Saturday, July 20, 2019

"Lives Other Than My Own" by Emmanuel Carrère

"Every day for six months I deliberately spent several hours at the computer writing about what frightens me the most on this earth: the death of a child for her parents and the death of a young woman for her husband and children. Life made me a witness to those two misfortunes, one right after the other, and assigned me— at least that’s how I understood it— to tell that story. Life has spared me such unhappiness and I pray will continue to do so. I’ve sometimes heard it said that happiness is best understood in retrospect. One thinks: I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was happy. That doesn’t work for me. I was miserable for a long time and quite conscious of it." -- Lives Other Than My Own, p. 242.
This is a book about death. As such, it's a very challenging book to read. The author Emmanuel Carrère is well-known in France as a writer of somewhat unusual nonfiction, but I hadn't heard of him before. I will try to describe the book, but it's definitely so different from anything I've ever read that I doubt that I'll do it justice.

In Lives Other Than My Own, Carrère describes the two deaths and how they affect the loved ones surrounding the dead person. He is deeply involved with his informants, and also describes his own reactions and relationships with those he writes about. Further, in the case of those who are still alive, he has them review his writing to be sure they will not be offended or feel he has invaded their privacy.

The early chapters of the book are very memorable: Carrère and his family are at a beach resort where the 2004 tsunami wipes out huge numbers of lives. Though a series of inadvertently lucky decisions saved his family, in the aftermath of the destruction he gets to know a couple whose 4-year-old daughter named Juliette has died. He tries to stay with them and help them hold up during the ordeal of finding her body and figuring out what to do. A very dramatic story of great pathos.

In a number of ways this book differs from other nonfiction: above all, it's not anything like journalism or history: it's entirely a personal account but it's mainly about "lives other than my own." In the second example, the death from cancer of Carrère's wife's sister, also named Juliette, he gets to know his subjects by hearing them out about the deaths. He writes of the way one of his subjects talked to him:
"It’s rather unusual to find yourself talking about not only your past but who you are, what makes you you and no one else, to someone you barely know. It happens in the early stages of an affair or in psychoanalysis, and it happened here with disconcerting ease." (p. 86). 
This is a book about France. In particular, both the dead woman and one of Carrère's main informants (Juliette's closest colleague) were both judges in Vienne, a small town in France. He describes the environment:
"Vienne, the subprefecture of the département of Isère, is a city of thirty thousand inhabitants, with Gallo-Roman ruins, a quaint historic district, a promenade lined with cafés, and an annual jazz festival in July." (p. 123). 
To portray Juliette's commitment and passion for being a fair judge, Carrère writes a great deal about French law and judicial practices, and their innovations in making the law more fair for victims of predatory lending practices -- mundane, but central to understanding them. Juliette's relationship with the surviving judge, who had also been a cancer sufferer in his past, is important, and above all, Carrère establishes a deep relationship to the survivor and provides a detailed biography of his suffering.

This is a wrenchingly sad book about parents losing a child and children losing a mother. As their mother is struggling for breath in the hospital, according to her wishes, the school-age daughters nevertheless participate in a school pageant where she had hoped to be. (Even more wrenching: the youngest is only 15 months old.) The author observes:
"I have been and still am a scriptwriter; constructing dramatic situations is one of the things I do, and a cardinal rule of the profession is not to be afraid of audacious excess and melodrama. Still, I don’t think I would ever have dared, in making up a story, to stage as shameless a tearjerker as a scene of two little girls dancing and singing at their school festival as their mother lies dying in the hospital." (p. 63). 
Ultimately, I liked the book. However, a mystery to me is where I heard of it. I don't remember why I bought this book or who recommended it. It's not new: published in English in 2011. A few days ago, I noticed it on my Kindle. Wondering about it, I found that I purchased it on June 26 in the early afternoon. I didn't buy any other books that day, I just went to meet a friend for coffee. So I went on and read it. Maybe it was on one of the lists by a fellow blogger who is participating in the ongoing blog event "Paris in July." I'm sharing this post with all those bloggers at the host site, "Thyme for Tea," owned by Tamara (link).

