Germinal is about a poor mining town in mid-1800s France. As the economy gets worse and worse, the miners begin to starve to death under unfair pay schedules. They have no protection from labor laws, and go on strike under the leadership of a new person in town, Etienne. As days stretch to weeks and then months, the strike turns into a battle of wills between the poor starving miners and the bourgeois who want to control them.
I first have to say THANK YOU SO MUCH to the Classics Circuit for hosting the Emile Zola tour. I’ve had Zola on my to-read list for years, but I’ve always been too scared to pick up his books. I’d heard he was a realist, which translated in my head to “like Gustave Flaubert,” and I’d heard he was uber-descriptive, which translated to “like Edith Wharton.” A combination of two authors I don’t really like? That didn’t sound at all pleasant. But I’d put Germinal on my Fill in the Gaps list, and I was determined to give Zola a try. With this Circuit tour, I finally swallowed my fear and took a leap, fully prepared to wade through the first fifty pages before abandoning the book and writing off Zola altogether.
Oh. My. I couldn’t have been more incorrect. This book was BRILLIANT. I haven’t been so impressed with a classic since The Grapes of Wrath two years ago (and I read 30-40/year). Even with my prejudices going in, I loved this book wholeheartedly. I loved it enough that I stayed up really, really late one night so I could finish reading the last 250 pages. I could not put the book down! It was just that amazing.
Okay so now that I’ve done some gushing, I ought to say why it was brilliant and amazing, right? I mean, I’ve read other books recently that kept me reading and on the edge of my seat. Liar. Nick & Norah. Both excellent books. But not like Zola. Because Germinal…it hit on two different levels. It had plot. Oh yes. You think a book about starving miners sounds boring? How about bloodthirsty mobs and old gossiping women and pit explosions and mass revolt and treachery and love affairs? I was completely swept away with the plot, which got more and more intense with every page. About 100 pages from the end, I was so swept up that I actually screamed TRAITOR!!! out loud when something very unexpected occurred. I got all weepy in places. I shivered at beautifully phrased passages and squirmed at visceral scenes (highlight for spoiler: marching around a dead man’s penis on a stick? :O). I almost can’t believe this book wasn’t censored back in the 1800s when it was published! If it was a modern book, there would certainly be book banners crawling all over it!
But it wasn’t just the plot. Two different levels, right? There was so much depth to this book. Can it be read just for the exciting plot? Yeah, but it’s not really about the plot. It’s about the premise behind the plot. It’s about rich versus poor, about labor laws and selfishness and leadership and abuse of leadership and socialism versus capitalism and violence against women and child labor and human rights. That makes it sound like a political book, and it is, but it’s not dry. All of this stuff is slipped in carefully, fitting in between the cracks of the plot to fill it up and fatten it with all this meaning. And Zola isn’t one-sided. No. While it’s obvious he cares more about the poor than the rich, he doesn’t excuse the bad actions of the poor and doesn’t give the rich worry-free lives. He shows them both realistically, both with problems and worries and pain, and in some places, has them working together, alongside each other, towards a single goal.
I knew, from about page 1, that nothing was going to go well for anyone. Not everyone has the same fate, of course, but at the end, no one, neither rich nor poor, was going to be any better off than at the beginning. Life goes on. I tried to keep that in mind, but Zola is a master and I found myself caring more and more about this huge cast of characters. I wanted Etienne and Catherine to end up together. I wanted the strikers to win and get paid decent wages. I wanted no one to die of hunger or violence. I wanted…even though I knew I couldn’t have. About 200 pages into the book, I almost couldn’t go on because the stress of knowing something bad would eventually come was just too much. Zola made me care in spite of my attempt to keep myself separate from everyone.
This is not a happy book, but it’s a beautiful one. Zola is a master of words: the careful cynicism when the naive daughters of the bourgeois talk about the miners, the gut-wrenching pain that spews from the rich man’s mouth when he discovers the secrets lurking in his house, the ability to boil all people, no matter their station, down to a single point and say Yes – We are all the same. Seriously brilliant book. I’m almost scared to read anything else by Zola, for fear it won’t live up to Germinal.
Some of my favorite lines:
The last red rays of the setting sun bathed the plain in blood, and the road seemed like a river of blood as men and women, bespattered like butchers in a slaughterhouse, galloped on and on. “Oh, how wonderful!” whispered Lucie and Jeanne, whose artistic taste was deeply stirred by the lovely horror of it all.
“Imbeciles!” repeated Monsieur Hannebeau. “Do you think I’m happy?” His anger boiled up against these people who would not understand. … He found himself wishing he were dying of starvation too, and that his empty belly were twisted with pains that made his brain reel, for perhaps that might deaden this relentless grief! … “Bread! Do you think that it is all there is to it, you fools?” He had food in plenty, but that did not prevent his groaning in anguish.
And the line that made me cry:
This at last was their wedding night, in this tomb, on this bed of mud. They could not die before having their happiness, they must live and pass on life one last time. They loved each other in despair, and in death itself.
There was no sequel.
FYI: My translation was by Leonard Tancock and I highly recommend it.