Émile Zola.

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BOOK 843.8.Z74E c.2

3 T153 D001325b 5



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The Assommoir is the book which made ^fimile Zola
famous. Previous to its publication he was virtually an un-
known quantity in the spheres of literature and social reform.
To the version of his story which is here offered the title of
* The Dram-shop ' has been given ; this title conveying, it is
thought, a good idea of the book's subject and purpose, which
last is to stay the ravages of strong drink. * Drink ' in itself
is, of course, an obvious title for such a work ; but it was
taken by the late Charles Reade for his well-known dramatic
arrangement of M. Zola's story, and to have borrowed it for
the present volume would only have led to confusion. More-
over, there are certain reasons for giving this translation a
title which shall fully distinguish it from all previous ones.

In the French title, L'Assomvioir, there lurks a particular
meaning, which may here be briefly explained. An assommoir
is Uterally a heavy bludgeon, but the word may be applied to
almost any weapon that will fell, stun, or kill. Many yeara
ago the nickname of assommoir was given in a spirit oi
sarcasm to a certain tavern in the Parisian faubourg ol
Belleville — an estabhshment notorious for the potency of the
liquors it dispensed. The idea, of course, was that the drams
consumed at this tavern fairly dealt one a knockdown blow.
However, the landlord of the premises, a shrewd man of
business, who well knew what class of people he had to deal
with, in no wise resented the nickname bestowed upon his
house. On the contrary, he formally adopted it, painted it
above his windows, and in a few years made his fortune.
And in course of time, among the working-classes of Paris,
any low-drinking haunt noted for its fiery spirits became


known as an assommoir. M. Zola, en passant, picked up the
word, and in some degree extended its meaning, so that it has
come to signify in a measure drink itself, which, like the
bludgeon, fells, stuns, and ultimately kills its victims.

It has been mentioned above that L' Assommoir was the
work which made M. Zola famous. Its first appearance in
serial form, in the columns of a Paris newspaper, Le Bien
Public, of which M. Thiers was chief proprietor, provoked
such frantic protests that it had to be withdrawn. And when
it was subsequently issued in book form the outcry became
terrific. It was denounced upon all sides as a most atrocious
libel upon the French working-classes. And yet this was but
few years after the Commune of Paris— a movement largely
due to drink, for half of the Parisian proUtariat had acquired
tippling, slothful habits during the German siege, when work
was at a standstill, food scarce, and wine and brandy so
plentiful that, had it been possible for the Parisians to have
lived upon alcohol alone, they might have kept the investing
armies at bay for nearly another twelvemonth. Moreover,
subsequent to the Commune and prior to the publication of
L' Assommoir, the French National Assembly for the first time
in the annals of France had found it absolutely necessary to
pass a law against the growing vice of drunkenness.

Looking backward, I do not think anybody can nowa-
days deny that L' Assommoir was quite a necessary book.
To plead, to urge, is all very well at times; but in some
matters people cannot be roused unless they are absolutely
shocked. Some years ago on a certain subject an English
journalist urged and pleaded in vain. Then he iindertook to
shock people, and for his pains he was dragged through the
mire and saw his newspaper ignominiously turned out of
almost every London club. But time brought him his
revenge, as it always brings revenge to every man who stands
up for a good cause ; and nowadays among the statutes of
Great Britain there figures a certain amended law which is
for all time forward that journalist's vindication.

And in like way the author of L'Assommoi/r has been


vindicated. No thinking man in France now regards his
book as libellous. The evils denounced in its pages have
become too apparent. Publicists do not weary of expatiating
on them ; numerous societies have been founded to combat
them; philanthropists give time and money to the cause.
With my knowledge of France and French life I do not
hesitate to say that M. Zola's writings, taken en bloCj have
done an infinity of good by laying bare so many social
sores, and thus rousing the national conscience. Critics have
often imputed to him as a crime the fact that he does not
pause to moralise, that he allows his readers to draw their
own inferences from his narratives. But surely each of those
narratives is presented in such fashion that its moral becomes
obvious to the dullest intellect. Moreover, whatever M. Zola
may have had to write respecting vice in its various forms, he
has never sought — as George Sand, for instance, invariably
did — to render it in any wise attractive. One of the best
defences of M. Zola from this point of view was penned some
years ago by Signor Edmondo de Amicis, and may well be
quoted here : — ' Zola is one of the most moral novelists of
France, and it is really astonishing how anyone can doubt
it. He makes us note the stench, not the perfume, of vice ;
his nude figures are those of the anatomical table, which
inspire no immoral thought whatever ; there is not one of his
books, not even the crudest in language, that does not leave
in the soul, pure, firm, and immutable, either repugnance or
scorn for the base passions of which he treats. He is not,
like the younger Alexandre Dumas, linked by unconquerable
sympathy to hideous women, to whom he says " Infamous
creatures ! " aloud and ** Dear ones ! " just above his breath.
Brutally, pitilessly, and without hypocrisy he exposes vice,
and holds it up to ridicule, standing so far away from it
himself that he does not graze it with his garments. Forced
by his hand, it is Vice itself that shouts the injunction :
" Detest me and pass by I " '

