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2 april 2012

In Ivan Goncharov's Oblomov (1859), the title character explains his theory of ethics in fiction:

Depict your thief, your fallen woman, your haughty fool, but don't forget the human being there. . . . Extend a hand to a fallen man to lift him up, or weep bitterly over him should he perish, but don't sneer. Love him, remember yourself in him, and treat him as you would yourself. (trans. Schwartz, NY: Seven Stories, 2008, 28-29)
I don't know if Émile Zola read Oblomov, or particularly noted that passage if he did, but it corresponds exactly to his literary philosophy.

L'Assommoir is Zola's novel of the urban poor drinking themselves to death. As grim as the lives of the characters are, though, they are not the most luckless of the poor – they are not beggars or whores or madmen (except in the very last of their extremity). For much of the novel, the central characters Gervaise and Coupeau earn a pretty good living, hovering on the border between skilled tradesmen and small-business owners. They get married in style, they do the town, they hold elaborate noisy parties. There are innumerable occasions for Zola's narrator to sneer, even indirectly and implicitly, at these wannabe bourgeois. But that is not his style.

Nor does Zola romanticize his subjects. They are pretty rotten people, for the most part: envious, grasping, slacking, or querulous, sometimes showing each fault by turns. They aren't courageous, striving people who deserve better (or deserve pity). They are people, hoping to get ahead in life and often too weak to succeed. Society, government, the financial world, and the church care absolutely nothing about them.

Though you might not want to grapple them to your soul with hoops of steel, the irony is that you still might want to have a drink with the characters of L'Assommoir. Coupeau is a charming guy who values a good time; that's why Gervaise is initially drawn to him. Mes-Bottes is a Rabelaisian partygoer. Lantier, father of Gervaise's sons, is even more amiable, despite his knack for eating his businesswomen girlfriends out of shop and home. This attractiveness is important. You know right from the start that these likable-if-sketchy characters are going down the tubes, but you would prefer they didn't. And there's no moral to be drawn from their disasters. Some of the likable characters break on top (Mes-Bottes lands a wealthy wife), and some of the insufferable characters stay on top (like the haughty Lorilleux, always imagining that guests will track precious dust out of their goldsmith's shop). There's no clear code of poetic justice in L'Assommoir that rewards or fiendishly destroys the virtuous, that destroys or cynically rewards the vicious. There but for the grace of The Way Things Are go the unforgotten human beings of Zola's underclass.

L'Assommoir, like the novel I serendipitously picked up while reading it, Simenon's Pendu de Saint-Pholien, is more than incidentally about clothes. Gervaise's trade is blanchisseuse. If she were in the 21st century, she'd work at, or run, a dry-cleaner's. In Paris of the 19th, her trade overlaps with those of the laveuse, who washes, and the repasseuse, who presses. Gervaise does both of those things too, at different times, but always aspires to be running the show and taking care of the most difficult "whitening" of laundry, employing repasseuses to keep their irons in the fire, and outsourcing the bulk washing to laveuses.

In the course of her trade, Gervaise literally learns about all the dirty laundry in her quarter of town.

Elle savait . . . les secrets de la propreté de chacun, les dessous des voisines qui traversaient la rue en jupes de soie, le nombre de bas, de mouchoirs, de chemises qu'on salissait par semaine, la façon dont les gens déchiraient certaines pièces, toujours au même endroit. . . . Dans la boutique, à chaque triage, on déshabillait ainsi tout le quartier . . . (176)

[She knew the secrets behind everyone's respectability: the underwear of the neighbors who crossed the street in their silk skirts; the number of stockings, handkerchiefs, shirts that they dirtied every week; the way certain people tore certain items, always in the same place. In the cleaner's, with every sorting, you undressed the whole neighborhood that way.]

Such indirect undressing is the stuff of gossip, harsh enough, but ultimately amusing. Later on, when Gervaise is down and out, her intimate knowledge of everyone else's flaws fuels her scorn at their hypocritical disapproval:

Le geste élargi, elle indiquait le quartier entier, elle en avait pour une heure rien qu'à étaler le linge sale de tout ce peuple, les gens couchés comme des bêtes, en tas, pères, mères, enfants, se roulant dans leur ordure. (330)

[With a sweeping gesture, she pointed to the whole neighborhood. She could spend a whole hour just laying out the dirty laundry of all these people: people lying like animals in a heap; fathers, mothers, and children all rolling around in their own filth.]
There are a lot of passages like that in L'Assommoir: "OK, tell us what you really think" passages of savage indignation. Remarkable here is how Zola takes the dead metaphor of dirty laundry and makes it quite literally representative of secret knowledge. The cleaner's becomes a kind of mute confessional. When spread out on the washboard, nobody's linen is cleaner than it ought to be.

Zola, Émile. L'Assommoir. 1877. Paris: Gallimard, 1990.