Emile Zola (1876 [2003]) The Drinking Den, Penguin Classics, translated by Robin Buss.

I tackled Emile Zola’s The Drinking Den before, but gave up after reading the first couple of chapters. I stuck with it this time and finished all thirteen chapters. It wasn’t like War and Peace, where when I finished it I expected a librarian (in pre-Covid times) to rush up and pin a medal to my tracky top. Nor was it like Zola’s Germinal or The Earth which I ripped through. When I turned the final page I felt a sense of relief. Job done, but if Zola hadn’t been Zola (if you know what I mean, with his reputation preceding him) I wouldn’t have bothered.

The plot of The Drinking Den is quite simple. It follows the ascent and fall of the laundress Gervaise Macquart over a twenty year period from the working-class slums of Paris around 1850. When the reader first meets her she has two young children, Claude who was eight and Etienne (who appears I Germinal) who is four. She was pregnant aged fourteen to Lantier, who was eighteen. He brought her from Plassans to Paris, but leaves her and his children destitute after taking the last five francs for himself.

Zola’s strength is showing not only how things look but how much they cost. When, for example, Lantier asks if she’s got any money, her reply sets the tone.

‘Money! Where do you expect me to steal it from? You know I got three francs the day before yesterday on the black skirt. We’ve had two meals out of it: those cooked meats don’t last long…I’ve got four sous for the wash…I don’t earn it the way some women do.’

Old Columbe’s drinking den was on the corner of the Rue des Poissnneirs and the Boulevard de Rochechouart and would be recognisable to Parisians of the time. Old Columbe was serving four sous’s worth of liquor in a cup to a little girl aged about ten. It cost four sous to get your washing done and four sous to get soaked.

Here we meet the roofer, Coupeau, in his workman’s smock and blue linen cap. He can’t understand how men can drink such spirits straight down. He’s in his thirties with good teeth and good intentions. He’s in love with the blonde-haired Gervaise and begs her to give him a chance. Her limp is hardly noticeable he insists and her children are still small.  But she’s finding her feet after Lantier’s sudden disappearance. She’s had a fight with Virginie which she’d triumphed and has steady work with Madame Fauconnier and has no time for frivolity. She’s on the up and up, but modest. A Victorian narrative dressed up in different clothes of a woman achieving happiness through a decent and happy marriage (to the likes of Bijou).

‘Heavens! I’m not ambitious, I don’t ask for much…My dream would be to work quietly, eat bread every day and have a fairly decent place to sleep: you know, a bed, a table, two chairs, nothing more…Oh, I’d also like to bring up my children and make good citizens of them, if I could…If there was anything else I’d like, it’s not to be hit, if I ever settle down with someone…it would be nice to die in my bed, at home.’

Contrast this modesty with her daughter Nana. ‘She had the large eyes of a perverted child’. Slut, harlot, prostitute is the way Zola describes her. The watchmaker’s daughter is painted in a similar way; incest between her and her father is in the way she flings her hips and flaunts herself.

‘Nana was sent to sleep at the Boches, and she cried.’ She was looking forward to sleeping in the big bed with ‘her good friend Lantier’.

The saintly Lalie, who watches her mum beaten to death by her father, becomes a little mum to her brother and sister. And while being whipped and beaten to death herself by her father and tied to the bed so she can’t stray, doesn’t waste time, but knits. Her last words mirroring the biblical forgive him he knows not what he does, while her drunken father weeps.  

Later, she (and the narrator, Zola) reflects poverty kills them, but not quickly enough.  Old Columbe’s drinking den is lit up like a cathedral for high mass.

Funerals cost money, around ninety francs. An average workman earns three to four francs a day. Goujet, who is in love with Gervaise, is paid around 12 francs a day for making bolts. This is later reduced to 9 francs a day. His mother is a spendthrift, budgeting for better days and they bank Gervaise’s rise and fall. We are at the heart of the French industrial revolution, but something is lost in translation and characters become clichéd as the language used.

Leo Tolstoy, Childhood, translated by C.J. Hogarth.