When all is considered it will be found — at least such is
my own opinion — that the great quarrel between the critics


and M. Zola has been chiefly caused by his outspokenness.
He has invariably made it his practice to call a spade a spade ;
and in his desire to be absolutely true to life, such as it un-
happily is, he has recoiled from no expression, however
horrible or loathsome it may be, when it has fitted in with
the thoughts or the vernacular of his characters. This is
particularly the case in L'Assommoir, and to it may be traced
much if not all of the denunciation with which this work
has been visited. Farther on the reader will find a trans-
lation of M. Zola's own preface to the book, in which he
rephes to the attacks levelled at him on this particular sub-
ject. He states his case clearly from the philological stand-
point, and even those who do not hold the same views as
himself must, I think, concede that for students of language
his work possesses a keen and abiding interest. At the same
time, whatever philological importance and interest may
attach to the original, must largely disappear in a transla-
tion, particularly when, as in the present case, this translation
has been made not for philological purposes, but chiefly
to diffuse the wholesome lessons against drink, sloth, and
ignorance with which the work abounds. Nevertheless, I
have endeavoured to preserve some of the spirit of the original
by giving the words and thoughts of the various characters
in a more or less slangy form, whilst seeking milder exple-
tives and less coarseness of expression generally than will be
found in the French work. I have also slightly modified
some incidents in my desire that this version may prove ac-
ceptable to the general public. I may add that it is based on
a translation now not generally accessible ; however, I have
made such a vast number of corrections and modifications in
the former text that the translation has become almost entirely
my own. It will be found that here and there I have added
to the narrative some brief notes, chiefly of an explanatory

E. A. V.

Merton, Surrey.


The * Rougon-Macquart ' series will be composed of some
twenty novels. Ever since 1869, the general plan has been
settled, and I follow it with extreme precision. The Assom-
moir has come in its due place and season ; I have written
it as I shall write the other volumes, without deviating for a
second from my straight line. Therein hes my strength. I
have a goal towards which I am advancing.

When the Assommoir appeared in a newspaper, it was
attacked with unexampled brutality, denounced, accused of
every crime. Is it really necessary to explain here in a few
lines my intentions as a writer ? I have sought to picture the
fatal downfall of a family of workpeople, in the pestilential
atmosphere of our faubourgs. After drunkenness and sloth
come the loosening of family ties, filth engendered by pro-
miscuity, progressive forgetfulness of all upright sentiments,
and then, as finish, shame and death. The book is simply a
lesson in morality.

The Assommoir is certainly the most chaste of my works.
Often have I had to point to far more frightful sores. The
form which I have given to the book alone has shocked people.
Anger has been roused by mere words. My crime consists in
having yielded to literary curiosity to gather the language of
the people together and run it through a well-prepared mould.
Ah ! the form, the style of the book, therein Hes its great
crime 1 Yet slang dictionaries exist, men of letters study
slang and enjoy its piquancy, its unexpectedness, and the
force of its imagery. It is a treat for burrowing gram-


marians. Nevertheless, no one has perceived that my wish
was to produce a philological work, which I believe to be of
keen historical and social interest.

I do not seek to defend myself, however. My work will
defend me. It is a work of truth, the first novel about the
masses which does not lie and which has an odour of the
masses. And one must not conclude from what I have
written that the masses are entirely bad; for my own
characters are not bad, they are simply ignorant and spoilt
by the surroundings of hard drudgery and misery amidst
which they live. Only, it is necessary to read my novels, to
understand them, to see them clearly as a whole, before
pronouncing such grotesque, odious, preconceived judgments
as those which circulate about my person and my works. Ah ! if
it were only known how my friends laugh at the amazing legend
which serves to amuse the multitude ! If it were only known
that the blood-drinker, the ferocious novelist, is a quiet citizen,
a man of study and of art, who lives discreetly in his Httle
nook, and whose sole ambition is to leave behind him a work
as broad and as lifelike as he can construct ! But I contradict
no tittle-tattle ; I work ; and I leave to time and public good
faith the task of unearthing me from beneath all the nonsense
and abuse that have been piled upon me.

Paris. :fiMILB ZOLA.


I. DESSBTION • • ^ • ' • • I • • I

n. COURTSHIP ;*^-^sij

Online LibraryÉmile ZolaThe dram-shop = L'assommoir → online text (page 1 of 41)