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.