13 August 2007

Emile Zola - Germinal

I approached this book, which has legendary status in France, and in world literature, with no preconceptions and little knowledge of its subject. It's quite refreshing to approach the classics in this way, and it rarely happens with English novels.

The first thing that strikes you is Zola's narrative skill. The first 10 chapters or so are set on one day, when Etienne Lantier arrives in a mining village looking for work, and finds food, accommodation and a job. In those chapters Zola sets up the novel, presenting the physical aspect of the mine, and the history and politics behind it, but always through the narrative, using the characters naturally to develop and expand the scene.

It's a large and complex novel that Zola keeps control of for most of its length. There is a descent into sentimentality towards the end, and implausibility, but for the first half the rigorous realism, and vigorous action, are compelling. It's a very physical book, all about the striving of the men and women underground, and their hunger, and lots of sex. The sex is just a part of the narrative, it's treated in an unsensational way, remarkable for the period, and startling when compared to contemporary English literature, such as Hardy.

The politics in Germinal is directly Marxist - Marx is quoted, and the International is in the background supporting the strike. This may be the reason for its continuing popularity in France, more Socialist than Britain, and perhaps why Zola is less popular in England than he once was. Maybe there's an assumption that, stripped of its dated politics, there's little left of Zola, but that's certainly not true.

Zola's recurring theme of the inheritance of personality traits, which features throughout the Rougon-Macquart cycle, is not very significant in Germinal, although it is mentioned. Etienne is supposedly hotheaded and prone to rages, which isn't an implausible character trait of itself, and the inheritance of it appears unnecessary.

Zola's thorough research is evident throughout, from the details of working down a mine, to that of the life of miners during a strike. There is some implausibility and inconsistency though - a family who were near starvation living upon the earnings of several mining family members manage to survive for several months without any income beyond charity, which runs out soon. Zola doesn't address that issue with the closeness he applied to the first few chapters.

The scenes of the uprising and the strike are hugely energetic and vivid, and show Zola at his best - vigorous action supported by strong characters.As the narrative develops, the tragedies become a little relentless, and the ending is excruciatingly sentimental, and indeed implausible - Zola is unaware that lack of oxygen would have killed the trapped miners before lack of food.

But that's a quibble when set against the huge ambition, and success, of this novel. Zola is often accused of being too political, and lacking humour, but in Germinal his intense attitude has its greatest expression.


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