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August 20, 2012


Le Quartier de la Goutte d’Or

by soundlandscapes

ABOUT A MONTH AGO my friend Susanna (La Cosa Preziosa) told me that she had just finished reading the novel L’Assommoir by Emile Zola. She said that she’d really enjoyed the book and would love to hear a sonic exploration of its locations as they are today. That sounded like a fascinating challenge to me.

L’Assommoir (1877) is considered to be one of Zola’s masterpieces – a harsh and uncompromising study of alcoholism and poverty in the working-class districts of Paris. The novel is set in the area surrounding the Rue de la Goutte d’Or, bordered by the Boulevard Barbès and the Boulevard de la Chapelle, an area close to the Métro station Barbès-Rochechouart in the 18th arrondissement. Today, the area still has its working-class roots although the population now comprises to a large extent immigrants from North Africa and elsewhere.

Boulevard Barbès

The Boulevard Barbès was created in 1867 as a travaux haussmanniens, part of Baron Haussmann’s transformation of Paris under the Second Empire. The Boulevard Barbés is the main artery through le quartier de la Goutte d’Or, the Goutte d’Or district.

Sounds of Boulevard Barbés :

Boulevard Barbés

The Boulevard de la Chapelle marks the border between the 10th arrondissement and the 18th arrondissement of Paris. It corresponds in part to the Mur des Fermiers Généraux, the Farmers-General wall, which, until 1860, marked the border between the communes of Paris and La Chapelle.

Boulevard de la Chapelle

The area around the Métro Barbès-Rochechouart and the Boulevard de la Chapelle is extremely lively and resembles a huge street bazaar with a jumble of stalls and vendors selling mainly cheap clothing. On a Saturday morning a colourful food market appears under the elevated Métro line.

Boulevard de la Chapelle

In the novel, it is here in the Boulevard de la Chapelle, in the Hôtel Boncoeur, that we first encounter Gervaise Macquart as her tragic story unfolds.

Sounds of Boulevard de la Chapelle:

Boulevard de la Chapelle

And so to the Rue de la Goutte d’Or, the working-class hub around which the life of Zola’s characters rotate.

Rue de la Goutte d’Or

Since the early years of the 20th century, the Rue de la Goutte d’Or and its environs has been home to an immigrant population. The North Africans came first but the big wave of immigrants arrived in the 1950s, often to work in the automobile industry. Today, as well as the North Africans, other communities have become established including people from the West Indies and from Bulgaria.

Sounds of the Rue de la Goutte d’Or:

Rue de la Goutte d’Or

The novel l’Assomoir is essentially the story of Gervaise Macquart running away to Paris with her shiftless lover Lantier to work as a washerwoman in a hot, busy laundry in one of the seedier areas of the city. Well that seedy area was around here in the rue Neuve-de-la Goutte d’Or with its red brick washhouse reeking of steam.  The Rue Neuve-de-la Goutte d’Or is now called the Rue des Islettes .

Rue des Islettes

Rue de la Goutte d’Or

Rue de la Goutte d’Or

Villa Poisonniére

In the middle of this North African enclave, behind an iron gate, is the Villa Poissonnière, an incongruous alleyway, which almost seems to have been placed here by mistake. This is believed to have been the property of a wine grower when this was open countryside, ideally situated on a sunny slope rolling gently to the south. In the Middle Ages the wine of the Goutte d’Or had quite a reputation. In fact, the name of the street itself comes from the particular golden colour of the white wine produced here.  It was customary at the time for the City of Paris to give the king wine from the Goutte d’Or on his birthday.

Rue de la Goutte d’Or

L’Assomoir is one of the most powerful novels in French literature due in part to the huge amount of research Zola carried out both into the language of the street but also into the actual conditions in working-class 19th-century Paris.

And as for Gervaise …

“She sank lower day by day. As soon as she got a little money from any source whatever she drank it away at once. Her landlord decided to turn her out of the room she occupied, and as Father Bru was discovered dead one day in his den under the stairs, M. Marescot allowed her to take possession of his quarters. It was there, therefore, on the old straw bed, that she lay waiting for death to come. Apparently even Mother Earth would have none of her. She tried several times to throw herself out of the window, but death took her by bits, as it were. In fact, no one knew exactly when she died or exactly what she died of. They spoke of cold and hunger.

