For several years now, I’ve been involved with Guy de Maupassant. (I have an unfortunate habit of falling for dead men.) It began when I heard “The Parisian Affair” on Selected Shorts. I remember the moment well: I was driving, minding my own business, when suddenly Monsieur Maupassant was there, nibbling my neck and whispering sweet, scandalous secrets into my ear. And the sweet, scandalous secrets were the secrets of my own heart. Mon Dieu! I thought, who is this Maupassant, and how does he know me so well? Dead men are easy to love, and Maupassant and I have been deliciously happy for some time.
And then, last week, I met Monsieur Zola.
It was something about the pince-nez and the darling, pointy little beard. Too, the back cover of L’assammoir promised smut extraordinaire, describing conservative critics’ outrage of at the time of the book’s publication. And because I am too embarrassed to check out Fifty Shades of Grey, I brought Zola home instead (Maupassant and I have an understanding). Of course, by 21st century standards, there was nothing remotely smutty inside. Which was fine with me. The best books are those that transport readers utterly, and L’assammoir was one of those. For three days, I crept with Gervaise, the book’s protagonist, among the shadows of pre-Haussman Paris, while the pearly light for which the city is known drifted overhead and out of reach. My skin puckered as her wet skirts clung to her legs while she scrubbed floors, I could smell the sewers and the rot in her tenement, along with the stale odor of unwashed linen and scorched starch in her laundry shop. After her gluttonous name-day feast, I actually felt nauseous. And, of course, my heart broke to see poor Gervaise ruined so utterly by her circumstances, by time, by her so-called friends, and by herself. In modern parlance, we’d likely call someone like Gervaise “co-dependent,” but of course Zola’s work predates such psychobabble and for this reason his depiction seems more honest, more human somehow.
Today, I brought home the sequel, Nana, which details the life of Gervaise’s daughter. It seems my affair with Zola will be more than a passing fling.