Text (other than quotes) in this post is copyright © 2019 by Mae at maefood dot If you are reading this at another blog, it's been stolen.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Panera Murals

While walking through the Art Fair, I noticed this mural on the side of the
Panera building near the University of Michigan campus.

The entire wall of this Panera restaurant is covered with these very interesting murals. Very interesting!
I'm sharing with Monday Murals at Sami's Colorful World. (link)

Four Stories UP

Evidently someone also climbed up to the roof of the building and created this graffiti!

All photos copyright 2019 by Mae & Len Sander. This blog post was created by
Mae for maefood dot blogspot dot com. If you read it elsewhere, it's been stolen.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

An Annual Event

Time for the Ann Arbor Art Fair! Ceramics, creations from found objects, photography, souvenir tee shirts, artistic clothing
and fabrics, food truck snacks, free samples of drinks, musical performances and more. We saw only a small part of the fair.

We saw a few amusing artists' booths, such as this one with a kind of steam-punk art.
In general, the art this year was very disappointing, in our opinion, and little that was new was appealing to us.
We bought one framed photograph from a photo artist whose work we have purchased in the past.
As today was the first day of the fair, crowds were still pretty thin.
Saturday and Sunday will likely be much more congested. 

The beautiful fountain by Carl Milles is actually turned on this year, with tables around it for patrons
of the nearby food trucks. This part of the art fair is on the University of Michigan campus.

All photos copyright 2019 by Mae & Len Sander. This blog post was created by
Mae for maefood dot blogspot dot com. If you read it elsewhere, it's been stolen.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Emile Zola: "Apostle of the Gutter"

"Apostle of the Gutter," a nickname for Emile Zola, reflects the low esteem that he received in England during his lifetime, despite (or perhaps because) he was the best-selling author of his era. The novel Nana, published in 1880, was surely one inspiration for this insult -- of which I've so far been unable to find the origin though it appeared at least as early as 1899 (link). Zola's detailed descriptions of the lives of poor, disaffected, and conventionally immoral characters are not necessarily as shocking today as they were when first published. However, when I read them, I still find an occasional shock in the depths of how degraded his subjects were, and how miserable were the material conditions of their homes, of the streets where they lived, and of their workplaces.

"Nana" by Édouard Manet, 1868. This painting dates from
before Zola's novel; the name "Nana" was often associated
with courtesans and prostitutes. However, it's easy to see the
connection to Zola's Nana.
Nana, which I read this week, relates the story of a young woman in Paris in the late 1800s with detailed descriptions of her professions: also still a bit shocking. Nana, whom readers had first met as a child in the novel L'Assomoir, has become a high-class courtesan who tempts rich men into indiscretion. She also works as a prostitute who simply sells her body. Famous as an actress, she plays stage roles with success derived from nudity and shamelessness as well as her uninhibited good looks. Further, Zola offers love scenes of Nana in bed with another woman, also a prostitute. The ending of the book which I won't spoil is perhaps even more shocking today than originally, because of the clinical detail of her final illness.