After reading War and Peace I felt that someone should gallop up and hang a medal around my neck. I’m easily confused and Russian names are Russian to me. Childhood is a much easier beast. Short pen-portraits of, for example, ‘The Tutor, Karl Ivanitch,’ ‘Mama,’ ‘Papa,’ ‘Lessons,’ ‘The Idiot’.

His is a very structured life. Papa is a little god, all bow before him. He runs the estate with an iron grip. No rouble unaccounted for. Yet, he can lose a million roubles playing cards. Mama, is an angel, as all mama’s are.

‘Get up my darling, it’s time go by-by.’ No envious gaze sees her now. She is not afraid to shed upon me the whole of her tenderness and love. I do not wake up, yet I kiss her and kiss her…’

She does not remonstrated with Papa, for she is a simple woman with a belief in God’s goodness. All is as it should be. Papa may need to sell some of her estate, but what is hers is his. Echoes of this gambling loss appear in War and Peace.

When the children need to leave for Moscow to stay with Grandmamma for their proper education not on tutoring, but how to enter a room, for example, she knows it is for the best. Living in the countryside would hold them back. High society resides in Moscow and they must learn who is and who is not to be snubbed.

I cannot explain my cruelty on this occasion. Why did I not step forward to comfort and protect him (a boy, not quite of their aristocratic heritage)? Where was the pitifulness that made me burst into tears at the sight of a young bird fallen from its nest…

And his first love Sonatcheka (after a boyish crush on another boy).

The most prominent features of her face was a pair of unusually large half-veiled eyes, which formed a strange, but pleasing contrast to the small mouth. Her lips were closed, while her eyes looked so grave that the general expression of her face gave one the impression that a smile was never to be looked for from her: wherefore when a smile did come, it was still more pleasing.

Tolstoy’s heroines are here and undiluted by age, made stronger by yearning. The outward and inward. The use of ‘gave one’, rather than gave me, moves it from the first-person narrative to the universal. She’s still not smiling—yet when she does the world moves around her to accommodate her.   

I had strange ideas on manly beauty. I considered Karl Ivanitch one of the handsomest men in the world, and myself so ugly that I had no need to deceive myself on that point…

[Grandmamma] patted my cheek; “You know Nicolinka, nobody will ever love you for your face alone, so you must try and be a good and clever boy”.

Tolstoy’s insecurity as a boy also has a universal appeal. As does his grief at the death of his mother, and her beloved servant, and former serf, Natalia Savishina, in ‘Sad Recollections’. Natalia’s brother found it hard to believe that after sixty years’ dedicated serve Natalia had left only sixty roubles. Her love couldn’t be counted in roubles, but, hey, I’m with the revolutionaries here.  

Millions lost on the turn of a card, but around a rouble a year so the Tolstoy family can get three meals a day and their every aristocratic need catered for. Tolstoy is not writing history, but re-living it. His story is not my story. I’m the Idiot, the peasant ploughing his fields, serving his meals and looking after his horses. There way of life was not to my liking, then or now. The quality of the writing, well…that’s a different kind of lesson.

John Lanchester (2007) Family Romance: A Memoir.

family romance.jpg

This is a triptych of father, mother, son and ghosts of life. And his parents die in that order. Father, Bill, first, unexpectedly of a heart attack not long after retiring from banking. Then mother, Julie, unravelled by strokes until there was nothing left. This is where the story begins and ends, because it allows John, their only son to bind himself closer, and find out more about their earlier life. His life too comes under scrutiny, but it is also a meditation on truth and lies, and how we construct the characters we become and how they inhabit our own lives.

Lanchester suggests that ‘very few things in life are a revelation’, but his mother’s secret life, the longest and most compelling part of the book, must have come as a shock. He comes to the conclusion that if his mother ‘had not lied, I would never have been born’. In other words if it hadn’t happened, he couldn’t have made it up.

‘Julie Lanchester, who died on 6th August 1998, aged 77 years’ had shaved ten years off her age. Her father Bill when he got engaged and married her (she was already pregnant with son John) believed most of his life until his death at 57 that his wife Julie was ten years younger than she was. That when he married her, she was thirty-years old and not forty. Bill, as an only child, with knowledge of all that entailed, wanted to go on to have lots more little Lanchesters; something she also wanted. John, their only child, later found out his mother had suffered four miscarriages. But suffering was something Julie was practiced in.

