Germinal by Emile Zola

Germinal was first published in 1883 and at 536 pages I must admit that I thought I might have bitten off more than I could chew considering this was my first foray into French literature. However, the pages whizzed past and I must put in a good word for Roger Pearson who made such a smooth job of the translating. I especially liked the fact that he used the Scottish word ‘piece’ meaning sandwich.

I really enjoyed reading this book, although that does seem a strange thing to say because there certainly isn’t much joy around. Things just lurch from bad to horrendous.

The story begins with Etienne Lantier, an unemployed mechanic walking through the countryside on a freezing cold dark night, penniless and starving. When he reaches a mining complex he is interested in the lay-out of the place and hopes he might be able to find work there, which he does.

After his first shift he decides that the work is too hard and that he will move on, but when he realizes that the miners and their families are in dire straits, he decides to stay on, hoping that he will become a leader of the miners eventually.

Zola writes very realistically of the bitching and gossiping which goes on in a small close-knit community. You can’t help thinking that the French workers don’t seem to have benefited at all from the French Revolution. The contrast between the miners and the mine owners is vast. Zola seems to be a sort of French version of Charles Dickens, highlighting the appalling working conditions of the common man. However M. Hennebeau is lonely in a loveless marriage with an adulterous wife and can’t help envying the miners their ‘free-love’ lifestyle. The grass is always greener.

Things come to a head when the mine owners inflict what amounts to a pay cut on the workers, who already couldn’t make ends meet and the workers go on strike with Etienne as their leader.

I think Zola got the confrontational scenes with the army just right, showing how quickly desperate people lose control in a mob. The despised shop owner comes to a very nasty end at the hands of the women who are a rough bunch due to their circumstances. His depiction of the Chaval-Catherine relationship is so well observed and frankly depressing as the abused Catherine sticks to her abuser for fear of finding something worse without him and ending up a prostitute. Plus ca change – as they say.

At the end of the book Etienne is thinking of a future when the workers will organise themselves into unions and win the day.

I’m sure I would never have got around to reading Zola without the Classics Circuit, so a big thank-you again and I’ll definitely be reading more of his.

I’m going off at a complete tangent here.

Etienne couldn’t be expected to imagine having to contend with the likes of Margaret Thatcher, who in the 1980s decided to close down all the mines in Britain, and reader, she did it.

I had such a feeling of deja vu whilst reading Germinal because we live in what was a coal mining district and the conditions were terrible even in the 1980s. The mine which was about half a mile from us went under the North Sea and the workers had to crawl for about an hour before getting to the coal face. It was too cramped to stand up and of course they weren’t paid until they reached the coal face. Then they used pneumatic drills (jack hammers) so the noise was horrible. But still they fought for their jobs, they didn’t have to face the army as in Germinal. It was the police on horses. Soldiers wouldn’t have been as bad. We all contributed money to the strike fund but Maggie got her way in the end.