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germinal

23 december 2023

Germinal was the first novel I read in French, nearly 40 years ago.

Or rather the first long and relatively modern novel. I had previously read Benjamin Constant's Adolphe and Chateaubriand's René, Romantic novellas written in crystalline formal prose: stories of passion, but told decorously in an abstract vocabulary. They remain, I think, good ways into the French language for literary learners.

And then I decided to vault over many more suitable texts, and read Émile Zola's great novel of class conflict. I plunged from the glittering surfaces of the early 19th-century aristocracy into the depths of late 19th-century coal mines. Germinal is long, elaborate, and uses a daunting technical vocabulary. But I was young and foolish and read it anyway.

Even naturalism needs to do world-building, given that most of Germinal's readers were unlikely to have spent much time in coal mines. Zola uses a time-honored device (which was presumably a bit newer in 1885): he takes us into the mines in the company of a neophyte, Étienne Lantier. Étienne has been a railroad worker; he knows as much about mining as the average novel-reader. So we learn along with him, and the underground universe comes to seem natural to us, as well.

Étienne is drawn into the circle of the Maheu family: Bonnemort, the patriarch whose lungs have been ravaged by coal dust; the father and mother of a large set of children, pleasure-loving, driven to distraction by poverty, but not unkind in their way; Catherine, the hard-working girl whom Étienne at first takes for a boy, who clearly likes him but surprises him with her frankness so that he's somewhat afraid of her (and besides, she has a boyfriend, the volatile Chaval). Zola builds the world of the miners' community via Étienne's perceptions: a world of sensuality, vitality, great need, and gross injustice.

That gross injustice breeds labor revolt, the novel's great theme. Étienne moves in with the Maheus. He educates himself about communism, and becomes invaluable to the miner community because of his literacy and his leadership. Before long, Étienne's radicalism becomes the catalyst for a long and brutal miners' strike. Two long sections tell the story of the labor action and its consequences: the strike itself, with the concluding slaughter of the miners by the troops defending one of the pits; and then the collapse of one of the mines, with the major characters caught below. For all the rhetoric and analysis that Zola devotes himself to, Germinal is told in large suspense narratives that prefigure epic cinema like Birth of a Nation or Napoléon. (Germinal itself has been filmed regularly, from a 1913 silent through 21st-century long-form TV; I have never seen any of the versions, but I don't get the sense that any are considered classics.)

Germinal is maybe the most unremittingly intense of all major Western novels. It's not like I wasn't braced for the impact of Émile Zola. I'd read in recent years (and written about here) such full-onslaught fictions as L'Assommoir and La bête humaine. But Germinal is written at an even higher pitch; there is no respite, no relief. There are moments of sexual joy and moments of nervous animation (especially the young character Jeanlin, who becomes a kind of guide and evil spirit to Étienne at times), but even they boil over into violence: domestic violence, random killing. The savagery that various central characters are capable of illustrates Zola's great theme of atavism, the human beast taking over civilized man. In Germinal that savagery infects the universe, wreaking havoc on everything from horses to the natural landscape.

Germinal is full of rhetorical passages, notably the conclusion of the book, which echoes a motif sounded throughout, that of the seeds of revolution germinating in the soil of human labor. Rhetoric can be incompatible with good fiction, but here it is inseparable from fiction at its best. No amount of Marxist analysis can capture the essential injustice of capitalism as Zola could when he observes

un peuple d'hommes crevant au fond de père en fils, pour qu'on paie des pots-de-vin à des ministres, pour que des générations de grands seigneurs et de bourgeois donnent des fêtes ou s'engraissent au coin de leur feu! (Part 4, Chapter 7)

[a whole population of men, basically dying, sons after their fathers, just to pay off government officials, just so that generations of gentry and bourgeois could throw parties and grow fat by their hearths!]
And not even George Orwell's Animal Farm can convey the pessimism at the heart of Marxist analysis: that maybe the problem is not capitalism itself but the rapacity of the human beast. Souvarine, the theorist who will later turn saboteur, offers this vision to Étienne:
la vieille société n'existait plus, on en avait balayé jusqu'aux miettes ; eh bien ! n'était-il pas à craindre que le monde nouveau ne repoussât gâté lentement des mêmes injustices, les uns malades et les autres gaillards, les uns plus adroits, plus intelligents, s'engraissant de tout, et les autres imbéciles et paresseux, redevenant des esclaves? (Part 7, Chapter 2)

[the old system is gone, even its crumbs swept away. Well then! Isn't the fear that the new world will slowly corrupt and bring forth the same injustices, some feeble and some strong, some quicker, smarter, growing fat on it all, and others stupid and lazy, turning back into slaves?]

Zola, Émile. Germinal. 1885. Kindle Edition.

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