-Maquart novels are not a family saga, but Gervaise’s place in the family of Antoine Maquart serves to emphasise her tragedy. Her sister Lisa lives barely a mile away, confidently running a charcuterie and living a bourgeois lifestyle. But she might as well be on the other side of the planet: Gervaise’s life is a world away and their paths never cross. Would Lisa have rescued Gervaise if she knew about her circumstances? If you’ve read The Belly of Paris you know the answer to that question.


The fatal mistakes Gervaise makes begin early: she’s only fourteen when she has her first child by her feckless lover Lantier, and when they run away to Paris together in hope of a better life, he spends his way through a small inheritance and then abandons her and the two young boys. It is typical of his moral cowardice that he leaves it to the older boy, Claude, to bring her the room key that signals his departure, that she is hard at work in the laundry when she finds out in this humiliating way, and that he had insisted that very morning that she pawn her shawl and her chemises, money which he has now used for his new adventure. To compound Gervaise’s misery, he has dumped her for Adèle, sister of Virginie, one of the other washerwomen, and a degrading cat-fight ensues over this worthless man. But as the novel progresses, Zola uses both Virginie and Lantier to show Gervaise’s fatal apathy when she lets them both back into her life later on.

Zola’s characters are all marked by his view that human destiny is formed by heredity, environment and their place in time. Gervaise’s fatal flaw is her easy-going nature: she likes to please others and it’s easier to go along with the milieu that surrounds her.

Her only weakness … was being very soft-hearted, liking everybody, getting desperately fond of people who then put her through endless misery. So, when she loved a man, she wasn’t interested in all that nonsense, what she dreamt of was simply living together happily ever after. (p. 38)

Her dreams are not ambitious; what she wants is

to be able to get on with her work, always have something to eat and a half-decent place to sleep, bring up her children properly, not to be beaten, and die in her own bed. (p.421)

If only. Consigned to the seedy parts of Paris at the time when Haussmanisation was impacting on working-class communities and industrialisation was replacing artisanship, Gervaise supports her boys as a washerwoman and eventually – not without some reluctance – marries Coupeau, a teetotaller with a steady job as a roofer. Despite their good intentions they get into debt with the cost of their marriage because of their desire to put on a good show for their friends, but with hard work, a prudent lifestyle and offloading the older boy to an apprenticeship in Plassans, they recover financially, and begin saving towards Gervaise’s dream of running her own laundry. But destiny steps in when Coupeau has a fall from a roof and can’t work for a very long time. This has two fatal effects: Coupeau gets used to idleness and Gervaise has to use all her savings to support the family (which has now grown to include their daughter Nana).

One of Gervaise’s friends is the gentle giant, Goujet, a blacksmth. He loves Gervaise with a quiet passion, and he and his mother offer a loan that enables Gervaise to fulfil her dream. She moves her family out of their dingy rooms to a place of warmth and light, where she sets up her laundry to general acclaim. Industrious and careful, she is excellent at her work and everybody except her jealous in-laws admires her.

But Zola has structured the novel so that this success is the high point of Gervaise’s life, and portents of her future are already there. Coupeau fills his idle hours by boozing with his layabout friends, and lovely little Nana who might have been a support to her mother later in life, is running wild. The friends who admire and like Gervaise are also only too ready to listen to malicious gossip about her from her sister-in-law Madame Lorilleaux, and they’re also only too ready to encourage a lavish lifestyle that Gervaise can’t really afford because she has a loan to pay back to the Goujets.

It is heartbreaking to read about the downfall of this wonderful character. I suspect that it’s impossible to read L’Assommoir without becoming very fond of Gervaise. But apparently, (according to the introduction by Robert Lethbridge), Zola’s novel didn’t please anybody. Although it was a contemporary bestseller, conservatives didn’t like its dangerous socialist message and thought it proved that the working-class wasn’t fit to vote, and progressives were angry that it showed the underclass as feckless and irresponsible. But when we read it today we can see that Zola has rightly depicted some fundamental truths: that the underclass has the same hopes and dreams for themselves and their children as anyone else, but that their precarious finances make them vulnerable to life events which can plunge them into disaster from which there can be no return. Zola could not have written this novel the way he did, had there been a safety net to tide the family over Coupeau’s injury, and workers’ compensation for his inability to get back to work.

