Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Zeno's Conscience

Zeno’s Conscience, by Italo Svevo
1923, 437 pp. Translation by William Weaver, 2001.

The legend of Italo Svevo is one of the great Cinderella stories of modern literature. Svevo’s real name was Ettore Schmitz, and he was principally a successful businessman in Trieste. He also had an interest in fiction and wrote two novels, published at his own expense in 1892 and 1898, to absolutely no acclaim whatsoever. They received decent reviews, but nobody read them. Discouraged by being totally ignored by the reading public, Svevo gave up on literature for decades and devoted himself to business instead. Some years later he enrolled in English classes taught by an eccentric, down-on-his-luck Irishman named James Joyce. Joyce showed Svevo some of the stories that would later go into Dubliners, and Svevo mentioned, in an embarrassed and self-deprecating way, that he also used to write stories. He gave Joyce his two novels, and Joyce loved them. He encouraged Svevo to resume writing, and by the time Svevo finished Zeno’s Conscience in 1923, Joyce had published Ulysses, was living in Paris, and was well on his way to being the most notorious author in the world. He used his formidable skills of literary promotion to get Svevo an audience and some notoriety, and soon Svevo was proclaimed, somewhat inaccurately, the Italian Proust. Svevo’s last years were happy and successful; he died in a car accident in 1928, but his novel was quickly translated into English and immediately joined the pantheon of the great Modernists.

So much for the reputation and the preliminary throat-clearing, on to the book. Zeno’s Conscience purports to be the manuscript written by one Zeno Cosini, aging and neurotic Triestine businessman, as part of his psychoanalysis. The first section details his absurd, futile, lifelong attempts to quit smoking; the second his relationship with his father; the third his courtship of the beautiful but distant Ada and eventual marriage to her less beautiful sister Augusta as well as his infidelity with a silly, annoying singer named Carla; the fourth section deals with his business relationship with Guido, his former rival for Ada’s hand; and the last is a sort of summing-up and attack on psychoanalysis in general. Zeno is endlessly self-deceiving, and in general the book consists of one situation after another which calls to mind that old line from Hamlet: “Methinks the lady doth protest too much.”

So when Zeno has wild, psychosomatic pains which he assures us are not due to guilt over his infidelity, we understand that he is protesting too much. Every time he declares that he does not hate Guido, who succeeded in marrying Ada where he failed, we understand that he is protesting too much. When he is at pains to tell us how much he loved his father, respects his doctor, or loves his mistress’s singing, we understand that he is protesting too much. But Zeno knows that there is something wrong with him, and he is attempting to analyze it—the trouble is that he is analyzing it from an entirely incorrect position. He is excellent at finding scapegoats for his problems, always returning to the poison which his chain-smoking puts in his veins. But we very quickly understand that the problem is not Zeno’s smoking, or his mystery pains, or his brother-in-law. The problem is Zeno.

A second theme is the farcical way in which Zeno’s best efforts always turn out in the opposite result from what he intended. He begins by courting Ada, who he only succeeds in annoying, then moves to Alberta, who isn’t interested, and eventually ends up with Augusta, who initially found least attractive. He tries to succeed in business and makes ridiculous blunders. He is amused and a bit pleased to find that his psychiatrist thinks he has an Oedpius complex: “Spellbound, I lay there and listened. It was a sickness that elevated me to the highest noble company. An illustrious sickness, whose ancestors dated back to the mythological era!” And so forth. But at the same time, usually his efforts are directed towards ends which we know would be bad for him, so when things turn out exactly the opposite, it is to his benefit. Guido functions as a foil: he too is unfaithful to his wife and inept in business, but Zeno manages, through no genius of his own, to appear faithful and competent, while Guido ends in disgrace and failure.

All of this is very good, and Zeno, despite all his flaws, is a likable figure. The first two sections, which are the most openly absurd and farcical, are quite good, as is the last one, which brings all the threads of the book together and adds a satisfying sense of perspective. These sections are also rather short: the middle two sections are about 150 pages each, and do tend to sag in the middle. Once the reader gets used to the two themes listed above, we still get to watch Zeno enact them over and over at quite some length. I enjoyed the book and Zeno’s company, but I must admit I felt it went on a bit too long.