Throughout Nana, Zola expresses his extraordinary perception of the world of five senses, including smell. Consider for example this description of a count entering the workplace of "courtesans" and noticing the not-so-nice side of their life:
"Accordingly on the first-floor landing he leaned up against a wall— for he was sure of not being observed— and pressed his handkerchief to his mouth and gazed at the warped steps, the iron balustrade bright with the friction of many hands, the scraped paint on the walls— all the squalor, in fact, which that house of tolerance so crudely displayed at the pale afternoon hour when courtesans are asleep. When he reached the second floor he had to step over a big yellow cat which was lying curled up on a step. With half-closed eyes this cat was keeping solitary watch over the house, where the close and now frozen odors which the women nightly left behind them had rendered him somnolent. (Kindle Locations 4270-4275).
Or on another of his walks in one of the famous Paris "passages" -- the small arcades with numerous shops that Zola often mentioned:
"He knew all the shops, and in the gas-laden air he recognized their different scents, such, for instance, as the strong savor of Russia leather, the perfume of vanilla emanating from a chocolate dealer's basement, the savor of musk blown in whiffs from the open doors of the perfumers." (Kindle Locations 2983-2985).  
According to one scholar of smell:
"The French 'apostle of the gutter,' Émile Zola (1840– 1902), considerably elevated the 'impoverished language of odors' by including descriptions of the fine nuances of smells in his novels, but his writings also reinforced the stench associated with the modern slum." -- Jonathan Reinarz, Past Scents: Historical Perspectives on Smell, p. 98. 
Portrait of Emile Zola by Édouard Manet, 1868. (Wikipedia)
The characters in Nana seem to approach everything they do -- especially eating -- sensuously and with little self-consciousness. Nana loves all material goods from sapphire necklaces to tasteless household decorations and opulent, extravagant textiles such as clothing, window draperies, and wall hangings, and there are many descriptions of her excitement at receiving gifts, from a small bauble to an entire furnished country home.

Enthusiasm for food is characteristic of Nana and most of the novel's other individuals:
"In the meantime Nana, who averred that she was as hungry as a wolf, threw herself on the radishes and gobbled them up without bread. Mme Lerat had become ceremonious; she refused the radishes as provocative of phlegm. By and by when Zoe had brought in the cutlets Nana just chipped the meat and contented herself with sucking the bones." (Kindle Locations 628-631).  
"M. Venot, whose teeth must have been ruined by sweet things, was eating little dry cakes, one after the other, with a small nibbling sound suggestive of a mouse, while the chief clerk, his nose in a teacup, seemed never to be going to finish its contents." (Kindle Locations 1184-1185).  
"Both ladies took lumps of sugar dipped in cognac and sucked them." (Kindle Location 649). 
And this description of Nana's continuing self-indulgence and (I would say) corruption:
"This was the epoch in her existence when Nana flared upon Paris with redoubled splendor. She loomed larger than heretofore on the horizon of vice and swayed the town with her impudently flaunted splendor and that contempt of money which made her openly squander fortunes. Her house had become a sort of glowing smithy, where her continual desires were the flames and the slightest breath from her lips changed gold into fine ashes, which the wind hourly swept away." (Kindle Locations 6033-6036).  
My enjoyment of the book included some surprises. For example, I learned a number of things about the way that theater performances were supported in the days before electric lights and electrical gadgets:
"Only the front of the stage was lit up. A flaring gas burner on a support, which was fed by a pipe from the footlights, burned in front of a reflector and cast its full brightness over the immediate foreground. It looked like a big yellow eye glaring through the surrounding semi-obscurity, where it flamed in a doubtful, melancholy way." (Kindle Locations 4101-4103). 
In more detail, here's a passage observing stagecraft as Zola saw it. I was especially interested in the literal use of the word limelight, which originally referred to a particular stage-lighting arrangement using incandescent quicklime (calcium oxide) to illuminate the stage:
"The prince did not hurry in the least. On the contrary, he was greatly interested and kept pausing in order to look at the sceneshifters' maneuvers. A batten had just been lowered, and the group of gaslights high up among its iron crossbars illuminated the stage with a wide beam of light. Muffat, who had never yet been behind scenes at a theater, was even more astonished than the rest. An uneasy feeling of mingled fear and vague repugnance took possession of him. He looked up into the heights above him, where more battens, the gas jets on which were burning low, gleamed like galaxies of little bluish stars amid a chaos of iron rods, connecting lines of all sizes, hanging stages and canvases spread out in space, like huge cloths hung out to dry.  
"'Lower away!' shouted the foreman unexpectedly.  
"And the prince himself had to warn the count, for a canvas was descending. They were setting the scenery for the third act, which was the grotto on Mount Etna. Men were busy planting masts in the sockets, while others went and took frames which were leaning against the walls of the stage and proceeded to lash them with strong cords to the poles already in position. At the back of the stage, with a view to producing the bright rays thrown by Vulcan's glowing forge, a stand had been fixed by a limelight man, who was now lighting various burners under red glasses. The scene was one of confusion, verging to all appearances on absolute chaos, but every little move had been prearranged." (Kindle Locations 1984-1994). 
To finish with a quote from a critic:
"Against the background of social satire and documentary realism Nana stands out as a fantastic creation, less a 'real' woman based on actual and identifiable models than the Woman, the Temptress and Seducer, who lures men irresistibly to their ruin." (source)