But there was no safety net, and Gervaise (like everyone else) likes the Good Life, and it’s just too easy to let loan payments slide and to spend more than she’s got on a splendid celebration of her name day. And it’s on that fateful day, depicted in a magnificent set piece by Zola, that Lantier slithers back into her life. Coupeau, who’s a bit pickled, goes outside to tell Lantier to stop hanging about and upsetting Gervaise, but he ends up bringing him inside to join the feast. This is partly because Coupeau is a terrible judge of character at the best of times, and partly because Lantier is a master salesman of his tawdry product, that is, himself. It doesn’t take long for him to ingratiate himself so thoroughly that he moves in, starts interfering in the laundry and bossing about the family, and takes turns with Coupeau to beat Gervaise whenever the mood takes them. Not only that, but Lantier also sabotages Coupeau’s unenthusiastic efforts to get back to work …

Needless to say, you can’t go on sprees and work as well. So, after Lantier joined the household, Coupeau, who already hardly raised a finger, got so that he didn’t so much as touch his tools. When, fed up with not earning, he did find himself a job, his mate would track him down at work and tease him mercilessly on seeing him hanging from a knotted rope like a ham that was being smoked; he’d shout to him to come down and have a quick one. That settled it, the roofer would walk off the job and start a binge that went on for days, for weeks. First rate, those binges were a general inspection of all the bars in the neighbourhood, the morning’s boozing slept off at lunchtime and resurrected in the evening; round after round of rotgut stretching into the night like Chinese lanterns at a party, until the last candle and the last glass were consumed. (p. 257)

Squalor descends and at first Gervaise does little but shrug her shoulders in resignation. She didn’t run after her man; indeed if she caught sight of him in a bar she’d go the long way round so as not to make him angry. (p.266) But the time comes when she thinks she may as well join the men in a drink, and then – despite her kind heart and good intentions – it’s all downhill from there. Lantier is after her, and after her business, and everything he does conspires to bring Gervaise down so that he and Virginie can have their revenge.

All the characters, one way or another, symbolise the values in conflict: industriousness, diligence, cleanliness and self-control versus idleness, laziness, filth and self-indulgence. But the one who prefigures Gervaise’s own sordid downfall is an innocent. Lalie Bijard, the child who becomes mother to the other small children after her alcoholic father beats his wife to death, does not – unlike Gervaise – have any choices at all. Her final moments are classic 19th century sentimentality, but no less powerful for that:

Gervaise, meanwhile, was trying her best not to burst into tears. She reached out with her hands, wanting to comfort Lalie, and as the ragged sheet was slipping off she pulled it right down, intending to remake the bed. The poor little body of the dying child was thus exposed. Lord Jesus, what a heart-rending, pitiable sight! The stones themselves would have wept. Lalie was quite naked, with only the remnants of a bodice round her shoulders to serve as a nightgown; yes, quite naked, the nakedness of a martyr, bleeding and tortured. There was no longer any flesh on her, her bones poked through her skin. From her ribs to her thighs thin purple weals reached down, where the whip’s bite had left its vivid imprint. A blue-black bruise circled her left arm, as if the jaws of a vice had crushed this delicate limb, no thicker than a matchstick. On her right leg, there was a gash that hadn’t healed, some nasty wound that must have reopened each morning as she hurried round doing her chores. She was nothing but a bruise from head to toe. Oh what butchery of childhood – that dear little chick crushed under a man’s heavy foot; what infamy – that feeblest of creatures dying under the burden of such a cross! People in churches venerate martyred virgins whose naked flesh is not so pure. Gervaise had crouched down again, forgetting to pull up the sheet, overcome by the sight of this pitiful nothing, lying there sunk into the bed, as with trembling lips, she tried to say a prayer.

‘Please, Madame Coupeau…’ whispered the child.

