Thursday, July 7, 2011

Germinal by Emile Zola

I am finally back from Florida and well rested -- time to start posting!  After a whirlwind tour of Disney I had several restful days visiting family and friends in Florida.  It seemed sort of incongruous for the setting, but despite the sunny weather I decided to tackle Germinal, this month's selection for my real-life classics group.  Of all the books our group chose for 2011, I think this was the book I've wanted to read most.  Amanda from The Zen Leaf just raved about it, and after reading The Belly of Paris and Therese Raquin last year, I was eager to read more Zola.

The setup:  Etienne Lantier arrives in a small mining village, homeless, starving, and looking for work.  He's a trained mechanic but is happy to take a job as a miner, despite the horrible working conditions.  Through his eyes, we get to see the life of these people, who are scraping a living out of the bowels of the earth.  The work is back breaking and dangerous, there's hardly enough food to go around, and not much else to do except drink, gossip, and procreate.  When the mining company decides to change the payment structure, resulting in less pay for more work, Etienne leads his comrades in a devastating strike during a long, bitter winter.

If this sounds bleak and depressing, it is, but at the same time it's absolutely riveting.  Imagine The Grapes of Wrath, only set in 1880s France -- and underground, where the work in not only exhausting, but you could die at any time from a cave-in, a gas leak, or an explosion.  Plus the eventual death of black lung.  (Not to downplay the plight of the California migrant workers, but picking vegetables isn't quite the same. Though I guess they might get carpal tunnel or skin cancer.  Excuse the digression).

Anyhow.  Zola is just a master at setting these scenes and drawing the reader in -- a large chunk of the book is just Etienne's first day in the mines, so through his eyes the reader learns exactly what life is like for these people.  Zola actually spent six months researching this book, spending time with coal miners and going down into the mines himself.  He's also brilliant at writing crowd scenes.  I tend to zone out and skim over extended action scenes in books, but not here -- there are some scenes of mob violence that are horrifying, yet I couldn't stop reading.

Zola also tells the story bourgeois managers and their families.  The book is blatantly pro-worker, yet he's able to interject some sympathy for some of the managers who are really doing the best they can.  Of course, some of the wives and daughters are unbelievably naive and sheltered about the whole situation,  and Zola's satire would be hilarious if it probably weren't true -- they come off rather like Marie Antoinette wondering why they just don't eat some cake since there's no bread.

This was probably a poor choice to read in sunny Florida but I'm so glad I read it and can't wait to read more Zola.   I have both Nana and The Drinking Den (L'Assommoir) on my TBR shelf and I'm also dying to read The Ladies' Paradise.  I don't know if Germinal counts towards the Paris in July readalong, since none of it actually takes place in Paris, so I guess I'll just have to read another Zola!  Any suggestions?

17 comments:

  1. Germinal is the only Zola I've read so far but I adored it. So compelling, so dark, so readable! I read it for a university course on French culture four years ago but I'm amazed by how clearly some of the scenes, particularly the ones underground, have stuck with me.

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  2. I'm so glad you liked it Karen! I can't wait to discuss it with our group this weekend.

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  3. Captive Reader -- Germinal was my third Zola, and I think it's the best so far. I agree, his writing is so vivid. I'm scared to death of going underground now!

    Amanda -- I think we're going to have a great discussion if everyone finished it! I can see why this is considered one of his best works. Now I want to read the whole series, hopefully they'll all be available in English eventually.

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  4. I've never read Zola and this book is not one I've aspired to read, until I read your review. Sounds marvelous.

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  5. Grapes of Wrath in 1880's France?? I'm there! I love Zola and have The Belly of Paris up next. Hope to begin next week. Germinal and Nana after that...

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  6. If you're considering books for Paris in July as well as Zola, you might well like Therese Raquin. It's a really engaging look at what lust and discontent in life can lead to, although less social commentary than what I can gather from Germinal.

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  7. I read my first Zola earlier this year - Therese Raquin - and I enjoyed it very much. This one has been on my radar for my next Zola, so I'm happy to hear you found it so intriguing.

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  8. I LOVED this when I read it. It was just so...deep and rich. I loved his characters and the realities they faced. Sadly, I haven't read any other Zola, but I have quite a few titles on my shelf for the future!

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  9. I haven't read Germinal but I want to very much, even more after your review! I'd go for Ladies Paradise next. Set in Paris & a complete contrast to Germinal although, being Zola, he shows the underside of all that luxury as well as the gorgeous exterior.

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  10. JaneGS -- Zola is just not to be missed! I've been reading so many British writers I was ignoring the French, but now I think I'll have the courage to read Victor Hugo and Balzac someday also.

    JoAnn -- I really liked The Belly of Paris, though it's not quite as intense as Germinal. The food descriptions are (mostly) mouth-watering. It was a great introduction to Zola.

    NIse -- I did read Therese Raquin last summer. I think are some equally shocking moments,though I agree not as much social commentary as Germinal.

    Brenna -- I would say Germinal is equally as intense as Therese, but longer and with more of a political angle.

    Allie -- it was so sad but I couldn't stop reading it! I also liked that Zola showed all the different sides to the characters. None of them were perfect but I was able to sympathize with most of them.

    Lyn -- I think Ladies' Paradise will be a good choice, I think I might need a setting that's a little less bleak! The Drinking Den is about a bunch of alcoholics and Nana is about a prostitute, both of which sound pretty depressing. I still want to read them, just might need a little break first.

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  11. Hi Karen, I've just discovered your blog and I'm having so much fun going through your older posts! I haven't read Zola, but I might add some of his work to the ever-expanding "to read" list.

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  12. I'm embarrassed to say that I have never read anything by Zola, but this has been on my list for a while and you have me thinking I should move it up the pile. Sounds like a good autumn read, when I'm ready for something heavier. Great review!

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  13. Glad you enjoyed your holiday! I would highly recommend The Ladies' Paradise. All about shopping, spending and debt... sounds familiar!

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  14. Glad you enjoyed your holiday! I would highly recommend The Ladies' Paradise. All about shopping, spending and debt... sounds familiar!

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  15. Great book. I've been thinking about the idea of reading Germinal but I was kind of afraid because of the book length, but I think I'll give it a try.

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  16. Johanna -- thank you and welcome! I look forward to visiting your blog also.

    Col -- it was a serious read, but somehow I found it more fascinating than depressing. I've had serious reads I'd never want to read again, like Native Son, but this wasn't like that at all.

    Vintage Reading -- I have already ordered The Ladies' Paradise and look forward to starting it. I think it will be a nice change from coal miners.

    Electicreader -- don't be afraid of the length, it is an absolute page-turner. I think I read the whole thing in three days. Zola's not difficult to read at all, unlike so many other 19th century writers.

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  17. I'm reading this in September. I'm also about to read Grapes of Wrath. Intersting comparison. I'm looking forward to giving it a try.

    I read THE MASTERPIECE which was okay. I'm not sure Zola is for me....

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