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Germinal – Émile Zola

26 Jul

GerminatingThoughtsÉtienne Lantier, an unemployed railway worker, is a clever but uneducated young man with a dangerous temper. Forced to take a back-breaking job at Le Voreux mine when he cannot get other work, he discovers that his fellow miners are ill, hungry, and in debt, unable to feed and clothe their families. When conditions in the mining community deteriorate even further, Lantier finds himself leading a strike that could mean starvation or salvation for all.

I can safely say that this book fits into the great tradition of journalistic classics.  It complements Dickens’ portrayal of the poverty and struggles of the working class and also reminded me of the depiction of English mines in Orwell’s harrowing but ultimately rewarding The Road to Wigan Pier.  The mention of the Davy lamp in the text also brought to mind Sir Humphrey Davy’s selfless experiences during research for his life saving Davy lamp.

Although Germinal is book 13 in the 20 volume Les Rougon-Macquart series, the earlier books aren’t required reading as this one stands alone perfectly well, this was my introduction to Zola and from the outset it pulled me straight in.

From the beginning we are introduced to a brutal work life of the pit workers, the place where they reside is a blight on a denuded landscape and the mine is depicted variously as gorging on human flesh and is also likened to the Greek underworld of Tartarus showing the nature of our relationship with the earth or at least our imagination’s interpretation.  Zola’s almost hellish imagery doesn’t shy away from the struggles and the horrors that people struggled through and sets the scene for a book story in which life is changed for all in harrowing and profound ways.

Buried like moles beneath the crushing weight of the earth, and without a breath of fresh air in their burning lungs, they simply went on tapping.

The vivid depictions of mining encourages that feeling of pity for the workers in their terrible conditions which aren’t overstated in their treacherous nature, in fact Zola’s depictions of all classes are accurate and even-handed, his considerable cast show many facets of bravery, love and hate across the board, yet strangely some of the minor characters get storylines that are more interesting than the main plot. The continued changing of my feelings for the characters as they grew or revealed their true colours, throughout the book kept me just off-balance enough to not fully like any of them but appreciate their motivations all the same.

The disgraceful opulence of the rich, who are shown as odious but hopelessly naÏve and ignorant of what exactly it is people actually do so they can enjoy their profits is strange for the modern reader who has information on tap, it seems for all their education that they have little in the way of understanding to what the mining actually entails.. It’s truly shocking to think of the workers as happy but this is perfectly balanced by the changes in the miners attitudes as the plot unfolds and the rumblings of discontent become something more.  The way they use violence against each other and only value each other on the amount of money they make or lend gives them their own hierarchy, it is an interesting metamorphosis which makes the reader consider the ultimate aims of the workers and how changes can affect even the purest of motives..

There are plenty of memorable scenes in the book from the first sight of the mine in the windy night to the barren landscape used indiscriminately by young couples to procreate and bring new life to suffer as they do, which is terribly sad as are the many set pieces that show a life with little hope, an ability to adapt to ever worsening circumstances of poverty, the claustrophobic drudgery and the imminent dangers of the mine.  It does allows all the above ground scenes to become, in contrast doubly poignant and almost give a sense of freedom to these poor people, prisoners to their work for life.

The gulf between rich and poor is obscene and as we are all painfully aware, the social inequalities continue today all over the world albeit in less torrid circumstances for most.  Zola in one instance creates a supermarket that is already destroying small businesses in the 1860’s, this foresight makes this work a socially relevant commentary still.  It’s a timeless book that gives a warning across the ages of what could happen when the savagery of the long-suffering is unleashed as they stand up for what is fair and right.

As far as Classics go, this is one that will stay with the reader, the plot does have a few lulls and some over the top melodrama but when it gets going that can be excused as it’s a great book about life.  Characters are complex having their faults and after an initial adjustment period the books soon gets going and ramps up to unputdownable levels as the story ramps up to its climax.  This book is a rewarding, even-handed tale that is as epic as it is human.

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49 Comments

Posted by on 26/07/2015 in Classics, Journalism

 

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49 responses to “Germinal – Émile Zola

  1. renxkyoko

    26/07/2015 at 20:45

    I hope the owners of the mine didn’t do a Marie Antoinette.

