Zola, Émile Entries



When I noticed, over on the Classics Circuit blog, that the April tours would focus on Alexandre Dumas and Emile Zola, it seemed like a great opportunity to continue with my pledge to read more literature in French, and expose myself to the father of French naturalism, whose work I had never read. What better starting point than his acknowledged masterpiece, the tale of a harrowing coal-mining strike in the Normandy of the 1860s?

When my edition of Germinal arrived in the mail, however, I was a little shocked: I hadn't really thought about the time commitment involved in reading 600 pages of 19th-century French in less than a month. Add to that the sudden memory that my previous forays into naturalism haven't exactly been favorites, and the bracing unfamiliarity of all that coal-mining vocab, and I was feeling a bit apprehensive. I decided to plow ahead, however, and since then I've been on a strict 20-pages-a-day regimen. I have to say that I've learned a massive amount as a result of the experience. I hope you'll forgive me if I just stop and pat myself on the back for a moment: I actually thought for the first few days that I wouldn't be able to read this novel, but in the end I not only read it, but felt like I achieved a fairly nuanced understanding of it as well.

It helped that Zola's techniques, on the level of plotting, chapter- and paragraph-construction, are so firmly rooted in the old-fashioned 19th-century tradition. His prose has that padded, old-armchair quality of a Dickens or a Thackeray: I could afford to let many words slide by, incompletely grasped, and still have a perfectly clear idea of what was going on, even appreciating much of Zola's stylistic power. I think, had I been reading this novel in English, I might have wearied of his blatant metaphors: the mines as monstrous, gaping maws feasting on human flesh, for example, which is a trope repeated MANY times throughout the book. I've been a little put off by extracts of English translations I've read in other posts on Germinal, and I was certainly frustrated with Theodore Dreiser for similar tricks. But, either because of my remedial French skills or because Zola's heated rhetoric comes off better in the original, it didn't bother me as much in Germinal. Actually, I think I was more amenable, both because the conditions Zola was describing were genuinely more horrible, more worthy of overheated prose, and partly...well, partly it was down to Zola's excellent storytelling abilities.

Because, despite the occasional cliché in its language, Germinal is masterful storytelling. Even with my limited French, I found the scenes down in the coal pits amazingly vivid and frightening: the moist, gaseous air; the viscous darkness, the rickety metal cages descending a third of a mile underground on a creaking cable, the miners huddled together with their elbows in each others' faces; the intensely claustrophobic mining veins in which the workers had barely room to swing their tools, the men stripped bare to the waist as the heat rose, coated inside and out with sweat and coal dust. Setting is often the high point of naturalist novels, but few authors I've ever read have captured a sense of place so viscerally, and who used the setting to such great effect. (I don't have an English translation, so I'll be quoting in French.)

C'était Maheu qui souffrait le plus. En haut, la température montait jusqu'à trente-cinq degrés, l'air ne circulait pas, l'étouffement à la longue devenait mortel. Il avait dû, pour voir clair, fixer sa lampe à un clou, près de sa tête: et cette lampe, qui chaufflait son crâne, achevait de lui brûler le sang. Mais son supplice s'aggravait surtout de l'humidité. La roche, au-dessus de lui, à quelques centimetres de son visage, suisselait d'eau, de grosses gouttes continues et rapides, tombant sur une sorte de rythme entêté, toujours à la même place. Il avait beau tordre le cou, renverser la nuque: elles battaient sa face, s'écrasaient, claquaient sans relache. Au bout d'un quart d'heure, il était trempé, couvert de sueur lui-même, fumant d'une chaude buée de lessive.