  • References from Nana in this post are from a downloaded edition from Project Gutenberg (link). 
  • I'm sending this post as a contribution to the ongoing blog event "Paris in July," hosted at the blog Thyme for Tea (link). 
  • All text is copyright by Mae at maefood dot Painting reproductions are from Wikipedia. If you are reading this at another blog, it's been stolen.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Bastille Day Pot Luck

For Bastille Day the Ann Arbor Culinary Historians had a summer potluck meal. The theme was food from the French provinces. The approximately 36 attendees lived up to the challenge, bringing foods from a large number of provinces as well as from the Paris region. Each person or couple introduced the food they had prepared, and later there was a quiz about the place of origin of a long list of regional French dishes.
Len baked a Pissaladiére -- a Provençal onion tart named for a type of anchovy
preparation (pissalade) that was once popular in Nice. Black olives, anchovies,
and a great quantity of caramelized onions top a yeast-dough crust.
Simone Beck's Salade du Broc was my contribution. It contains tomato, arugula,
artichoke hearts, bell pepper, olives. and a hard-boiled egg garnish.
Simone Beck, a collaborator with Julia Child, also published two of her
own cookbooks which have very interesting recipes.
Jan Longone, one of the founding members of the Culinary Historians, brought a Salade Niçoise. In this photo,
she is adding the dressing. She and her husband Dan also supplied the table decoration: a statue of Bibendum,
the figurehead of the Michelin guides.

I was very interested in the cookbooks cited as sources for these many and varied foods. The Time-Life cookbook of provincial French foods, books by Patricia Wells, online cookbooks, Julia Child and More Company, and a number of others provided the recipes. A few more of the many dishes:

Chicken Normandy with calvados and cream. Delicious!
A superb vegetable gratin made by our friend Howard.
Provençal Roast Tomatoes and a corner of another,
different Salade Niçoise.
A liver mousse in the shape of a frog.
Champigonons à la Grecque.
Green bean salad, gougères (cheese puffs), and hand-made bread.
The desserts were really scrumptious! Here: mini-pavlovas (which under that name, actually originated in New Zealand,
but that's not important now) with a fruit topping. The recipe was in a book titled Potagers.

An apple tarte. This was gone before I arrived at the dessert table.
Coeur à la creme. There are two here: one from a French recipe, and the
other from a Betty Crocker recipe. I only tried the French one.
A fruit plate. Welcome with all the heavy food.
At the table -- including my inadvertent selfie.
I'm sending this post as a contribution to the ongoing blog event "Paris in July," hosted at the blog Thyme for Tea (link). All content and all photos are copyright by Mae at maefood dot If you are reading this at another blog, it's been stolen.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

"The Gourmands' Way" by Justin Spring

The title of this book could be "Spring Cleaning." The author, Justin Spring, takes a fresh, and not always flattering look at six famous American writers that he says contributed to the idealized image of French food and wine in much of American intellectual and gourmet life. Spring concentrates on the post-war years, approximately 1945-1975, with bits of background and followup -- a wonderful era in France, and an interesting time for the development of American taste in food, especially French food.

Although I was already very familiar with the lives and works of four of Spring's subjects, and moderately aware of the other two, I learned something -- usually a lot of things -- about all of them from Spring's book. His research into their lives, their publications, and the history of their time in France is incredible. I very much liked his narrative style: he doesn't separate the discussion of the six, but treats their experiences as a continuing history and describes their relationships to one another and common approaches to food and to French life. In the course of the book, Spring also provides lots of information about a vast number of other books and personalities, both French and American, which I equally enjoyed.