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    • Ste J

      26/07/2015 at 21:28

      Well without giving too much away, there are lessons learned on both sides shall we say…

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  2. cricketmuse

    26/07/2015 at 21:13

    A bit grim for my tastes. Mining stories unnerve me, as I always need to see the sky. I had a tough time with October Sky for that reason.

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    • Ste J

      26/07/2015 at 21:31

      I am a claustrophobic as well, I covered my eyes at that horrible bit in the decent in the tunnel and had to keep taking breathers whilst reading a Thor Heyerdahl book for that very same reason, very intense. This one isn’t so bad on thaty aspect of it though, what there is, is tame by today’s standards of detail.

      Liked by 1 person

       
  3. Resa

    26/07/2015 at 21:47

    It sounds like a great book. Sad to say I’ve never read anything by Zola. Mining is a plight & a blight that continues to this day. My great uncle worked in coal mines & died of black lung.
    Interesting about the supermarket taking over.

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    • Ste J

      27/07/2015 at 19:43

      Black lung is an affliction that the first character Étienne meets is afflicted with coincidentally. Mining can never be safe and harmless for people, you are right blight and plight indeed.

      Liked by 1 person

       
      • Resa

        27/07/2015 at 23:01

        Yeah, the black lung thing is sick… & I don’t mean that in the cool hip way. I mean sick as in sick. It was a big underlying theme in the story.
        I did a movie for Showtime w/Holly Hunter about the last coal mine in America to become unionized. ( Harlan County War) https://vimeo.com/27927135) is the vignette I did for my website.
        How much can affluent society, even today, ignore the plight of the hard working poor? Apparently, a lot!

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        • Ste J

          28/07/2015 at 15:59

          I tend not to go in for modern speak to much, although I do lapse into colloquialisms frequently. I will have to watch that film, I think it’s really great that you work in movies, I’m a friend to the stars! Affluent society isn’t bothered unless the apple cart is rocked, if societies were judged on their poorest people I think we would all be found wanting.

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  4. clarepooley33

    26/07/2015 at 22:07

    Yet another author I’ve never read! Sounds grim as Cricketmuse says but I will add it to my list as it is also a book one ought to read I think. Thanks Ste!

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    • Ste J

      27/07/2015 at 18:53

      It is an extremely rewarding read, this falls firmly into the category of books that required reading and although it is a substantial book at 532 pages once it all starts kicking off, I found I was flying through it. It is grim but I think you will be happy you read it.

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  5. Jill Weatherholt

    26/07/2015 at 22:07

    Nice review, Ste J. This book sounds intriguing, probably because I have relatives who worked in the coal mines of West Virginia.

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    • Ste J

      27/07/2015 at 19:55

      It will give you an insight perhaps into the conditions and will make an interesting compare and contrast as to the conditions your relatives lived in compared to the French.

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  6. The Book Haven

    26/07/2015 at 23:35

    This was my introduction to Émile Zola. Seemed hopelessly gloomy and equally impactful. I agree with you “this is one that will stay with the reader”.

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    • Ste J

      27/07/2015 at 18:45

      At least with Dickens, he managed to add in a bit of humour as well as depicting the grittiness of the times. I’m looking forward to reading a few more of Zola’s efforts but perhaps I will save them for those winter months when I’m in a suitably bleak frame of mind.

      Liked by 1 person

       
  7. Irena S.

    26/07/2015 at 23:39

    I’ve been meaning to read this book for years but for some reason I haven’t. I glad you reviewed it because I am now inspired to read it.

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    • Ste J

      27/07/2015 at 18:48

      Great! You won’t be disappointed, it is a fantastic book just not a particularly happy one but what it lacks in laughs in makes up for in so many other ways. I had my copy on the shelf for about three or four years which I liked to think I was keeping it maturing like fine wine or cheese, which is in line with the Frenchness of the whole affair.

      Liked by 1 person

       
  8. Purpleanais

    27/07/2015 at 01:57

    I loved this book, I am a huge Zola fan. What I particularly liked about him was that he exposed the miasma that emanated from all classes – nobody was spared, and even though critics accused him of being “too sympathetic” towards the working class, he never failed to expose its shortcomings.