Bill had no reason to disbelieve that his wife’s name Julie was also a lie. She was born Julia Gunnigan was born on 5th December 1920 in Lurgan, Ireland. Her father Pat was a subsistence farmer and her mother Molly (Mary) was the wife of a subsistence farmer with the family wed to the land. This was most graphically shown at the age of sixteen when Julia, a postulant nun, returned home from Sister of The Good Shepherd (made infamous by Peter Mullan, The Magdalene Sisters) to convalesce and decided not to go back or take her final vows. Her father and mother punished her by ignoring her and sending her to Coventry, but until an Uncle found her an escape route, she remained in the religious garb of the novitiate. Part of the reason for this was economical. She had by that time five other younger sisters. Four of whom also became nuns. And there was literally no money, but they could scrape enough to eat. But there seemed also to be something of the branding of the one that disgraced the family, the equivalent of Hester Pyrnne in The Scarlett Letter.  And this experience John believed helped mark his mother for life. But perhaps more surprising is after a man she was engaged to in a sanatorium died of tuberculosis, which she also contracted whilst working there as a nurse, at the age of twenty-six, she joined another order of nuns, the Presentation Sisters in nearby Lurgan. She took the name Sister Eucharia and after taking holy orders was able to get herself sent to Madras in India, which she ran as head teacher of a Catholic school attended by the up-and-coming classes in that region.

John knew nothing of this part of his mother’s life, and was surprised to discover he had Catholic relations. But he comes to the conclusion: ‘some of the most important things that can happen to people can happen before they are born.’ This sounds decidedly to me like the importance of money and wealth and good connections – something Lanchester went to write extensively about for example How to Speak Money, and his recent television drama series on BBC 1 based on his book Capital. His father was a living example, a man who found his work boring and repetitive, but like many other ‘found it impossible to give up money’ and the need for financial security, ‘where money is concerned, [there’s] no such thing as enough’, something he’d learned from his own father.  The boarding school John was sent to as a ten-year old, before taking a First at Oxford in English, was decidedly Anglo-Protestant. But Julia/Julie his mother had an almost preternatural way of hiding things she didn’t want to talk about or confront. ‘Julie wanted to be her own crypt’. And his father Bill, although an international banker, travelling the world, also didn’t like confrontation. In many ways they were made for each other.

Julia Immaculata Gunnigan became Bridget Teresa Julia Gunnigan, or on her passport B.T.J Gunnigan before her marriage by applying for her younger sister Dilly’s birth certificate and getting an Irish passport issued in her new name. This is very John Le Carre, where I think I first read about this trick. But then after marriage B.T.J Gunnigan become B.T.J. Lanchester. Julia/Julie felt she had to cut all ties with her family in case this lie became revealed. But B.T.J. Lanchester’s ability to compartmentalise her life had other costs. As Count Pierre Bezukhov comes to conclude in War and Peace, in order to be happy we must have the ability to imagine happiness, John’s mother had the ability to imagine she was not there and her son noted this absence whilst she was present. ‘Ways in which as a child my mother wasn’t fully present’.

The psychic cost was something he became familiar with. After his mother and father’s death he suffered from panic attacks. But that’s too bland a description. ‘I couldn’t breathe, let alone see straight or think straight. I felt as if my mind broke. I wasn’t just going to die, I had disintegrated.’

The remaining death in the family was his mother Julie/Julia’s career as a writer. She had published a short story ‘Minding Mother Margaret’, about a young nun taking care of an older nun that is nearing death, which was broadcast by BBC radio, and the story is reproduced in her son’s book. But Julie/Julia had published it under the pseudonym Shivaun Cunnigham. But after marriage Julie covered her tracks so effectively that she never alluded to that time and never wrote again. Her son mourns that great loss. In the words of Virginia Woolf, she had the time and the space, a room of her own, but as keeper of a secret identity left no wiggle room. John Lanchaster, of course, was their reason for being and he has successfully picked up that baton. ‘Language is an intimate betrayal.’