Friday, March 4, 2011

Book #45 - Germinal (Emile Zola)

For this blog I'm reading some of the most famous books ever written, so you'd think they would all be utterly enjoyable and fabulous. If that were indeed true, then this blog would be an obsequeous brown-nose fest where I raved on and on about how the book I just read was best thing ever written since sliced bread, except for maybe the book that I read before the one I just read. I'd go on and on about how the prose incited me to rapture, much like the taste of Van Winkle's 13 year old Family Reserve Rye, which, by the way, does indeed incite me to rapture as it's the best rye whiskey on the market in my opinion, and I'm somewhat of an expert if I say so myself. But for those of you poor souls who regularly read this blog, you'll know from my reviews that while indeed I have enjoyed most of the books I've read here so far, there are very few I rave about to the extent that I say something like "Woah, this was an incredibly goddamn awesome book, and calls for another sip of that sweet, sweet Van Winkle rye". But the last two books I have read now are indeed stuplendiferously awesome, and deserve to be toasted with the finest rye on the planet. Yes, I'm talking about "McTeague", reviewed last time, and now Emile Zola's "Germinal".

Who is this Emile Zola dude? First of all, as you can see from his picture above he's ridiculously French. In fact, he's one of those great and weirdly prolific French authors of the 19th century, along with Hugo and Balzac. Zola wrote a series of twenty novels called The Rougon-Macquart cycle, of which "Germinal" is a part. These novels follow the members of a single family, and paint a picture of their lives in France under Louis Napoleon's second empire. But "Germinal" can be read as a novel unto itself, which is what I did. But having done so it makes me want to read more of this twenty novel series, because I totally was blown away by it.

"Germinal" is the story of coal miners in a small French town, and their eventual strike against the mining company. Zola is known as one of the founders of "naturalism", a school which seems like it should include Frank Norris ("McTeague") and Theodore Dreiser ("Sister Carrie"), so it's interesting that I've read all these books recently. Naturalism, according to Wikipedia, the source of all true knowledge, is "a literary movement that seeks to replicate a believable everyday reality, as opposed to such movements as Romanticism or Surrealism, in which subjects may receive highly symbolic, idealistic, or even supernatural treatment...Naturalistic works exposed the dark harshness of life, including poverty, racism, sex, violence, prejudice, disease, corruption, prostitution, and filth." Well, call me a lover of sex, disease, and filth, but this naturalism stuff rocks.

"Germinal" begins with the arrival of Etienne Lantier to the town of Montsou in the north of France. Etienne is poor and looking for work, having been tossed off his last job for assaulting a supervisor. He soon gets a job in one of the local coal mines, and the antics begin. He befriends a woman named Catherine who works down in the mines, a 15 year old whose puberty has been delayed due to the hard subterranean labor. Etienne is attracted to Catherine, but before he can do anything about it, she takes up with a belligerent asshole of a miner named Chaval. Chaval hits her and abuses her verbally, and is an all around dick-head, but Catherine doesn't seem to care, presumably because her life is bleak and she feels she has no other options. Etienne is bummed about this, and he and Chaval instantly dislike one another.

And indeed the lives of the miners are all bleak. The first third or so of the book introduces us to a number of miners and their families. They are all struggling to make enough money to feed their families, and to suffer through their very laborious and bleak existence. Oh, and they have sex. A LOT of sex. Their only amusement seems to be taking a member of the opposite sex out behind a haystack and getting it on. And sex is everywhere...there's even the owner of a local grocery store who will extend credit to families only if they let him "party" with their daughters. The subject matter of "Germinal" is reminiscent of Dickens...the lives of poor miners...but Zola is clearly not Charles Dickens. I think the Victorian Dickens would have been a little freaked out by Zola's naturalism and frankness. But to me, it makes Zola seem much more modern, and closer to the present day. There's sex everywhere and he's very frank and clear about it.

Anyway, Etienne is taken in as a boarder by Catherine's family, who always need extra money just to get by, even though their children work in the mines. And then the mining company decides to change the pay structure of the miners' wages. Instead of just getting paid for the coal they mine, they will also get paid to reinforce the mine with timber as they go along. They previously did not get paid for this, and so skimped on the work, leading to cave-ins. This might sound like a good deal at first, but the miners soon realized that it was actually a pay cut, because they would now get less money for the coal mined, and this would not be completely made up for by the money they now got for timbering. This pushes the miners over the edge. They were starving before, and this will now make it worse. Etienne, who has been talking to a Russian anarchist Souvarine who also works for the mining company, decides the workers must go on strike, and he helps lead a strike against the mining company.