Svevo’s Italian was roundly criticized when the book came out for being bland “bookkeeper’s Italian.” I cannot speak to that, except to mention that both Svevo and Zeno actually were bookkeepers, so that’s a perfectly sound stylistic choice. As with all translations by William Weaver, the prose is first-rate, and a new edition of this book is clearly worth the praise lavished on it during its appearance.

Having declared myself an implacable opponent of shallow narcissism in literature, I find myself constantly obliged during my reading of Modernist literature, to revise my opinion. It is true that Zeno Cosini and Italo Svevo have a great deal in common: a time, place, vocation, and smoking problem. But I would argue that this book is not at all narcissist, for the very obvious reason that Zeno Cosini is a ridiculous figure, endlessly self-absorbed and self-deluded. No one who is actually a narcissist would be able to present a character who is such a narcissist. Svevo knows what a narcissist Zeno is, and he finds it hilarious. But he does not make Zeno a noxious figure: Zeno is lovable and forgivable, but weak and flawed, just like the rest of us. As a portrait of a character and a self-deceiving mind, Zeno’s Conscience is absolutely in the first rank. As a novel, though, it sags structurally in the middle between a very strong opening, ending, and the thematic bridges which connect them.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Eternal Husband and Other Stories

The Eternal Husband and Other Stories, by Fyodor Dostoevsky
1862-1876, 349 pp. Translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

I am about to write one of the world’s few truly unique sentences: Dostoevsky is at his best when he is being funny. When he gives himself over to his earnest, mystical, moralizing Christianity, he produces tedious, pedantic, nearly unreadable dreck in great volume: The Idiot is certainly the poster-child of this tendency. But when he stays away from the fever dreams, the hysterics, the raptures and mystical babbling, when he quits stalling with subplots and social drama and instead focuses on active satire and ridicule, he is quite good. It is for this reason that Demons is excellent, while The Idiot is interminable, and the opening of Crime and Punishment is far better than the end. The volume under review is a combination of these tendencies, but works more often than it doesn’t.

The volume is dominated by the 180-odd page novella “The Eternal Husband.” This story proceeds from a very good idea: Velchaninov, a wealthy, worldly, vital Petersburg man is visited by a man he hasn’t seen for nine years. The man, Pavel Pavlovich, appears several times before actually approaching Velchaninov, drunk and behaving strangely in the middle of the night. He tells Velchaninov that his wife has just died. Velchaninov had had an affair with the man’s wife nine years before. Whether Pavel Pavlovich knows this is the core of the story, which plays out through the destructive obsession of the one man for the other, with Velchaninov’s need to find out how much Pavel Pavlovich knows, and with their mutual inability to separate themselves from each other. The sense of menace and unease is well done, and the characterization is very good, but Dostoevsky too often indulges in two of his favorite themes: the two men spend a lot of time behaving in ways they don’t understand and can’t control, under all sorts of mystical influences, and people are driven to physical illness (or even death) due to emotional or spiritual problems. The first theme too often makes his characters seem ridiculous, rather than weak humans in the grip of mighty mystical forces, and too often undermines the characterization he’s put several pages of work into. This often is irritating, since it seems like he isn’t playing fair—instead of behaving counter to their personalities, it reads more like his characters are cardboard slaves to the requirements of Dostoevsky’s preconceived manipulations.