In her great modesty, and full of shame for her father’s sake, she was trying to pull up the sheet with her short little arms. Bijard stood there stupidly, staring at the corpse he was responsible for, and rolling his head about slowly like an animal that’s bothered by something. (p. 401)

It’s not possible to read this without thinking of today’s little children brutalised by their own parents: Chloe Valentine, Daniel Valerio and the anonymous ones still suffering unchecked abuse. Alcohol used to excess, and now the use of illicit drugs too, still combine with community indifference to allow these things to happen. Gervaise, notwithstanding her tears and prayers, leaves the surviving small children to their fate. Zola shocked his readers with L’Assommoir and it seems tragic that in the 21st century we still rely on shocking media stories to force action in this area of need. (If you have time, do read ‘Child abuse and the media’ by Chris Goddard and Bernadette J. Saunders (2001) on the Australian Institute of Family Studies website – it makes it clear that it is media coverage prompting public outrage that gets action on family violence).

Given its sordid subject-matter, why is L’Assommoir the favourite Zola novel of so many? I think it’s because of the brilliant way this novel is structured to make the reader care about the central, lovable character of Gervaise. The novel’s realism captures the environment in which this humble woman rises to success and then stumbles into tragedy. Instead of judgemental moralising, Zola depicts the pathos of her fall with careful observations that show her helplessness to save herself or anybody else.

Well, what next, to surpass this masterpiece of Zola’s? It’s L’Œuvre (1886) (The Masterpiece), the story of Gervaise’s son Claude, the struggling artist in Paris. I’m going to love that one, I’m sure, because I always enjoys novels about artists.

Author: Émile Zola
Title: L’Assommoir (The Dram Shop)
Translated from the French by Margaret Mauldon
Publisher: OUP (Oxford University Press) (Oxford World’s Classics series), 2009
ISBN: 9780199538683
Review copy courtesy of OUP.


Do yourself a favour: do not read the freebie editions that you can download: Zola used 19th century vulgar colloquial slang for much of the dialogue, which will either be sanitised or excised from the freebies, or incomprehensible if you try to read the original in French. This title is notorious for being very difficult to translate for contemporary readers. I recommend this translation by Margaret Mauldon (which also has a comprehensive introduction about all kinds of aspects that I haven’t covered here i.e. the politics of the era and the symbolism), but the OUP edition is (of course) the only one I’ve read. However, whatever you choose, make sure that it is a recent translation, uncensored and with annotations that explain the geography of the novel; the significance of the ribald songs and slang; and the cunning way that Zola made allusions to politics in ways that evaded trouble at a time when there was savage repression of any political critique.

Fishpond: L’Assommoir (Oxford World’s Classics)

Cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers

Plot summary: L’assommoir, by Émile Zola

L'assommoir-OUPL’assommoir was first published in 1877 and was the seventh book of the Rougon-Macquart series. The title is variously translated into English as The Drunkard, The Drunk, the Dram Shop and the Gin Palace.  Like many of the colloquialisms in the original text, the title cannot be translated exactly:  it refers to a drinking place selling cheap booze distilled on the premises and it plays on the French verb assommer which means to stun, or render senseless.

The main character is Gervaise Macquart, daughter of Antoine Macquart and sister of Lisa Macquart who features in The Belly of Paris (1873-4).  The young Gervaise’s courtship with her teenage lover Lantier is recounted in the first novel of the series, The Fortunes of the Rougons (1871) and L’assommoir takes up the story from their arrival in Paris.

The novel is set in Paris, in a working-class enclave in the south-eastern quarter of the 18th arrondisement.  (The Oxford World’s Classics edition has a map of the area and also a map of the building in which much of the action takes place.)

Please note that this is a plot summary so full plot developments are revealed.

Chapter 1

Lantier and Gervaise are living in squalid conditions with their two small children Claude and Étienne, in a rooming house; they quarrel.  Later, Gervaise is at work in the laundry when little Claude arrives bringing the key to their room, and the news that Lantier has left her.  Madame Boche pretends sympathy for Gervaise, but enjoys telling her that Lantier has been seen with Adèle, one of the other women who works in the laundry.  There is a vicious cat-fight between Gervaise and Adele’s sister Virginie, and then Gervaise goes home to discover that Lantier has taken everything, even the pawn tickets for her clothing.

Chapter 2

Three weeks later, Gervaise and Coupeau the roofer are enjoying a drink at Père Colombe’s Assommoir.  He wants to marry her but she demurs. She tells him that she’s not really interested in men, and that she had only taken up with Lantier to please him because she was too soft-hearted.  She had hoped to live happily ever after but it hadn’t worked out and she doesn’t want a man.  But she finds his voice coaxing.