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    • Ste J

      27/07/2015 at 18:59

      I think it is difficult for even the most even handed not to feel sympathy for the plight of the working class but having said that he balances that out with some harsh assessments of them as well. As the book went on, the people I thought I liked and who deserved a break seemed to become the characters that disgusted me most. I haven’t read much French literature before apart from Sartre, Camus and Hugo oh and Voltair, Verne and Dumas…okay so I have read more than I thought but I need expand that list a lot more now, any recommendations? (I think I have some Balzac, Maupassant and descartes somewhere too as well)

      Liked by 1 person

       
      • Purpleanais

        27/07/2015 at 22:47

        Maupassant is a must as far as I’m concerned. I don’t have to tell you that anything by Zola is also high on my list. Marguerite Duras, Colette, Charles Baudelaire, Marcel Proust, George Sand, Gustave flaubert… if you can ever find his translations, Marcel Pagnol is my all-time favourite French writer… and if you want somebody more modern, there’s Philippe Djian and Michel Houellebecq…

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        • Ste J

          28/07/2015 at 15:30

          excellent, thank you, I’m not familiar with some of those authors which is good as it gives me plenty to research and add to my stupidly huge list. I will definitely keep an eye out for Marcel Pagnol.

          Liked by 1 person

           
  9. shadowoperator

    27/07/2015 at 02:15

    I have never read anything by Zola, but I know he has a reputation far and wide as a grim and gritty realist (or maybe I should say proponent of naturalism), and I can’t say I would be drawn to his writings. My own grandfather was a coal miner in the first half of the twentieth century, and I’ve heard some horror stories, but I think probably that Zola has the dubious advantage of worse stories because of the earlier time frame and locale, when things were almost certainly worse. I’m sure his book must be very intense and interesting in some respects because of this quality.

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    • Ste J

      27/07/2015 at 19:53

      It is harrowing and pretty difficult to imagine because of our leisure time and safety measures put in place to protect us but yes the conditions and the experiences are terrifying but to support one’s family it needs to be done, until pushed too far that is. Proponent of naturalism indeed, lol that is a much classier way of putting it, he doesn’t make it an easy read but on balance I think I will reread it again one day but if you’ve already heard some horror stories, you will have a good idea of what goes on.

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  10. Aquileana

    27/07/2015 at 03:22

    Stunning review…. I much enjoyed the excerpts in which you make reference to Hades´domains.-… It sounds haunting, indeed… Also I didn’t know that Germinal is was book 13 in the 20 volume Les Rougon-Macquart series… I guess you don´t need to sequentially read the multiple instalments!… Great post, dear Ste.. Thanks for sharing and all my bets wishes to you. Aquileana ⭐

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    • Ste J

      27/07/2015 at 19:48

      Apparently Germinal is Zola’s masterpiece so I am glad I didn’t have to wade through thirteen other books to get there but i will read them all one day and as ever you are invited on my journey with me. There is a haunting, tragic quality that runs through the book, then again I tend to find that in most things.

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  11. Andrea Stephenson

    27/07/2015 at 21:26

    You do make me realise how many books / authors I haven’t read Ste 🙂 But usually, after I read one of your reviews, it makes me want to add it to the list! This is a beautiful review.

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    • Ste J

      28/07/2015 at 15:15

      Thank you! I am haunted by the amount of books I will probably never have the time to read. I love encouraging people to read books, it makes me happy to do that. The good news is, I have hundreds more books that I have read to review in the future, it’s the fun that never ends!

      Liked by 1 person

       
  12. Lyn

    28/07/2015 at 06:50

    I always enjoy your reviews, Ste, and this one is superb 🙂

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    • Ste J

      28/07/2015 at 15:21

      I love writing them and seeing how people react to them, I will be honest, I did worry this one was a bit long so its nice to see that people like it. Plenty more coming up my friend, the toughest thing is to choose the next one.

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  13. Elizabeth Melton Parsons

    28/07/2015 at 13:44

    Like the early mining days in this country, which is a subject close to my heart. My mom was born in a coal mining camp in Kentucky at a time when things were pretty bad. Hope you are having a lovely day, my friend 🙂 xo

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    • Ste J

      28/07/2015 at 15:35

      It’s interesting how many of my American blogger friends have relatives who were connected with mining. I bet there are plenty of stories to be told about those days. My day is better now work is over, I hope your day is equally good.