Furthermore, the language is too often simply clunky. I had this same problem with The Idiot, though I didn’t notice it in Demons or Crime and Punishment. I am unclear on whether it is a problem with Dostoevsky or with Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Probably it is both. I haven’t read Pevear and Volokhonsky’s Tolstoy or Gogol, but I have read their Bulgakov and it was quite different from their Dostoevsky. Furthermore, Nabokov in his Lectures on Russian Literature complains of exactly what annoys me: Dostoevsky loves to have his characters speak in stuttering, inarticulate, mystical monologues which probably don’t work in any language. Worse, he likes to gather all his characters together into a drawing room (or, very frequently, a sort of “scandalous feast”) so characters monologue feverishly while other ones stand around apparently doing nothing. His characters tend to preface their statements with meaningless throat-clearing phrases like “But incidentally” or “By the way” or “And anyhow,” which I have come to assume are various translations of some common Russian verbal mannerism. The trouble is that in many contexts they don’t work at all, like when Velchaninov thinks to himself “By the way, I must give him the bracelet!” or “was not entirely sure, incidentally, that he had kissed him.” Has anyone ever thought to themselves “By the way”? And in “The Meek One,” a later story in the volume, a character sits “quietly and silently.” Both at once! I have to assume that Dostoevsky wrote two different Russian words meaning two different sorts of being quiet, which is a point against him, but I wonder why Pevear and Volokhonsky decided to include both. Why do they choose to include all of the little prevaricating meaningless phrases? All characters use them, so it isn’t a telling character trait. It just makes the writing seem stilted, annoying, and occasionally ridiculous.

Those complaints aside, the volume features two very good stories: “A Nasty Anecdote” and “The Meek One.” The first is a cutting satire in which a powerful government official turns up drunk and unannounced at his subordinate’s wedding, in order to prove his liberal humanist convictions. If the reader can set aside Dostoevsky’s loathing for progress and recognize that indeed, some aspects of wealthy liberal hypocrisy are timeless, it’s quite an amusing story. It reads like an 1862 episode of “The Office.”

“The Meek One” is a stream-of-consciousness narration of a self-absorbed pawnbroker who, through his well-meaning but totally misguided attempts to make his young wife happy instead drives her to suicide. In its theme of the narrator’s total inability to consider the world outside himself, it’s almost Bergman-esque in nature, and is a much more focused, tightly-constructed story than Dostoevsky usually produces. The last line particularly sums up the character, and the character of many people, spoken over the body of his dead teenage wife: “No seriously, when she’s taken away tomorrow, what about me then?”

There are two other less impressive stories. “Bobok” is fairly good, a story about a hack writer who attends a funeral and mistakenly finds that the dead carry on for a month or so in their graves, having bickering conversations. This is another excuse for Dostoevsky to ridicule progressive ideas and their consequences for society, since all but one of the dead people have cast off religion and tradition and consequently have stupid, venal conversations from their graves. Nevertheless, it’s fairly amusing for the 20 pages it lasts. The last story, “Dream of a Ridiculous Man,” begins in the vein of Notes from Underground, but then lapses into a lengthy dream sequence which ends with its feverish narrator seeing the light of mystical Christianity and setting out happy into the world. This story unifies several of my least favorite of Dostoevsky’s preoccupations, and does nothing which he does not do elsewhere.

In sum, then, the volume contains two very good stories, two fairly decent ones, and one bad one. It is also a convenient collection of most of Dostoevsky’s shorter work, and it is interesting to see him working in a more precise, restricted form than his usual immense, bloated novels. Worth a look, even if just for “The Meek One” and “A Nasty Anecdote.”

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Double

The Double, by José Saramago
2002, 324 pp.

Tertuliano Máximo Afonso, a mild-mannered, lonely, divorced high school history teacher rents a film at the suggestion of a colleague, in an effort to pass a pleasant evening. He is astonished to see in the film a supporting actor who looks precisely like him (or at least, precisely as he looked at the time the film was made) and he becomes obsessed with finding this double. As hooks go, this is an excellent one, though as literary themes go, Saramago begins on dangerous ground. The theme of the double has been dealt with innumerable times in literature, seldom with much interesting variation (John Banville's review of The Double in the Times helpfully singles out an early instance in Plautus' Amphitryon) and seemed to have been conclusively laid to rest with Dostoevsky's 1846 novella which shares the same name as the book here under review. It is rare for Saramago to proceed down such a well-trodden path, but he pulls it off, barely.

To some degree, my reading of The Double suffers from the mass consumption of Saramago's works that I've indulged in these past six months. Tertuliano is another in a string of Saramagian protagonists: lonely, middle-aged men with unassuming and unimportant but mildly intellectual jobs. His only working class protagonists have been Baltasar and Jesus Christ, and he seems to be aware that this is another work in a similar vein. The familiar Saramago narrative voice is alive and well here, though for the first time aware that it is a narrator in a novel rather than simply a rustic, garrulous, folksy, Portuguese storyteller. The narration frequently refers to redundancies six lines back, or a sentence on a previous page, or to its own knowledge as the narrator. On the very second page it even makes an allusion to the mild-mannered protagonists of several of Saramago's earlier novels.

All of this is fine. The trouble is that there really only seems to be about fifty to one hundred pages of actual material here, and the narrator, who (granted) is always a bit digressive and self-referential, often seems to be stalling. The procedural details of Tertuliano's search for his double are compelling, but they are interspersed with scenes from his teaching job which are frankly irrelevant. It takes Tertuliano 106 pages to find his double's name, then another 108 pages before they meet. That middle section sags quite a bit, brightened up only by Saramago's always delightful facility with romantic dialogue, here between Tertuliano and his girlfriend Maria da Paz.

The last third, though, creates steadily building menace and malevolence, spinning out the existential violence of having a double (or being a double) into realized physical and emotional violence. Saramago then utterly blindsides you around page 300, and the book ends with so many twists and adjustments that the reader is left a bit startled and unsettled. I have not yet decided whether the very final twist actually works or not: Saramago's endings are always ambiguous, often dark, and tend less to resolve the existing story as much as to set up another story which Saramago isn't going to bother telling. Here the final twist raises such a host of new questions and suggests such a change in character that rather than forcing the reader to reevaluate what has come before instead borders on overthrowing the book entirely.

The Double also suffers from a certain deficiency of characterization. Tertuliano is less fully realized than Ricardo Reis or Senhor José or Raimundo Silva, and as the story progresses we realize his double is not much of a character either. Both are given quite a lot to do, especially in that saggy middle section, but little of it adds to our understanding of them as characters. To some extent this helps Saramago in a critical point when he wants to create ambiguity as to which is which and whether even they have gotten themselves mixed up, which must be the only example on record of a novelist using his formidable skill to turn flat characters into an asset rather than a defect. As a first Saramago read for the uninitiated, The Double has enough of a hook and enough of a familiar setting and theme to be easily accessible, but for the long-standing acolyte it is only a minor work in the Saramago canon.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Guest Post: Night Train

Night Train, by Martin Amis
1997, 175 pp.

Night Train a police procedural by Martin Amis is a novel you struggle to put down; filled as it is with a prose style reflective of an educated police officer who’s seen much of everything. The story begins with Mike Hoolihan, the detective and narrator, and as she herself points out a woman, telling us that what will follow is the worst case she’s ever had to deal with. What unfolds is a complex foray into a case that comes to consume all of her waking hours, the subject of her investigation is the apparent suicide of Colonel Tom’s (a man she loves and respects for drying her out – she was a devout alcoholic, and not incidentally a man who is in charge of 3,000 police) daughter. At first, Amis skillfully weaves us through her day and her current job, as an asset seizing police, meaning the mob owns some shit, we want that shit, so we as police, take that shit. Then in the second section Mike delves deeply into the psychological profile of the said victim, Jennifer, who as we begin this section realize was on lithium – the drug of the manic depressive. In the final section “The Seeing” we solve the suicide, figure it out as the saying goes, and we are not satisfied, and neither is Mike, but its how it is. And we find out that Jennifer has left the clues, has done so deliberately because she is the daughter of a police.

Interesting to note is the recurring theme of the night train throughout the novel taking a new and clever interpretation at each twist and turn. We get the actual physical night train which keeps the rent way down and keeps her up “around quarter to four. I lay there for a time with my eyes open. No chance of reentry.” We soon find out that her man Tobe is also a night train warbling up the steps in all his massive girth, a man so large he is once ascribed furniture proportion with the “I sat on the couch of his lap.” Then the philosophical musings of a detective “Suicide is the night train, speeding your way to darkness…The ticket costs everything you have. But it’s just a one-way. This train takes you into the night, and leaves you there.” But it’s the description that really takes this novel and the night train to the smoothness of Johnny Black, how the actual night train interweaves with the suicide, “And here comes the night train. First, the sound of knives being sharpened. Then its cry, harsh but symphonic, like a chord of car horns.”