I've never really agreed with the naturalist idea that, since people are products of their environment/heredity, a well-drawn setting is the better part of character development. It's still not my favorite approach, but I have to say that Zola somehow makes it work. I really cared about his characters, about the whole, tragic-fated Maheu family and their lodger Étienne, despite (or maybe because of) the fact that many of them acted atrociously to one another much of the time. This was partly down to Zola's knack for good, old-fashioned suspense: one scene, in which hundreds of miners are trapped at the bottom of the pits and must climb seven hundred meters straight up the side of a cliff on semi-broken ladders, had me reading well past my 20-page requirement and my midnight bedtime, just to find out what would happen. It's been a long time since I read a book in such a plot-based, almost childlike way, hanging on the edge of my seat for the next installment even though I knew from the beginning that most characters were doomed to tragedy. It was a nice change of pace.

But I think, also, my interest in Zola's characters has to do with a certain unexpected complexity about his depiction of human nature. I went into this novel expecting a straightforward "people are animals" approach, like that Amateur Reader has been finding in Thérèse Raquin. And Zola certainly takes a good, hard look at human animalism in Germinal: plenty of characters are ruled by their lust, aggression, addictions, cowardice, and so on. Others, like Étienne and la Maheude, possess what we might call nobler, more idealistic sides, which duel with their more animal natures. What interested me, though, was how conflicted Zola's narrative seemed about the role of idealism and "nobility." Some of the most appealing scenes, like those at the village feast day, are a bacchanal of undifferentiated—yet exuberant, companionable—humanity. Some of the most content characters, like the Maheu son Jeanlin, seem completely devoid of morality. Scenes of so-called "improvement" on the other hand, such as the evenings when Étienne reads aloud to the Maheu family about his new-found socialist ideals, are often accompanied by a sense of dread. On the one hand, the reader agrees with the young man that the miners deserve a better life than they have. On the other hand, we see clearly that his naive declarations about taking over the mines and becoming the masters can only lead to hardship and tragedy.


Similarly, Étienne has inherited a genetic blood-lust from his Macquart ancestors, and several times throughout the book he comes close to committing murder. Always his civilized, idealistic side wins out, and he lets his rival escape, even when the man has fought unfairly and tried to kill Étienne himself. After these triumphs of his civilized side, the young man is left feeling drained, frustrated, confused—and, since his enemy is one of the least likeable characters in the book, the reader can't help but be a little bit disappointed as well. On the contrary, when events finally conspire so that Étienne can carry out the murder he lusts to commit, he feels a wild happiness:

Confusément, toutes ses luttes lui revenaient à la mémoire, cet inutile combat contre le poison qui dormait dans ses muscles, l'alcool lentement accumulé de sa race. Pourtant, il n'était ivre que de faim, l'ivresse lointaine des parents avait suffi. Ses cheveux se dressaient devant l'horreur de ce meurtre, et malgré la révolte de son éducation, une allégresse faisait battre son coeur, la joie animale d'un appétit enfin satisfait. Il eut ensuite en orgueil, l'orgueil du plus fort.


Here we have the expected "people are nothing but animals" attitude—but it almost comes off as a claim that people SHOULD be nothing but animals, that their evolution into a more thoughtful, idealistic being has only brought them unnecessary suffering. After all, in the natural world, la Maheude's maternal bond with her children would be unlikely to be corrupted with temptation to sell her daughter's sexual favors to the grocer for food, or by frustration that her son's crushed limbs will mean less money for the household. In the natural world, animals fulfill their natural roles without guilt or baggage. In lean times they may starve, and they may kill each other, but at least they do it cleanly. It seemed to me that the idealism in Germinal brought the characters more hardship than any other factor (except the vast Capitalist System), which made the famous final lines, about an army of revolutionaries germinating under the soil, ring oddly false, even sinister, in my ears. Has this story really taught us to pursue an idealistic revolution? Or has it taught us to embrace our animalistic natures and live how best we can in the moment?

Whatever the philosophical outcome, however, reading Germinal was a gripping ride, not to mention a confidence-boost for me: I now feel empowered to seek out other French novels, even ones written in a pre-20th-century style. Big thanks to everyone at the Classics Circuit for motivating me on this one!

June 2012

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography