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Sobering Stuff
November 2011

There are few books more likely to make you leave the corkscrew to one side and reach instead for the tea-caddy than Zola's L'Assommoir (1877). It was this unrelenting novel, tracing the descent into alcoholism and eventual sordid death of a Parisian working-class couple, which raised Zola to fame and wealth. He explained the purpose of the novel in the preface:

I wanted to depict the inexorable downfall of a working-class family in the poisonous atmosphere of our industrial suburbs. Intoxication and idleness lead to a weakening of family ties, to the filth of promiscuity, to the progressive neglect of decent feelings and ultimately to degradation and death. It is simply morality in action.

However, the novel is not, on close inspection, the sacred text of Alcoholics Anonymous that Zola's note might lead a reader to expect.

Gervaise has arrived in Paris from "Plassans" in the south of France (Zola's fictional equivalent for Aix-en-Provence). She is accompanied by her charming but womanising partner, the hatter Lantier, and their two children, Claude and Etienne. Life is hard, and seems set to become even harder when Lantier runs off with another woman, leaving Gervaise and the children to fend for themselves. However, relief is at hand. Pretty and healthy, Gervaise has attracted the attention of Coupeau, a roofer who lives in the same building. He begins to court her in a manner both clumsy and touching, laying emphasis on his freedom from the failings of other men:

"But I'd never beat you, I wouldn't, if only you'd say yes, Madame Gervaise...you needn't be scared, I never drink, an' anyway I love you too much."

To begin with, Gervaise resists. The feckless Lantier has put her off men ("I just don't fancy 'em any more"). But Gervaise also has aspirations, albeit very modest ones: "To get on with me work in peace, always to have something to eat and a nice little place to sleep — you know, just a bed, a table and two chairs, that's all." Coupeau — sober, devoted, a skilled workman — seems to bring that dream closer to reality.

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