The prose of Mike Hoolihan is that of an educated police, who knows a thing or two about history, about as much as one can glean from college and the occasional stray fact that permeates our everyday interactions with media and film. At the beginning we even get this caveat, “Allow me to apologize in advance for the bad language, the diseased sarcasm, and bigotry. All police are racist. It’s part of our job…Anyone can become a police – Jews, blacks, Asians, women – and once you’re there you’re a member of a race called police, which is obliged to hate every other race.” Followed immediately by another, “These papers and transcripts were put together piecemeal over a period of four weeks. I apologize also for any inconsistencies in the tenses (hard to avoid, when writing about the recently dead) and for the informalities in the dialogue presentation.”

Amis missteps only once in the entire novel into complete and utter failure with this travesty of colloquial speech imitation, “I was quit when you came in here. I’m twice as quit now.” This a response to Col. Tom Rockwell’s insistence that she pick up the case even though she was currently working out of asset forfeiture, after eight years of grueling homicide. The dialogue is superb, with each character getting her or his own inflections and vernacular particular to what that person would have in real life. For example in an interview with Jennifer’s boss, who is “big in his discipline” and “famous: TV-famous” we get this majestic air of authority and condescension in one priceless exchange,

…As of last fall she was working on the Milky Way’s Virgo-infall velocity.
I asked him: could you be more specific?
I am being specific. Perhaps I should be more general.

The same scientist who by the walk out to Mike's car we see again in this light,

“Denziger looked as though mathematics were happening to him right then and
there. As though math were happening to him: He looked subtracted, with much of
his force of life, and his IQ, suddenly taken away.”

The structure of the novel is characteristic of Amis’ attention to detail. He begins the first section “Blowback” utilizing the days themselves as the subheadings, to orient us to the crime and the time span we are, in fact, as readers working with. Then in the second section “Felo De Se” which is an archaic legal term meaning “felon of himself” (as relates to English common law) or shorthand, suicide, we see a shift to longer headings which briefly summarize the actions undertaken in this section which is to put together the psychological profile or the why of whodunit. While finally, in the third section “The Seeing” we end up seeing the why without interruption of headings and in eighteen pages, and as in all good police procedurals we get the closure we’ve been so desperately seeking at each twist and turn of the whole sordid affair.

The novel was skillfully written. The pages kept turning themselves as if they too were examining the case. The ending was handed to us on a silver platter, right next to the dialogue, and the suicide of a beautiful woman with everything to live for. Put into the context of his work Night Train was a much easier read than was Money (for all its slow moving minutia and painful alcoholism of the main character), Amis in this case gave us a reformed drunk who is seen at the end sipping on her second seltzer before walking out the bar. In his book the War Against Cliché Amis yelps with the indignation of a prose stylist whose only content concern is to avoid unwarranted cliché, in this book he meets the criteria and delves deeply in and through the mind of a police, a woman police no less, and with the skill of authorial confidence takes us through one case that we will likely never forget.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A Tomb for Boris Davidovich

A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, by Danilo Kiš
1978, 135 pp.

Though his work is increasingly difficult to find in the United States, no conversation about postwar European literature, especially the dissident literature of Eastern Europe, is complete without Danilo Kiš. He gained a great deal of notoriety with his strange, difficult 1973 novel Hourglass, and a great deal of controversy with this brief collection of linked short stories. A Tomb for Boris Davidovich is directly in the tradition (or perhaps, sub-genre) of Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon, and Victor Serge's The Case of Comrade Tulayev. It is a worthy second-generation entry in that great project of literary conscience, but it does not equal or surpass its predecessors, nor does it seem as significant a piece of work as the controversy around it once suggested.

