Wednesday, September 16, 2009


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certainly was its most famous and thorough practitioner, and as a result his novels stand as fascinating and detailed historical documents.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.

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