      Liked by 1 person

       
  14. quirkybooks

    28/07/2015 at 16:37

    Hi Ste, I shared this across Twitter, Facebook and Google. (For those of you who like reading fiction and in particular Charles Dickens classics, this book would appear similar. Read the review.) I studied Dickens for A Level English Lit and particularly Bleak House. I remember what conditions the workhouses were in. It’s interesting to note the divide between rich and poor as still a reflection of today, and there is still a strong divide there. Although people who are rich, are not all ignorant or selfish as they would appear from this book. I went to the Millionaire Mind Intensive course and that is about changing your mindset about being rich; that we are taught from a young age, that money doesn’t grow on trees and that rich people are snobs, and it’s true that we have that instilled in our minds from being young. I guess I certainly did. But in order to become rich in terms of money, I have to change my mindset about this, otherwise it poses a barrier to me achieving this as it does’t sound like it would be nice to be rich. At the moment I am very far from that and I work in multiple jobs, so very working class. But even if I was rich, I would still work – Although doing more of what I love; writing and helping people, so it wouldn’t really be work.

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    • Ste J

      29/07/2015 at 18:12

      Both Dickens and Zola had the journalistic journeys and that certainly shows up in their writing, the same with Orwell also. Zola in particular takes a fair view of both rich and poor showing their good (sometimes) and horrible sides. Thank you for sharing, I need to get on twitter and thank people for sharing and resharing.

      Liked by 1 person

       
      • quirkybooks

        30/07/2015 at 14:20

        Hi Ste, thank you for giving me more insight. When I shared it to Twitter, someone commented on it.

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  15. Lucy

    29/07/2015 at 08:36

    I have read some Zola but have not got to this one yet. Maybe one day when I’m looking for a challenge I’ll read the whole series. What you said about it staying with you struck a chord with me, I have found some of his scenes have almost haunted me. He takes an alarming idea and runs with it, La Bete Humaine particularly had me gasping over my sandwich during my lunch break.

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    • Ste J

      29/07/2015 at 18:04

      Interestingly Claude is Étienne Lantier’s brother, I like how that ties in, I would love to read the whole sequence and I suppose that I will just have to do that now I’ve written it. La Bête Humaine sounds like something I could definitely enjoy reading and also sit in cafés with trying and failing to look pretentious.

      Liked by 1 person

       
      • Lucy

        29/07/2015 at 19:29

        Exactly, things you say on the internet are legally binding. I think I’ll make it my 2016 reading challenge. La Bete has murderous nutters, cheating wives and steam trains, so something for everybody 🙂

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        • Ste J

          29/07/2015 at 19:40

          It sounds like the perfect combination to me, in fact that book has now gone higher up on my reading list. Roll on the weekend so I can seek out a bookshop and then another! That is quite a reading challenge, I will take it upon myself to haunt you with those words by copy and pasting them into every 2016 comment!

          Liked by 1 person

           
          • Lucy

            29/07/2015 at 20:50

            Ha! *picks up gauntlet*
            I look forward to you taking up your position of ‘Reading challenge enforcer’. There’s probably a badge and theme tune to go with that role.

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            • Ste J

              30/07/2015 at 18:27

              I hope it’s a dodgy 80’s costume like Doctor Who envisioned in any episode of that era of Who.

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  16. anna amundsen

    24/08/2015 at 08:34

    I’ve read Germinal long time ago, sometime in secondary school, when I was seventeen I think.. It was a very difficult book, heavy and burdening.
    For years after I kept away from Zola because of the dirt, darkness and stuffiness, but recently, these couple of months, I’ve been thinking about reading the whole Rougon-Macquart series.. It will probably happen next year, though.

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    • Ste J

      24/08/2015 at 19:07

      That will certainly be an epic challenge, I am interested in tackling the series as well. I can see how it would be a challenge at 17 and probably off putting and to be fair when I didn’t have much time to read I felt the same but for me reading it in great chunks made it easier for me, besides who needs sleep when you have Zola.

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  17. RoSy

    29/08/2015 at 02:00

    I can see the realities of this book making me upset.
    Almost seems that peons have always gotten the short end of the stick.

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    • Ste J

      05/09/2015 at 16:42

      Yes they do, it is harrowing but the plus side is you can sit in a café and read it and appear all intellectual!

      Liked by 1 person

       

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