The book consists of seven short stories, usually linked from one to the next by the mention or brief appearance of a character from the previous story. They are presented as factual biographies of fictional people, mostly loyal Communists who are arbitrarily arrested during the purges and subject to torture. Some are executed, some are exiled, some sign false confessions. The first four are told in titled paragraphs, giving the book a slightly avant-garde feel, but that convention is dropped with the longest and best story, which shares the title of the book. All of the stories to that point detail the contributions of someone to the Bolshevik revolution: the first character commits sordid murders at the false direction of an informant, the second is volunteer during the Spanish Civil War who is betrayed by his superior who is a Soviet agent, the third is an apparatchik who stages a fake religious service for a visiting Western diplomat in Kiev. The titular Boris Davidovich Novsky is a brave, committed, noted revolutionary who is arrested and tortured in order to extract a false confession for a show trial. His story is the only one which adds significantly to the existing Koestler/Serge examination of the same subject: Novsky wants to die honorably, to preserve a suitable ending for the biography he has been writing with his actions his entire life, and his interrogator is determined to deny him that satisfaction. Their confrontation is a grueling, bleak story, and by far the strongest point of the book.

The story which follows deals with a 13th-century Jew who is forced to convert to Christianity during a pogrom. The similarities between it and the story of Novsky are obvious, but Kiš apparently feared they would not be, so he appends a note explaining them. I found this a bit annoying, and despite his well-intentioned point about the timeless, cyclical nature of history and human cruelty, I dispute the parallels between the Jewish victims of Christian pogroms and the betrayed Communist agents of the other stories. A better analogue would have been a story about a devout and famous Christian who is tortured and murdered by other Christians for the crime of not being Christian enough.

This leads me to my general complaint about the book. While Kiš is certainly a great writer, I cannot conclude that this is his greatest book. It lacks the formal ingenuity of Hourglass, and the Borgesian precision of Encyclopedia of the Dead. It is quite short and at least three of the seven stories (one about a card game between prisoners which determines a murder, the one about the 13th-century Jew, and the last about an artist who dies of elephantiasis) seem to distract from the general point of the book. The biographical format preserves the nearly obsessive theme of memory which pervades Kiš's other work, and anti-Stalinist dissident literature in general, and the essay-like tone fits in with the sort of work being done by Milan Kundera and Czesław Miłosz. But it is a very brief and slightly disorganized book, and considering the furor it produced in Yugoslavia when it was published, I was surprised that none of its characters was from Yugoslavia, nor did any of its action take place there. With all of that in mind, A Tomb for Boris Davidovich stands mainly as an indication of what sort of dissent was possible under Yugoslav Communism: even this small book criticizing forty years later a brutal system which itself had been repudiated twenty years earlier provoked outrage. Such was the nature of the Stalinist and post-Stalinist world, and if the book seems to do less than we expect from the vantage point of the 21st century West, it is because the first (and perhaps only) duty of the man of conscience at the time was to plainly state what now seems obvious.


Germinal, by Émile Zola
1885, 428 pp.

Even among the towering pantheon of nineteenth century French social novelists, Émile Zola enjoys his own particular and peculiar distinctions. Unlike Balzac, who only formed his existing work into a related series with the publication of Le Père Goriot, Zola conceived of his entire twenty-volume Rougon-Macquart series before writing the first world, and meticulously plotted and researched his works to fully examine the impact of environmental forces on human beings in all sectors of French society during the Second Empire. Like Hugo, he was furiously engaged in politics, and his great J'accuse still stands as probably the most famous single piece of journalism in all of world history, and perhaps also the greatest polemic. Zola may not have invented literary naturalism, but certainly was its most famous and thorough practitioner, and as a result his novels stand as fascinating and detailed historical documents. Germinal is the most famous of these, especially after the production of the big-budget, award-winning 1993 film. It well deserves its notoriety.

