Reading Zola these days (La Bete Humaine, Nana, L’Assommoir, Au Bonheur des Dames). His notions of heredity and class, though unfashionable in our era of ‘choice’, find a sympathetic ear with me. These are almost unbearable narratives to a modern reader. L’Assommoir is like watching your mother being relentlessly beaten and humiliated time after time. It is a series of terrible Stations of the Cross on the road to a disaster that is signposted in every chapter. Now and again, Gervaise (the main character) by sheer force of will manages to stagger to her feet only to be bludgeoned down to the ground again. It makes you realise how much modern narrative has come to skirt away from these dreadful truths.
Exceptional stories blind us to the great swathe of truth which is that even today we do not easily escape our class and our background. The choice of the individual is the contemporary mantra, and of course this flatters our sense of agency. But if I look at myself: I don’t drive a car or take long haul holidays. My carbon footprint is probably quite low. But these aren’t my choices. They are due to my upbringing (my dad didn’t have a car till I was fourteen and we didn’t fly). But some people who have a great interest in save the planet activities will have a bigger carbon footprint than me, despite their save the planet choices. My behaviour is dictated less by my choices and more by the thick psychological and economic identity that my history has worked upon me. So I’m with Zola and Marx I suppose.
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