Ruth Reichl, in her New York Times review titled "Iconic Food Writers Toppled Off Their Pedestals" took this view of the book --
"Spring sets out to prove that the six writers he chronicles — Julia Child, M. F. K. Fisher, Alexis Lichine, A. J. Liebling, Richard Olney and Alice B. Toklas — were responsible for making 'the age-old French dialogue surrounding food, wine and the table' part of the American dialogue. I’m not convinced he’s done that, but he has achieved something much more interesting: offered us an entirely new perspective on a group of people we thought we knew."
Instead of writing a review here, I'm going to show a photo of my own books by five of these authors and tell you one or two new things I learned about each one. I do not own any works by Alexis Lichine, and virtually everything about him was new to me.

From My Bookshelves

Richard Olney (1927-1999)
Although I have his cookbook, Simple French Food, I was very little acquainted with author Richard Olney, and Spring's detailed and highly admiring portrait was enjoyable to read. I was particularly interested to learn about Olney's relationship with a number of other American ex-pats in Paris and France in the fifties and sixties, especially his friendship with James Baldwin. I also was unaware that Olney had written in French for the magazine Cuisine et Vins de France, a publication that I used to read (though after his tenure there).

Julia Child (1912-2004)
While I knew much of the life story of Julia and Paul Child, I was very interested in Spring's detailed treatment of their restaurant-going in Paris:
"Apart from Michaud, which became their local favorite, the Childs began following the Parisian custom of visiting particular restaurants for particular dishes. Having been stunned shortly after disembarking the transatlantic liner by the sole meunière at the restaurant La Couronne in Rouen...she was delighted to discover that La Couronne had a sister restaurant in Paris, La Truite... serving the same seafood just as beautifully. ...
"The Childs also liked the poulet gratiné at Au Gourmet; the tripe at Pharamond; the snails at L'Escargot d'Or; and the onion soup -- de rigueur after a late night visit to Les Halles -- at Au Pied de Cochon. For choucroute they went, of course, to Brasserie Lipp ... On special occasions, they went to Prunier, so famous for its fish, or to Lapérouse, the ancient and celebrated restaurant on the quai des Grands Augustins. Still, it was the intimate Le Grand Véfour, with its unbelievably elegant neoclassical interiors fronting the gardens of the Palais-Royal, that quickly became their favorite...." (p. 92-93)
Spring explains that Julia Child had a substantial inheritance that enabled them to dine out and generally live well beyond the means that Paul's salary as an American government employee would have covered.

Just a note about money: Spring is fascinated by it! For example, virtually every bottle of wine mentioned in the text is footnoted with its price at the time of its purchase, along with the price one would have to pay at the time he wrote the book in around 2016.

A,J. Liebling (1904-1963)
Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris was one of the first food books that I read, a long time ago, and I knew little else about Liebling except that he wrote about boxing for the New Yorker. Spring's Chapter One opens thus "When the Allied forces entered Paris on August 25, 1944, war correspondent A.J. Liebling (or 'Joe') was right there with them." (p. 7). Spring's account of the liberation of Paris from Liebling's point of view was a great beginning.

M.F.K. Fisher (1908-1992)
Rather than the more popular books by M.F.K. Fisher, Spring concentrates on her disastrous endeavor to write the first of the Time-Life food books, which was supposed to be about Provincial French cuisine. Spring is incredibly dismissive of Fisher, whom he calls a liar on more than one occasion, and whose writing he clearly despises. He gleefully quotes a set of highly negative and pretty snarky footnotes by a French author (and food snob; excuse me, food expert) that were somehow added into the French edition of the Time-Life book. The notes constantly contradict Fisher's text; usually they were right, but it's somehow underhanded to have this be Spring's main discussion of her work.

