Saturday, May 2, 2015

Emile Zola - 'Germinal'

After almost exactly a year, I have returned for what may be the home stretch of my project of reading Zola's twenty novel Rougon-Macquart cycle in the order in which Zola intended them to be read. I began this project back in summer of 2010, not long after I started Zen Throw Down, and have written posts about each novel as I've read it. There are also posts on the blog related to available translations, the family tree of the Rougon-Macquart, etc. It's definitely been a long term effort!

Germinal is the sixteenth book in Zola's ordering of the Rougon-Macquart novels, and it is one of the better-known books to English-speaking audiences. Germinal picks up the story of Etienne Lantier, continuing the chronicle begun in the thirteenth novel (the infamous L'Assommoir) of the alcoholic laundress Gervaise Macquart Coupeau and her offspring. Zola first introduced Etienne in L'Assommoir as one of Gervaise's illegitimate children with Auguste Lantier. Gervaise and Lantier moved to Paris to escape the physical abuse and manipulation of her father, but Lantier soon abandons Gervaise and the family. Etienne is eventually sent away to earn money as a laborer while Gervaise sinks into alcohol-drenched poverty and prostitution.

In Germinal, Etienne is in his twenties and unemployed due to a massive economic slump throughout France. He is wandering the countryside, starving and desperately looking for work. Late at night, Etienne arrives at a cluster of mining villages and manages to land a job in a mine called Le Voreux which, according to the notes, means 'voracious'. In this way, we are introduced to the other focus of Germinal: industry and, specifically, mining. Just as each Rougon-Macquart novel tends to focus on one character of the family, so each novel focuses on one aspect of French society during the Second Empire. Here it is the working classes in heavy industry. The novel weaves a large and engrossing cast of characters with multiple plot lines to give us an insider's view of this world and of a horrific strike that erupts when the miners are pushed too far.

While references to other members of the Rougon-Macquart family are virtually non-existent in Germinal, we slowly learn how Etienne fits into Zola's theme of heredity. Most obviously, he has inherited his mother and grandmother's work ethic. This leads him to become one of the best workers in the mine. However, Etienne also carries a muted form of several darker Macquart traits. First, he possesses hints of the bloodlust that turned his brother Jacques into a serial killer (see La Bete Humaine). Etienne is not a serial killer nor a violent man but, in his rivalry with the lout Chaval, Etienne wrestles with murderous urges. For example, in part 6, chapter 2, Etienne brawls with Chaval. During the brawl, "a dreadful voice rising from deep inside him deafened him. It came from the pit of his stomach, and throbbed like a hammer inside his head, shrieking its frenzied lust for murder, its need to taste blood...and he fought down this hereditary evil, shivering desperately like a crazed lover teetering on the brink of rape." While this echoing of Jacques' mental issues doesn't rise even to the level of subplot in Germinal, it recurs with increasing intensity until the last chapters of the book. Its presence also suggests alternate ways of interpreting Etienne's motivations throughout, including his instigation of the strike against the owners of the mine.

Etienne also has a weakness for alcohol. Again, the trait is much muted compared to other characters from the Rougon-Macquart family and is not a key plot point. However, during the miners march, Etienne repeatedly urges the mob to refrain from damaging property or harming anyone until a canteen full of gin is ransacked. Etienne and the starved mob drink it all. "Gradually his eyes because bloodshot with the unhealthy intoxication of a starving man, and his teeth seemed to stand out like the fangs of a wolf between his ashen lips." Drunk, he ends up "launching his men to attack the pump which he had saved just a few hours earlier." This physical intoxication, combined with an intoxication from the power of the mob, leads him to lose control of himself and the strike. Though whether anyone can truly control an enraged mob like this is another question raised by Zola's narrative.

