Thoughts on Germinal by Émile Zola

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.

Germinal Quotes

“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?”

8 thoughts on “Thoughts on Germinal by Émile Zola

  1. Hey, Pete. I’m excited to see your next post about Germinal. This is an excellent read. It was Fanda who turned me on to it. Good to see you will join her in her Zola project.

    BTW, I’ve been having issues commenting on your blog…in our last conversation with Jillian. I replied to you and her numerous times, with no luck. It’s really frustrating bc I have had this problem with other WP blogs. Is it me, or is it WP? I guess I am just trying to figure it out.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hey Ruth, I’m really sorry you had problems posting comments. I have just checked now and can see that some of your comments went into the Spam folder, which I was not of course notified of. Why it chose to post some of your comments and mark some of them as Spam beats me. I will check the Spam folder everyday just to make sure no other genuine comments are ending up there.

    WordPress was giving me a hard time yesterday in general, as it posted this blog post twice! So yeah, it might just be me as well, but it doesn’t help.

    Glad you liked Germinal, and yeah Fanda’s posts are great. Looking forward to the Zola project!

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  3. This book was my introduction to Zola and though I’ve now read quite a few of his other works, this remains my favourite, I think in part because the scenario resonated with my own family’s experience – my grandfather and great grandfather were both coal miners (in Wales) and I grew up in a coal mining community so the portrayal of hardship struck a nerve. Yes horses were indeed used in the mines – they lived underground and were allowed up into the air usually just once a week.

    As you say, the coal mine is very much portrayed as a beast – I think there is a parallel with the Greek (?) myth of the monster in the labyrinth who devours people…

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    1. Thanks Karen, I completely understand with your family’s coal mining background and the community you grew up in, how the novel struck a nerve with you. As I stated in the blog, what always impresses me about Zola’s writing is the meticulous detail he goes into for the particular field he is writing about. He really researched his subjects. I remember reading The Ladies’ Paradise earlier last year, and though sometimes the descriptive passages seemed a tad overdone, I could not help but think ‘could he possibly give you any clearer indication of what it must be like to be in this department store during the 1860’s’?

      Having said that, it did help with the penguin classics version I read that there was a glossary of mining terms at the back of the book, because I would have struggled to picture some the aspects without it.

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  4. I enjoyed your comments on Germinal. I was led to this novel by James Mustich’s 1000 Books to Read Before You Die which I cannot praise too highly. (Except for the rather fine print it appears in.) Mustich is chock-full of classic and contemporary recommendations in the form of introductory essays on each work. The harrowing, drawn-out scene of the young couple surviving for days in the caved-in mine is what lingers most in my memory. After having read Nana and Therese Raquin years ago, I was not expecting Germinal to carry a predominantly cheerful tone.

    Speaking of the detail some of the classical writers employ in their quest for verisimilitude, I seem to remember a long digression in Anna Karenina where we are given a description of how to run a Russian farm for a few hundred pages. Maybe a little too much of a good thing, but who am I to question Tolstoy?

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    1. Hi George, thank you for your comment! I’ll certainly have to look up that 1000 Books to Read Before You Die, sounds very interesting. I haven’t read Nana or Therese Raquin either, but I do have a copy of Nana on my shelf, just always planning which Zola novel to go to next. Think the next one will be The Kill, but I’m well aware that Nana is another of the more popular ones.

      The young couple surviving in the mine for days is also the bit that I will most remember with Germinal. It was that passage that made me have that ‘moment’ as I described it in the post, it’s just so brilliantly well written and memorable. I honestly keep thinking about it, 10 days after I finished it.

      I’m struggling to remember the long digression of running a farm in Anna Karenina, though it has been a few years since I read that novel. I’m certain the farm part must revolve around the Levin character, yes? I remember there were long passages following Levin in the Russian countryside, but I thought these were mainly to do with hunting. Happy to be corrected though. Glad to read of your reading experiences with Zola and Tolstoy!

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  5. Pete, thanks for your gracious reply to my comment. Yes, it was the Levin character, but I could absolutely be mistaken about the length of the digression. When I re-read The Guermantes Way after a lapse of a decade or so, I found that my memory of a scene where I originally thought the narrator hovered in an art gallery for about 100 pages or so before going down to dinner was in fact for a much shorter interval of lost time. In this particular case, I was thankful for the faulty exaggeration of my recollection. I’m looking forward to examining your classical reading list with pleasure.

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