Alice B. Toklas (1877-1967)
"I Love You Alice B. Toklas" was a pretty forgettable film with Peter Sellers, except that in 1968 the hashish brownies that Sellers' character eats were beyond transgressive. And the recipe came from The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook, probably from a paperback that looked like mine, which dates to 1960. I was pretty familiar with the way Toklas's book impressed the American public (especially the hippies), but I didn't realize that she copied all of the famous words about the brownies from the letter and recipe contributed by her friend, beginning with the famous line "This is the food of paradise." (p. 273). According to Spring, Alice steadfastly claimed that she did not know that the exotic herb in the ingredient list was the famous intoxicant, and seriously illegal.


In Spring's Afterword, he underscores his principal claim about his subjects: "While none of these six writers invented French cooking, and while none could be called a definitive authority on the subject, each did his or her readers an extraordinary service by introducing them to the genius of French gastronomy." (p. 381)

The Gourmand's Way is a deep and rich history, very much worth reading. It will be the selection for the next meeting of my culinary reading group. It's also very appropriate for the ongoing blog event "Paris in July" hosted by Tamara. I especially want to encourage my fellow bloggers who love France and love Paris to read Spring or to read any of the other authors he discusses -- I hope to go back to some of these authors and read more of their work/try more of their recipes! After all these years, you know, hashish fudge is finally legal in many states.

All content in this post is written and copyright 2019 by Mae E. Sander for maefood dot blogspot dot com. If you are reading this at another blog, it's been stolen.

Tuesday, July 09, 2019

Working People, Paris, 1800s

"A Woman Ironing" by Edgar Degas, 1873.
(Metropolitan Museum)
Reading Zola's novel L'Assommoir reminded me of many Impressionist paintings of Paris workers that I've seen in a number of museums. Zola (1840-1902) was familiar with these paintings and in sympathy with the motive for painting them. Degas, for example, was quite fascinated by women ironing in a laundry shop: the exact situation of the main character of L'Assommoir. Several of the Impressionists painted pictures of working people drinking in cafés -- another subject of L'Assommoir. Because of the many connections between Zola and the Impressionists, their paintings are often used in the covers of modern editions of his books.

Degas, "The Laundress," 1873.
(Norton Simon Museum)
“Yesterday I spent the whole day in the studio of a strange painter called Degas,” wrote the critic Edmond de Goncourt in February 1874. “[H]e has fallen in love with modern life, and out of all the subjects in modern life he has chosen washerwomen and ballet dancers. When you come to think of it, it’s not a bad choice. It’s a world of pink and white, of female flesh in lawn and gauze… He showed me… washerwomen and still more washerwomen… speaking their language and explaining the technicalities of the different movements in pressing and ironing.” -- Quote from the Norton Simon Museum website.
"Women Ironing" by Edgar Degas, 1873.
(Norton Simon Museum, Wikipedia)
"Man Smoking a Pipe" by Paul Cezanne, 1902. (Wikipedia)
Cezanne and Zola were boyhood friends though they had a famous falling-out over the novel
The Masterpiece, in which an unfavorably depicted artist was thought to be based on Cezanne. 
"In a Café" by Edgar Degas, 1875-1876.
(Musée d'Orsay, Wikipedia)
"The Floor Planers" by Gustave Caillebotte, 1875.
(Musée d'Orsay, Wikipedia)

More posts for Paris in July are at Tamara's blog Thyme for Tea.

