Monday, November 24, 2014
Germinal by Émile Zola
Posted by JaneGS
I received a copy of Émile Zola's novel Germinal years ago as the result of a fellow blogger's giveaway that I won, and I finally read it this Fall. It took me a little while because it is such a dense, somber story, and I needed to take breaks from time to time to cleanse my palate. Fortunately, the book is divided into seven parts, so I read one roughly each week. I ended up being totally blown away by the book, and enthusiastically gave it five Goodreads stars.
I read the Oxford World Classics version, translated from French by Peter Collier, with an introduction, which I just read tonight, by Robert Lethbridge. I found the introduction to be such fun to read--a great way to help me sort through why I responded so warmly to such a bleak book.
And it is bleak. The central character, Etienne Lantier, is a budding socialist who, desperate for work, arrives in a mining village in northern France in the mid-1880s, is hired on, falls in love with his landlord's daughter, and leads the starving, poverty-stricken miners and their families in a strike that ultimately fails and worsens the lot of the villagers. He survives the collapse of a mine that he is working in and survives floods, explosions, and a murderous rival during the twelve days he is trapped underground.
The novel gets its name from one of the springtime months within the French Republican Calendar, and while the novel seems to end on a positive note, with the emergence of springtime after the long cold winter of massive discontent, I couldn't forget that spring and summer ripen and fade into fall and winter.
Despite the bleakness--and it is truly jaw-dropping to read about the horrific conditions under which these French miners existed--I found the book absolutely compelling and the energy contained within it electrifying. I think Lethbridge, in his introduction, expressed what caught me as "the synthesis of the archetypal with the documentary."
Starting first with the documentary, Zola seamlessly wrote of the details of the lives of the mining families as well as their bourgeois mine managers in the context of the intricacies of mine machinery, operation, dynamics, geology, structure and the sights and smells and feelings of being underground. Before he wrote novels, Zola had been a journalist and even though Germinal is the 13th novel in a 20-volume series, he went back to his training as a journalist and thoroughly researched the mining industry in northern France before writing the book.
But detailed descriptions alone do not great literature make, Zola also employed a rich and layered imagery, for example denoting the mine as a beast who must be fed humanity to survive. And from that imagery, Zola was able to tap into our collective remembered stories, the archetypal stories that keep on reappearing down the ages, and that are referred to as myths. Germinal has Demeter/Persephone/Hades, it has the prodigal son, it has Cain and Abel, and it has the maenads (female followers of Dionysus) to name a few, and probably many more that I didn't even recognize.
It's that "synthesis of the archetypal with the documentary" that makes Germinal work. It is utterly believable--it feels like truth.
Final note--if you are moved to adding Germinal to your classics reading list, seek out the translation by Peter Collier. It is absolutely riveting. It sounds modern but at the same time completely realistic for 1880's French miners. It is raw, graphic, often vulgar, and utterly unlike anything else I've read from this time period. I find it surprising that this book wasn't banned for its frank depiction of sex, poverty, drunkenness, and debauchery--perhaps it was. It is also poetic and lyrical. It is as if Zola put his hand on the pulse of humanity and opened a vein.