But the truth was she died of utter weariness of life …”

Rue de la Goutte d’Or

 L’Assomoir is a novel written 135 years ago in which Emile Zola uses words to paint a vivid picture of 19th century working-class life in Paris at its darkest. Although we have contemporary visual images to support and add to Zola’s picture we have no contemporary sounds to give us a sonic perspective. We may think we know what the 19th century sounds of the quartier de la Goutte d’Or were but the fact is, we simply do not have any record of them. It is a sad truth, but most of our sonic heritage has passed by unrecorded.

The good news is that if anyone researching the location of L’Assomoir 135 years from now happens to come across this blog in some dusty electronic archive then they will at least have a contemporary account of the sounds of the quartier de la Goutte d’Or on one day in August 2012.

In the meantime I hope you enjoy them.

13 Comments Post a comment
  1. Aug 20 2012

    Good morning.
    Zola would not recognize la Goutte d’Or if he had to write l’Assommoir today.
    Tell your friend now to read Le Ventre de Paris (by Zola too) et then, you make a post about the former “Halles de Paris” which history is much more interesting than la Goutte d’Or.
    Have a nice week.

  2. A really interesting and inspiring post to start the week. Thanks Des.

  3. Susanna
    Aug 20 2012

    this was wonderful, Des. Thank you so much. Hi Valérie, I have read Le Ventre de Paris a few years ago, and Nana, both brilliant, but to me L’Assommoir’s subtle, relentless descent into despair is uniquely compelling as a study of human character- not to mention still terrifyingly relevant to the France of today. As you say Zola would probably not recognise the architecture of the Goutte d’Or of today, but I am pretty sure he would still have plenty to write about.

    • Aug 20 2012

      Hi Susanna.
      L’Assommoir is one of my favourite books of “Les Rougon Macquart”. Zola was certainly the best witness of the 19th century. For the moment, I am reading “Le Rêve”.
      La Goutte d’Or is very different from what it was in the middle of the 19th c. The architecture of course but also the population and the habits. It is also one of the most dangerous area in Paris. But it remains poor unfortunately and its inhabitants have a sad life even if they keep their traditions.
      Le Ventre de Paris is useful for our knowledgment because it doesn’t exist anymore.

  4. Aug 20 2012

    Thanks for your comments everyone … and special thanks of course to Susanna for setting the challenge. I really enjoyed collecting the sounds and the pictures and discovering the quartier de la Goutte d’Or.

    Valérie’s point about Le Ventre de Paris and Les Halles is a really important one. Today, the site where this market (Zola’s “Stomach of Paris”) once stood is now a vast building site with no traces of the original Les Halles to be found. Recently, there was a superb exhibition in the Hôtel de Ville of Robert Doisneau’s photographs of the market at Les Halles and that, together with Zola’s novel, creates a vivid visual description of the place and its characters. It’s a shame that we don’t have such a wealth of contemporary sounds to add to the picture.

    I spend a lot of my time walking the streets of Paris collecting today’s sounds of the city so that at least future generations will have the sounds of our time to study and to enjoy. My adventure to the quartier de la Goutte d’Or was part of that process.

    • Aug 20 2012

      Great and in a hurry to read you.
      Nice evening.

  5. Aug 21 2012

    What a great idea. Are you going to continue with other writers/references? Maybe ex-pat writers such as Stein and Wild. So many to choose from.
    “Dying from a weariness of life”, ah, could only be a French writer! I’m looking forward to more.

    • Aug 21 2012

      Thanks Jay. I can’t claim credit for the idea, that came from Susanna but you’re right, it is a good one. Zola is obviously a rich seam since his novels give a stunning account of 19th century Paris but I’m sure there is lots of literature connected with Paris that can be explored in this way. Ernest Hemingway and ‘A Moveable Feast’ has just come to mind as I’m writing this. Now, there’s a plan!

      • Cheryl Tipp
        Aug 25 2012

        If I remember correctly, Hemmingway’s Fiesta (the sun also rises) is also partly set in Paris. Another one for the list perhaps!

      • Aug 25 2012

        I think you might be right Cheryl. The list is growing ….

  6. Cheryl Tipp
    Aug 25 2012

    One of my favourite Zola novels and one of my favourite blogs! Great work Des!


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