on 28 July 2010
Great stuff. A powerful and distressing story dealing with the awful lives of a group of coal miners in late 19th century France, and the disasters that lead on from their decision to strike for more pay. Zola manages to combine a pulsing story line with social, political and economic commentary and to keep the reader completely involved in the lives of his giant cast of characters. Brilliant.
Five hundred pages about a fictional French miner's strike in 1885 doesn't sound too promising as entertainment, especially when the miners aren't even going to win their battle with the bosses. But this is a gripping and breathtaking story drawing in the lives of ordinary mine workers, their immediate bosses, global capitalism, the rise of socialist and anarchist politics, new science and covering the unbelievable engineering mechanics of the workings of a mine. It's a harrowing tale of grinding poverty and exploitation but there is also tremendous camaraderie, courage, love, tenderness, rage and sadness here, all-in-all a heady mixture.
Zola, like Mark Twain and Charles Dickens, was a journalist and so he knows how to tell a social story without making it into a dull documentary. He starts slowly and on a small scale. A solitary man - Étienne Lantier, an unemployed engineer with a hereditary drinking problem, approaches the massive Le Voreux coal mine in Northern France. There is a deep recession on and jobs are scarce but he has the good fortune to be taken on as a miner in a team led by Maheu, an experienced and respected worker, and including his daughter Catherine, whom Étienne is drawn to. Étienne falls in with the hard working Maheu family and becomes their lodger. Times are tough and they are struggling to make ends meet and so, when the mining company tries to cut the worker's pay, Étienne organises a strike with disastrous consequences for the workers, the company, management and the mine itself.
There is a huge cast of characters, each illustrating a different aspect of life in the mining town. Zola gets right under the skin of the hopeless and grinding lives of the workers who are paid just enough to keep body and soul together, but he also shows the lives and motives of the Bourgeois, M. Hennebeau the mine director and his cuckolding but courageous nephew, Négrel, the Grégoires who live off their huge dividends from the mine, and Deneulin, owner of a rival mine who is to be bankrupted by the strike. Zola manages to cover the economics and politics very deftly and retain his focus on the human story of his various characters and the impact of the strike on them. There is tremendous violence in this book, corporate, institutional, personal, deliberate and casual but there is also a little tenderness, brotherhood, community and family.
The introduction is well worth reading to understand some of the deeper themes and how Zola uses the imagery of the mine, the animals working in it, the landscape and his characters to echo and amplify his social and political ideas. It's very neatly done.
This book had a tremendous impact in its day. 50,000 mineworkers followed Zola's coffin at his funeral chanting `Germinal' as a tribute (the title is one of the days of the week in the revolutionary French calendar) and even today it is powerful stuff. The only aspect I have some difficulty with is that the workers are portrayed as constantly having casual sex with each other, even as children. Roger Pearson's introduction says that there is no contemporary evidence for this and I haven't read similar things in other books about mining communities, such as D H Lawrence's Sons and Lovers. If this part of the book is exaggerated or untrue then it casts doubt on the rest but I haven't enough knowledge of the period to draw a conclusion.
Like Balzac, Zola wrote a series of books that vaguely interlink showing the state of France in his day. So there is another volume, La Bête Humaine, about Etienne's brother who is a pathological killer, and a third, L'Assommoir, about his mother who is a laundry woman in Paris. On this form I shall certainly be seeking them both out.