Neither Gervaise nor Coupeau are drinking spirits, Gervaise because she saw the damage done in her family and Coupeau because his father, also a roofer, had been killed when he fell down from a roof when he was drunk.  They leave the assommoir together, Coupeau to visit his sister Madame Lorilleaux who is married to a gold chain-maker.  He usually eats with them, to save money. When they reach the building he suggests that they could live there together in one of the rooms for let, but she refuses.  They continue to see each other, however, and eventually he pressures her into agreeing to marry.

Coupeau takes Gervaise to meet his sister and her husband in their dingy home, where they manufacture gold chains.  The Lorilleaux are rude and unfriendly because they don’t think Gervaise is good enough for him, and they will miss the money Coupeau has brought to their housekeeping.

Chapter 3

Gervaise hadn’t wanted a big wedding, but they end up spending a lot of money that they don’t have, to impress their friends and have a good time. The rain puts a bit of a damper on things, and the priest is a surly fellow who spoils the mood further.  When they decide to visit the museum (the Louvre) to kill time before the wedding feast, they get lost inside the maze of rooms.  Eventually they sit down to the meal – where everyone eats and drinks to excess – and Coupeau has to borrow more money to settle the bill.  Gervaise is embarrassed by the drunken spree, and humiliated when Madame Lorilleaux calls her by the insulting name of Banban to her face.

Chapter 4

Four years of hard work and prudent saving follow.  The couple have paid off the debt from the wedding, and an offer from an eccentric art collector to educate the older boy in Plassans has reduced the strain on the budget.  Gervaise works 12-hour days at Madame Fauconnier’s washhouse, but still keeps her home clean and neat.  Coupeau works industriously as a roofer, brings his pay home and doesn’t drink.  They are able to move into a nicer place in time for Gervaise to have her baby, Anna, nicknamed Nana.  Even the Lorilleaux bring christening presents and all is going well.

At the christening dinner they become friendly with their neighbours the Goujets, an elderly mother and her son, a handsome blacksmith who is nicknamed Gueule-d’Or on account of his golden beard.  He is a shy man, and Coupeau teases him but Goujet saves his life one night when they go sight-seeing the riots on the second of December. [Louis Napoleon’s coup d’état in 1851].  After that they are close friends.

Disaster strikes when Coupeau falls from a roof and is badly injured.  Gervaise has been saving industriously to achieve her dream of having her own washhouse but their savings vanish in medical bills and Coupeau is unable to work for months.  But the Goujets are very good to them and finally they offer to lend Gervaise the money to start up her own laundry, using the money that had been intended for Goujet’s marriage.

Chapter 5

Gervaise’s laundry is a great success.  She is honest, reliable and careful with the clothes and all her customers admire her.  Madame Lorilleaux is jealous and constantly snipes about Gervaise behind her back, and the locals enjoy joining in any gossip, but Gervaise is obliging and kind-hearted and she is ready to forgive the whole world. She indulges Coupeau who is still not at work and has started drinking, because she would rather have peace at home than nag him about it.  At first he is a good-natured drunk, drinking wine rather than rotgut spirits, and wanting to kiss his wife rather than do her any harm.  But as time goes by Goujet – who is a frequent visitor, nursing his unspoken love for Gervaise – has to protect Étienne from Coupeau’s kicks, so he takes him on as a future apprentice at the bolt factory.  Nana, however, at only six years old, is starting to run wild.

Madame Coupeau is now too old to work as a cleaner any more, and since her daughters Madame Lorilleaux and Madame Lerat won’t have her, Gervaise takes her in.

Chapter 6

Gervaise starts visiting Goujet at the forge, on the pretext of seeing her son Étienne. She watches the men make bolts by hand, and is then taken to see the machines in the adjacent factory manufacture the same bolts in a much shorter time (which is why Goujet’s pay-rate has been cut from 12 to 9 francs a day).  Every Saturday Gervaise also visits Madame Goujet to deliver the washing, which she has been doing without payment in part-payment for the loan with the remaining money coming from the laundry takings.  She had paid off about half of the loan like this when one day one of her creditors hadn’t paid her and she had to borrow more money to pay the rent on the shop. Then she was short to pay her workers on a couple of occasions, and now she has slipped into the habit of paying these loans only through not charging for the washing instead of with her earnings.  Money is being frittered away because she has become self-indulgent and likes to have little luxuries.   But on this occasion she needs money to pay her coal supplier and so she asks for payment for the washing.  Madame Goujet rebukes her only mildly, reminding her that it’s no way to pay off the debt.