Monday, July 08, 2019

"L'Assommoir" by Emile Zola

How do we imagine Paris in the rain? Here's Zola's version:
"The street had been transformed into a morass of sticky mud by the storm. It had started to pour again and they had opened the assorted umbrellas. The women picked their way carefully through the mud, holding their skirts high as the men held the sorry-looking umbrellas over their heads." (Kindle Locations 1042-1044). 
The Paris of the desperately poor and fatally weak individuals portrayed in Emile Zola's famous novel L'Assommoir is not the romantic city that appears in modern fantasies. Zola's realism about the  life of a laundry woman in lower-class Paris in the middle of the 19th century is a fascinating contrast to the Paris of modern novels, films, musicals, and food writers. Here's a description of the streets in the morning:
"The working girls now filled the boulevard: metal polishers, milliners, flower sellers, shivering in their thin clothing. In small groups they chattered gaily, laughing and glancing here and there. Occasionally there would be one girl by herself, thin, pale, serious-faced, picking her way along the city wall among the puddles and the filth. After the working girls, the office clerks came past, breathing upon their chilled fingers and munching penny rolls." (Kindle Locations 89-93). 
Or a description of an apartment building:
"Inside, the building was six stories high, with four identical plain walls enclosing the broad central court. ... Here the sink drains added their stains. The glass window panes resembled murky water. Mattresses of checkered blue ticking were hanging out of several windows to air. Clothes lines stretched from other windows with family washing hanging to dry. On a third floor line was a baby's diaper, still implanted with filth. This crowded tenement was bursting at the seams, spilling out poverty and misery through every crevice." (Kindle Locations 613-616).  
L'Assommoir, the title of the book, was the name of a neighborhood bar where the novel's characters often drink after work or instead of working.  In French, l'assommoir literally means knock-out, that is a place to drink until dead drunk. It's very much a novel of alcoholics and how they got that way.

The main character, Gervaise, arrives in Paris from the provinces with her lover Lantier and their two sons. He soon abandons her and she marries another man, Coupeau. Along with other characters in the novel, they have hopes and dreams of earning an honest living, raising decent children, and pursuing their modest trades: laundry-worker, hatter, metalworker, maker of gold chains, or the like.

Gervaise, in particular, had a dream, expressed near the beginning of the novel. She returns several times to this dream in rare moments of self-awareness throughout the novel.
"Mon Dieu! I'm not ambitious; I don't ask for much. My desire is to work in peace, always to have bread to eat and a decent place to sleep in, you know; with a bed, a table, and two chairs, nothing more. If I can, I'd like to raise my children to be good citizens. Also, I'd like not to be beaten up, if I ever again live with a man. It's not my idea of amusement." She pondered, thinking if there was anything else she wanted, but there wasn't anything of importance. Then, after a moment she went on, "Yes, when one reaches the end, one might wish to die in one's bed. For myself, having trudged through life, I should like to die in my bed, in my own home." (Kindle Locations 560-565). 
Slowly Gervaise and Coupeau engage in more and more feuds with others; they quarrel over money, they lose focus, lose hope, and sink into desperation, alcohol-induced madness, starvation, brutality, and worse. By the end, "She no longer worked, she no longer ate, she slept on filth, her husband frequented all sorts of wineshops, and her husband drubbed her at all hours of the day; all that was left for her to do was to die on the pavement." By the time she dies, she doesn't even have a bed, but sleeps on a pile of rags. (Kindle Locations 5868-5870).

Although the characters lead brutal and unfulfilled lives, and succeed only in destroying themselves, L'Assommoir is fascinating. I found the characters to be essentially sympathetic despite their terrible weaknesses.

To get back to the fascinating portrayal of the Paris of Gervaise's experience -- early in the novel, the shops and streets are at least a bit attractive: 
"Next door to the bakery was a grocer who sold fried potatoes and mussels cooked with parsley. A procession of girls went in to get hot potatoes wrapped in paper and cups of steaming mussels. Other pretty girls bought bunches of radishes. By leaning a bit, Gervaise could see into the sausage shop from which children issued, holding a fried chop, a sausage or a piece of hot blood pudding wrapped in greasy paper. The street was always slick with black mud, even in clear weather. A few laborers had already finished their lunch and were strolling aimlessly about, their open hands slapping their thighs, heavy from eating, slow and peaceful amid the hurrying crowd. A group formed in front of the door of l'Assommoir." (Kindle Locations 500-505). 
A key chapter depicts Gervaise's birthday party, held at a time when she was making a decent living doing laundry -- she even had employees. (Another amazing talent of Zola's was describing manual labor, such as exactly how Gervaise and her workers heated the water, scrubbed the filthy articles of clothing and linen, used bluing or bleach, dried them, starched them, ironed them, and delivered baskets of folded laundry to their customers). Ominously, her husband, after a bad fall, had never returned to steady work as a metal worker who installed roofs and gutters, but who took money from her and spent his days drinking. 

