Here goes, the second of my ‘thoughts’ on a particular classic book on this blog. I stress again, as I did on my L’Assommoir post, that this is not a book review, and I don’t do book reviews. This is just my own thoughts and notes that I put together, and in a usually incoherent structure, to summarise my particular feelings of a book.
It is also my 2nd Émile Zola post, though had I not been losing sleep over the last 6 months, I could and would have liked to have posted some thoughts on Anton Chekhov, many of whose short stories I was reading in between June and October last year.
I started reading Germinal in early November last year and only finished it on Sunday, so it took me roughly 2 months to finish. I started reading it during a busy end of year period and whilst struggling to find time and energy to read. I picked up the pace a lot over the last few weeks, and hope to stay in that vain for the rest of this year.
For people who have not read Germinal, I try very hard to keep this a spoiler-free zone. I will talk about what the book is about (if I get it right) but without discussing the plot at great length. Perhaps only the premise.
And the premise is this; it is the 1860’s and Etienne Lantier (the son of Gervaise Macquart from the previously mentioned L’Assommoir) has wandered through the French countryside, looking for jobs and losing jobs, and stumbles upon the coal mining town of Montsou, where rather than go through a recruitment agency, he befriends a miner upon the spoil-heap and asks him for a job. Although initially told there is no work, he hangs around and within a few hours is employed to work at the mine. So a more straight forward process than today.
Etienne becomes acquainted with the Maheu’s, a family of 10 that live in the nearby village 240, where many other families whose lives revolve around the mine live. The poverty of these families and the desperate measures they resort to just to get by, as well of course as the harsh and unfair treatment of the miners from their superiors (you know, the guys who make all the money, whilst worrying about whether their spouses are cheating on them or not. Oh yes, that is in there too), leads Etienne quickly to conclude that these people are getting a rotten deal in life.
Ill treatment and resentment continue to build until enough is enough, the miner’s strike is on. The situation rapidly heads towards rock bottom, which in this coal mine is 554 metres underground.
It’s the battle between social and capital, the revolution and the natural order of things, the right and the wrong, but knowing who is right is not always an easy thing to judge throughout this novel.
I don’t know if you know, but Germinal is kind of a big deal. Like top 10 French novels kind of big deal, as one author placed it. It is the best known of all Émile Zola’s novels, and the most widely read. I even know a guy at work who has read Germinal and he never reads. Stephen King likes it too, if that helps. And Daniel Radcliffe. ‘Germinal! Germinal!’ is apparently what Zola’s followers were chanting at his funeral. And last but not least, a top flight Belgian football team was also named after the novel (FC Germinal Ekeren – who have since folded. Had a good run in the 90’s though).
It surprises me and delights me at the same time that Germinal is Zola’s most popular novel. Delights me of course because if people like this Zola novel, I’m sure they will like others as well, and it surprises me, because Germinal I found to be a slow burner. For me, it took a while to get going, especially with a large portion of part 1 (of 7) devoted to how a coal mine works. But that is Zola’s style, his research is meticulous, and he almost becomes a subject matter expert on any field he is writing a novel about. It helps create this fabulous (or not so fabulous) world within the novel.
So although I called it a slow burner, my impressions at the end of the novel were in no doubt that this is a great book. It is one of those novels where during some of the last passages, I really had a moment, where I was simply in awe at how brilliant this book is. I was so happy at the end of the novel, which is why I will always advocate reading the classics. The way the events unfold and the scenarios Zola thinks up are of someone at the top of their game.
I don’t mean to imply though that this is a happy book. I’ve read 5 Zola novels now, and he does a lot of tragedy and misfortune. But I read his novels because his insights into human behaviour and his understanding of the ways of the world are not matched by many.
His writing has sometimes been described as having flat characters, but where he makes up for this (and I am not saying I agree with the comment BTW) is that everything in Zola’s novels can be a character. The main coal mine where the novel is set Le Voreux is certainly a huge character in the novel. Zola writes:
“The pit could swallow people in mouthfuls of twenty or thirty at a time, and with such ease that it seemed not even to notice the moment of their consumption”
Le Voreux is certainly represented as a beast itself throughout the novel.
Another set of characters that draw out immense emotion are the horses that are kept underground. I had no idea that horses were kept down coal mines to shift heavy coal around, and the tales of these horses can break your heart:
“Old age was now approaching, and his cat-like eyes sometimes clouded over with a look of sadness. Perhaps he could dimly remember the mill where he had been born, near Marchiennes on the banks of the Scarpe, a mill surrounded by the wind. There had been something else, too, something burning away up in the air, some huge lamp or other, but his animal memory could not quite recall its exact nature.”
A full range of emotions are part of this novel; love, hatred, sadness, hope, disgust, compassion – Zola does not shy away from adding difficult and unnerving events, all the while, giving us love, friendship and laughter.
I don’t try to push myself to write a novel about the novel, there is only so much justice I can do for a book in a blog post, but there is a whole world within the novel, and it is worth exploring yourself. Germinal deserves the reputation it has, and in the end left me with not only the feeling of having read a great book, but questions that I still have that I guess will go unanswered. I’m happy with that.
I’m going to give Zola a break (well, I will try) until Fanda Kutubuku’s (klasikfanda.blogspot.com) Zoladdiction 2020 in April. Yes, I have my next 5 lined up! I’m off to read some Greek Tragedies by Sophocles and Euripides for the next month or so. Listening to some amazing lectures about Greek Tragedy on Audible, and I’m sure I’ll blog about them all soon.
“The only pleasures were getting drunk or giving your wife a baby, and even then, the beer gave you a pauch, and the child wouldn’t give a damn about you when it was older”
“For in his day they didn’t use to torment themselves like this: you were a miner, you worked your seam, and you didn’t ask for more; whereas nowadays a new wind was blowing, and the miners were getting some fancy ideas”
“And to think that these fools complained about life, when they could have love, the one and only happiness, and as much as they jolly well pleased! He would gladly starve like them if he could start life over again with a woman who would give herself to him on the bare ground, unreservedly, body and soul”
“He was overwhelmed by a desire for peace, by an irresistible need to be happy; and he saw himself married and living in a nice little house, with no other ambition than to live and die there, just the two of them together. A piece of bread would be all they’d need; and even if there were only enough for one, then she could have it. Why ask for anything more? Was there anything else worth having in life?”