This is where the story, already a good one, becomes a page turner. The miners go on strike, the company holds out, and the miners begin to starve. Things look grim. And then things start to get violent, as the miners start to go around sabotaging the mine they work for as well as other local mines, to prevent scabs from working there. In one very explicit scene, the grocer who has been extorting the miners to sleep with their daughters falls off a roof escaping the crowd, and splits his head open and dies. The women in the mob then pull down his pants, rip off his genitals, and parade around with them stuck up on a pole. Like I said, this ain't Dickens. Zola is great with these crowd scenes, and really knows how to build up the tension.

Of course, the strike eventually escalates into real bloodshed, as troops brought out by the mining company to protect the mines from more vandalism fire into an unarmed crowd of striking miners, killing some of them. Everyone is appalled, and the company decides to "settle"...they say people can come back to work and they'll then "re-evaluate" their pay structure. Which means that the miners get some cover for going back to work, which they need to do because they are starving, and the company can then eventually just sort of forget about the "re-evaluation", and continue paying their newly lower wages. Not a very happy ending to the strike.

Bu things get worse when Souvarine, appalled that the miners are all going back to work, sabotages the mine so that it will cave in, which it does when many miners are all at the bottom. This is the climax to the novel, and in the interest of not irresponsibly spewing out spoilers, I won't say exactly what happens, except that some miners survive and are trapped...including Catherine, Etienne, and Caval. Thus their love triangle can play the death! It's all very dramatic and very well done. And only one person survives.

And then, rather oddly enough, the novel ends on a surprisingly upbeat note. Zola says, as narrator, that while the miners may be working again, the deaths of their comrades has energized them, and the mining companies will eventually have to fall, or at least become more responsible employers, because next time the miners go out on strike they will be more energized and ready.

This novel is not only a page-turner and a great read, but it's also very relevant to the news in the past few weeks. The protests in Wisconsin, about trying to take away collective bargaining rights from state government workers, made my reading of "Germnal" seem very apropos. It seems like the struggle of the worker versus the owner, of the rich and powerful versus the weak and poor, has yet to be played out completely, and probably will be forever ongoing. Thus the ideas of "Germinal" will remain relevant for many years to come.


Viktoria said...

I haven´t read this book, but there was something familiar about it. After a sip of Tullamore Dew and a think, I reached into my shelves and pulled out Göran Hägg´s Swedish classic on creative writing, "Nya författarskolan". He teaches a literary trick called "Zola´s horse". My (quick and dirty) translation:

"Among the hardest things is to attempt is to bring tears to a reader´s eyes. And the bigger the disaster and the more serious the problem, the harder it is, oddly enough. Our capacity for sympathy is small. Zola may have claimed to depict reality as it was, but he was a master at playing to his audience. In the great indignation novel Germinal from 1885 there is a frightening mining catastrophy. But we´ve seen that before. Thousands of people are drowned and crushed. Yeah, horrible, but... Anguish and pain. Sure... But Zola is a pro, he knows how to get us where he wants. Suddenly there is a new and wilder scream, a violent tramping through the drifts! What is it? Oh, the old mining horse that was put down the mine twenty years ago and has been slaving here since then, blind, now running through the drifts in terror, cannot understand what is happening... Perhaps he still remembers the sun and the green pastures, before... And not one eye is dry."

So, tell us Virus, did you cry over Zola´s horse?

Robby Virus said...

I didn't cry, but it was indeed a poignant scene. I think Hägg is can't react to the deaths of's just too incomprehensible...but the death of an individual, or of a helpless animal, now THAT is pathos. I'm glad you brought this's an interesting point that I wouldn't have thought of.

The above fore-mentioned. said...

Hi, just wanted you to know that I read and enjoyed your review - always do. Cheers.

Robby Virus said...

Thanks so much!

Gervaise said...

What a great review Robby, gets me excited about his books all over again! I recommend and lend them to everyone I know, as you say they still feel modern. (PS. There's only one Zola I've liked as much as Germinal thus far - after your huge list is done, do try and read L'Assomoir, it was my first and probably my favourite.)

Julian said...

I just discovered your blog while searching for a photo of Zola. As a compulsive reader and rereader of classics, I commend you and can't wait to read more. Must recommend Nana and L'Assomoir, two works of dizzying power. All the best.