Nevertheless, Gervaise must have a birthday party with an over-the-top feast, which Zola spends an entire chapter describing. We learn details of the discussions of what food is to be served, the purchasing of provisions, the preparations, the presentation, the way that everyone sits down (but Coupeau is late), and then everyone overeats to nearly being sick and drinks to excess. One passage to illustrate this amazing meal:
"On the Saturday, whilst the workwomen hurried with their work, there was a long discussion in the shop with the view of finally deciding upon what the feast should consist of. For three weeks past one thing alone had been chosen— a fat roast goose. There was a gluttonous look on every face whenever it was mentioned. The goose was even already bought. Mother Coupeau went and fetched it to let Clemence and Madame Putois feel its weight. And they uttered all kinds of exclamations; it looked such an enormous bird, with its rough skin all swelled out with yellow fat. 
"'Before that there will be the pot-au-feu,' said Gervaise, 'the soup and just a small piece of boiled beef, it's always good. Then we must have something in the way of a stew.' 
"Tall Clemence suggested rabbit, but they were always having that, everyone was sick of it. Gervaise wanted something more distinguished. Madame Putois having spoken of stewed veal, they looked at one another with broad smiles. It was a real idea, nothing would make a better impression than a veal stew. 
"'And after that,' resumed Gervaise, 'we must have some other dish with a sauce.' 
"Mother Coupeau proposed fish. But the others made a grimace, as they banged down their irons. None of them liked fish; it was not a bit satisfying; and besides that it was full of bones. Squint-eyed Augustine, having dared to observe that she liked skate, Clemence shut her mouth for her with a good sound clout. At length the mistress thought of stewed pig's back and potatoes, which restored the smiles to every countenance." (Kindle Locations 2795-2806). 
After the party, the characters lives deteriorate steadily. Zola describes each step of their years of increasing oblivion, as they forget their trades, lose their self-respect, pawn or sell all their possessions, and decline in every way. The title, referring to being knocked-out as well as to the bar where they drink, can apply to their entire lives. Finally, they are utterly degraded:
"Ah! the death of the poor, the empty entrails, howling hunger, the animal appetite that leads one with chattering teeth to fill one's stomach with beastly refuse in this great Paris, so bright and golden! And to think that Gervaise used to fill her belly with fat goose! Now the thought of it brought tears to her eyes. One day, when Coupeau bagged two bread tickets from her to go and sell them and get some liquor, she nearly killed him with the blow of a shovel, so hungered and so enraged was she by this theft of a bit of bread." (Kindle Locations 5482-5485). 
L'Assommoir was highly popular when first published in 1877, and has become a classic, read and discussed ever since, as are many of Zola's novels. I'm posting this review as a contribution to the ongoing blog event "Paris in July," hosted at the blog Thyme for Tea (link). All content is copyright by Mae at maefood dot If you are reading this at another blog, it's been stolen.

Sunday, July 07, 2019

Mona Lisa Pictures from long-ago trips to Paris

At the Louvre before selfies: people would just take a photo of Mona Lisa.
Mona Lisa street art from many years ago.
I have no idea if this is still in place, and I doubt it.
A tiny Mona Lisa Souvenir in a shop window.
Mona Lisa beaded curtain in another shop window.
Mona Lisa opera recording in the window of a music shop.
All these pictures were first published in a blog post that I wrote in April, 2008. I took the photos on a variety of trips to Paris when I would take long walks looking at the streets and the shop windows, and checking for any interesting Mona Lisa images. I decided to repost it today for two blog celebrations:

All photos are copyright by Mae E. Sander, 2008, posted originally at maetravels dot blogspot dot com, and now reposted here at maefood dot blogspot dot com. If you are reading this post somewhere else, it's been stolen.

Thursday, July 04, 2019