Germinal is the story of a coal miners' strike in a rugged, impoverished town in northern France. It is based on a true story: Zola spent a week in the mines at Anzin and Denain, and emerged with a thousand pages of notes. Consequently, the book is astonishingly detailed. It creates through meticulous, lush, relentless accumulation of specificity the sights, smells, and sensations of the living hell that was the life of a nineteenth-century coal miner. The story is animated by the arrival of a young man named Étienne Lantier (a member of the Rougon-Macquart family whose rich, poor, and middle-class members Zola follows through his twenty volumes) at the bleak mining town of Montsou, looking for work. This allows Zola to pull the reader through a solid hundred pages of meticulous description of the layout and functioning of the mine, of the suffering of the workers for generation after generation, of the crushing burdens of debt and poverty and children, and of the cruelty of the bosses. Zola is very clear which side he is on and does not pull punches: very quickly the reader is introduced to a good-hearted fifth-generation miner who has spent fifty years working and suffering for a capitalist whose name he doesn't even know. The mine, Le Voreaux, is given terrific personifying characteristics to the extent that it is an important figure in the story: a sort of menacing presence, a constantly hungry beast that eats thousands of workers.

Soon the bosses institute a new policy which cuts the already meager pay of the miners, and the tensions in the town stretch to the breaking point. Lantier, who has begun to read widely but shallowly in the socialist literature of the time, organizes a strike and Germinal really takes off running. Lantier and the miners organize a local chapter of the First International, give rousing speeches, and eventually, as time begins to take its toll and the weight of hunger begins to break their spirits, they form an angry mob. What follows is an exhilarating, disturbing, violent, passionate, fifty-page set-piece as the mob rampages across the mining towns, burning and looting and smashing the mines. At its best it captures all the blood-and-thunder of the high passages of the Manifesto, and it is impossible not to feel a thrill as the hated machines are beaten apart to cries of "Long live the International!" Yet Zola provides a surprising amount of nuance. Yes, in the book as a whole the workers are generally strong, hearty, worthy people and the capitalists are vain, stupid, selfish, and utterly indifferent. But Zola is acquainted with the mindless savagery of crowds and is unflinching in his depiction of the crowd getting out of hand and turning ugly. Soon all sense of class struggle is gone and it is simply an outpouring of inarticulate hatred. We watch mild-mannered characters, mostly women, turning into plundering barbarians, and we see the crowd get away from Lantier and become its own character. Zola really winds himself up here, practically pounding the drums: "It was an apocalyptic vision of the revolution that would inevitably sweep them all away on some bloody evening of this dying century. Yes, one day the people would slip its harness and, unleashed, race along the roads just like this; it would make the blood of the bourgeois flow, it would parade their severed heads on pikes, it would scatter the gold of disembowled cashboxes. The women would shriek and the men would have those wolflike jaws open to bite. Yes, there would be the same rags, the same thunder of heavy sabots, the same terrifying mob, with its dirty flesh and stinking breath, sweeping aside the old world in a wild, barbaric onslaught. Fires would blaze, not so much as a stone would be left standing in the cities, and after the enormous rut, the enormous orgy during which the poor, in a single night, would ravage the women and empty the cellars of the rich, there would be a return to the savage life of the forest."

It goes on in this vein for some time.

Zola never lets up after that. We see a dozen major characters gunned down by the gendarmes, the strike broken, the miners even worse off than before, split by recrimination and betrayal, and finally are treated to another exhausting tour-de-force section as the sabotaged mine collapses. The (slightly obligatory) love triangle subplot between Lantier, his rival Chaval, and the daughter of the most prominent mining family gets resolved with murder and starvation, and the book ends with every character either dead or utterly broken. I almost wish that I could call Zola a cruel and bitter novelist, but I can only call him a scrupulously honest one. In his understanding and depiction of the course of class struggle, from the intolerable exploitation which engenders it to the ultimate use of organized violence to stop it, Zola is never less than spot-on.

The book is surprisingly earthy, with a great deal of sex and nudity and execretion. At times Zola seems even a bit overzealous, as when there is some hideous mutilation of dead capitalists, or when he creates a Tiny Tim analogue character, apparently for the sole purpose of having her starve to death in her parents' arms. Zola has some distressing and surprising views about women, who despite being shown as laboring under the double burden of mine work and domestic work, are also shown as the most savage members of the mob, and as either duplicitous or submissive animals who seem to exist to give birth constantly. But taken as a whole Germinal is an excellent book, fascinating in its details, horrifying and devastating in its relentless honesty, exhilarating in its action, powerful and moving in its writing.