On the way home Gervaise bumps into Virginie, the girl she had the fight with at Madame Fauconnier’s.  They become wary friends, and enjoy gossiping together although Gervaise is uneasy about the way Virginie keeps bringing up the subject of Lantier.  Gervaise finds herself visiting Goujet more and more often at the forge because it is a refuge from her fears of Lantier’s return.

Things take a turn for the worse, however, when she is returning home one day and sees Coupeau drinking rotgut spirits.  She is already deep in despair when she returns home to find the building in an uproar because – witnessed by his own small children – M. Bijard is viciously beating his wife.

Chapter 7

Gervaise puts on a lavish feast to celebrate her name day, even pawning her wedding ring to pay for it all.  Coupeau has to be dragged out of the assommoir to join the guests, but is grumpy and sour.   At the last moment when Madame Coupeau can’t attend because of her sciatica, Gervaise invites Père Bru to join them so that there isn’t the unlucky number of thirteen at table.  Everyone is singing drunken songs when they become aware of Lantier out on the street observing the party through the window.  Coupeau goes out to ‘sort him out’ but comes back bringing Lantier as a friend to join the party.

Chapter 8

Lantier becomes a regular visitor, ostensibly to see his child Étienne but inveigling his way into the household.  Coupeau enjoys going out boozing with him and he invites him to move in – but in order to accommodate him, they have to make inconvenient adjustments to the laundry which hampers the work to be done.  Lantier is a layabout who pays neither rent nor board, and he discourages Coupeau from taking even casual work, but he worms his way into their affairs and Gervaise’s unease grows.  One day when he almost kisses her, Goujet witnesses it and is very upset. Gervaise denies any interest in Lantier, but Goujet doesn’t believe her.  He shocks Gervaise by offering to take her away, somewhere like Belgium and she refuses because she wants to retain some dignity as a married woman with children.

Madame Bijard dies an excruciating death from kicks to the belly, and on her deathbed exonerates Bijard so that he escapes the scaffold.

Coupeau goes on an extended bender with Lantier, and doesn’t come home for several days, giving Lantier the opportunity to make a move on Gervaise.  They go to a café-concert together, and when they return home they find Lantier in a deplorable state in the bed.  Lantier invites Gervaise to his bed because she can’t step over the vomit and filth to get to her own. She gives in, blaming Coupeau, and little Nana sees her as she makes her way to Lantier’s room.

Chapter 9

Things go from bad to worse.  Madame Coupeau is grumpy and bad-tempered as she goes into her final decline, and the household is disorganised.  Madame Lorilleaux is gossiping about Gervaise and Lantier so the whole neighbourhood knows, and Madame Goujet takes Gervaise to task about the laundry not being done properly, sacks her and demands that some money be paid off the loan.  Goujet privately countermands this but he is so hurt by her behaviour with Lantier that he asks her to go.  Gervaise leaves the quiet, orderly home with feelings of regret but she no longer cares about the fecklessness, poverty and squalor at her own house. They scrape along, Lantier and Coupeau taking it in turns to knock her about.  Some days they have nothing to eat at all, and to Gervaise’s humiliation, Lantier suggests letting Virginie and her husband take over the laundry.

In the miserable winter, Madame Coupeau dies, but they put on a good show for her funeral even though they have no money to pay for it.  Gervaise is stunned when Goujet goes away without helping her with a further loan, and she succumbs to the demand that she hand over the shop to her rival Virginie.

Chapter 10

The Coupeaus have moved into two rooms on the sixth floor and Gervaise has to bear the humiliation of the Poissons moving into her old home and setting up her old laundry as a fine grocery.  Lantier, while still compromising Gervaise’s reputation with regular visits, is now setting his cap at Virginie.  Coupeau thinks it’s a fine joke when Lantier cuckolds M. Poisson with Virginie, and Lantier makes it his business to make sure that the two rivals remain friends, at least on the surface.

Nana makes her First Holy Communion and she is apprenticed to Madame Lerat (Coupeau’s sister) as a flower-worker.  But the winter is very severe, and everyone in the neighbourhood suffers from the harsh weather.  In the old days many of them came into Gervaise’s laundry where it was always warm, but now they shiver in unheated rooms or worse. Gervaise sinks so low that one day in despair she even finds herself calling on M. Bazouge the undertaker to beg for death to take her.  He laughs at her, telling her that death comes in its own good time.  On the way back to her room, Gervaise feels ashamed of her despair when she sees the courage of her neighbour, eight-year-old Lalie Bijard – who has become mother to her smaller siblings and endures the same brutal beatings that had killed her mother.

Coupeau’s drinking has become so extreme that he is sometimes admitted to hospital at Sainte-Anne with delusions.  He can’t be relied on for anything, and Gervaise drinks with him because she might as well.  She drinks anisette, the very drink she had decried as so pernicious in her youthful days of optimism.  She gets so drunk that Lalie fears her.

Chapter 11

Nana has entered puberty, and is a wild young woman.  She is vain and capricious, and looking for trouble.  She has finished her apprenticeship at the flower-shop, but she doesn’t like the work and the girls she works with are not respectable.  Madame Lerat tries to protect her from a lascivious button-manufacturer, but Nana runs away from home when the poverty and squalor at home becomes too much for her.   Gervaise has become a slattern, fat and lazy and [Zola says, but no modern reader believes it] indifferent to the kicks and beatings she gets.  She works now for Virginie as a char, where Lantier delights in telling her about Nana’s degradation. She has dumped her ‘old gent’ and is dancing in disreputable local dance halls.  Coupeau drags her home from one of these places one day but it doesn’t last long and she takes off again.  Again it is Lantier who reports on her whereabouts to Gervaise: Nana has been seen in a carriage with a fine gentleman…

Chapter 12

Gervaise is starving.  Everything has been sold and she is so desperate she asks Madame Lorilleaux for help but is refused. She goes into the Bijards, where little Lalie has kept everything scrupulously clean despite her poverty.  But Lalie is in bed, desperately ill, and as Gervaise sees to her horror that the child is covered in whip marks, M. Bijard arrives, roaring drunk and waving his whip to attack her again.  Gervaise takes the whip from him but she cannot make herself stay to watch the child die. She goes out into the wind and snow to get some money from Coupeau who’s boozing in the assomoir with his pal Mes-Bottes, but he insults her and she goes off to beg in a wealthier part of Paris where Houssman’s demolitions have created vast new avenues and splendid new apartment blocks.  She decides that she will prostitute herself, but she is too ragged and filthy for anyone to want her.  In the depths of her degradation she approaches old Père Bru, who is also begging there.  Finally she meets Goujet, who in pity takes her home and gives her something to eat.  In shame she mistakes his love for desire and opens her bodice, but all he wants from her is a kiss.  He is so overcome by what she has become and the loss of his dreams about her, that he draws away from her and she flees into the night.  Back in her room she is overcome by despair and goes grovelling to Père Bazouge the undertaker, begging him to do away with her.

Chapter 13

Gervaise scrounges some money from her son Étienne but soon receives notification from the hospital at Sainte-Anne that Coupeau, who has been missing from home again, is dying.  She takes her time about getting there, having little feeling left for him.  He is suffering delirium tremens and hallucinations and is at death’s door.  The doctor warns her that she will suffer a similar fate if she drinks too but she is too far gone to care.  She goes back home to the news that Virginie now has everything that she once had: the shop, money, and now Lantier as well.

Coupeau dies after four days in agony, and Gervaise struggles on for some months doing less and less casual work because she is too slovenly to do anything properly.   She is evicted from her room, and after Père Bru is found dead in his bolt-hole under the stairs, she ends up taking his place and dies in the same way, not found until someone noticed that she hadn’t been seen for two days.  Père Bazouge, sozzled as usual, buries her with as much tenderness as he can…

Author: Émile Zola
Title: L’Assommoir
Publisher: Oxford World’s Classics, 2009
ISBN: 9780199538683
Review copy courtesy of Oxford’s World’s Classics.