Third and finally, Etienne has flashes of the impractical dreamer. Like many members of the Rougon-Macquart family, he builds castles in the sky which he cannot bring to reality. Yet again, this trait is muted in Etienne, for he is definitely a man of action. Throughout the strike he propels his visions forward in a way that was impossible for his brother Claude (The Masterpiece). From this standpoint, it is interesting to parallel Etienne (a Macquart) with Aristide Saccard (a Rougon). Both have lofty ambitions, and both achieve a mixture of success and failure. On the debit side, Aristide is the perpetrator of a ponzi scheme and a financial market meltdown, while Etienne's strike leads to death and disaster. At the same time, Aristide achieves his ultimate goal of attaining a wealthy lifestyle, and Zola makes it clear that Etienne's strike has sown the seeds for more impactful resistance in the future.

Nicolas Toussaint Charlet Interior of a Coal-Miner's Hut 1829
Which brings us to the question we're left with at the novel's conclusion: what should be our final assessment of Etienne and the miners' strike he incites? Unlike many of the Rougon-Macquart family, Etienne is neither an amoral villain, an impotent dreamer, or a psychologically broken person. He plans the strike based on a sense of justice. From his first descent into Le Voreaux, he is appalled at the working conditions, the risk of death, and the backbreaking labor the miners are subjected to for a level of pay that barely keeps them alive. At the same time, he is repelled by the petty rivalries and promiscuity of the miners, and his distaste grows throughout the novel as he furthers his education on a steady diet of opposition journals and radical philosophy. So he possesses a moral compass, and his actions are driven by it.

However, as the strike progresses, things become a little blurred. As Etienne's role catapults him to a position of leadership and respect within the community, self-interest becomes an increasingly important factor in his choices. He takes pride in his popularity among the miners, and his actions are sometimes focused on preserving this popularity. As the chances the strike will lead to victory become more unlikely, Etienne continues to mesmerize the miners with speeches about the end of the capitalists and the rise of the workers. He dreams of making a career as an agitator around workers' rights, and often judges the strike in terms of how it might aide him in attaining this goal just as much as its benefit to the miners. One could even argue that by spinning dreams of equality for the miners, Etienne makes it impossible for them to rationally assess their chances. This view is supported by the presence of the new priest in the mining village, who utters nutty prophecies of the miners rising to bring God back to France in some undefined religious revolution. It's impossible not to view these clueless rantings as a parallel to Etienne's naive idealism. While the mine is repeatedly described a devouring people, Etienne's predatory trait and ulterior motives hint that he is exploiting the situation - and the miners - himself.

So is Etienne a hero or a villain? A liberator or an exploiter? A beacon of hope or a fool? Is he both and neither? It's true that Etienne has many honorable and positive characteristics, but he also lets his ideas carry him away without thinking of the consequences. Even in the face of warnings from veteran tavern-keeper Rasseneur that Etienne is playing into the hands of the owners and that the miners will be deeply hurt by the strike, Etienne continues. By the time Rasseneur's predictions come true in horrifying form, it is too late to turn back. While Etienne's cause is just, his execution is misguided and is later undone to a degree by self-interest.

From the broader standpoint of the entire Rougon-Macquart cycle, Zola has repeatedly included exposition from the characters to the effect that destruction is necessary to progress. Whether it is the razing of homes to make way for the new Paris (The Kill), small businesspeople being crushed by the rise of the large department store (The Ladies' Paradise), the realities of economic speculation (Money), attaining power in politics (His Excellency Eugene Rougon), or political revolution (The Fortune of the Rougons), the victor's path is strewn with the bodies of victims both intended and unintended. As such, while the strike is a humiliating failure for the miners and inflicts deep loss on all of them, it succeeds in laying the groundwork for future success. Etienne uses their misery to drive his own success, though again not in a wholly premeditated, amoral manner. At the same time, the last several pages of the novel describe spring arriving with language that describes the miners as newly born plants rising from under the earth and into the light. It's a hopeful note, but it's also a grim image that has the miners buried in a graveyard for the living.

We are also given indications that the strike inflicts a wound upon the society that condones the exploitation of the miners. Further, Cecile's death provides a specific instance of how the strike has not left the wealthy unscathed. It is even hinted that the government of the Empire is affected. In this way, the end of Germinal like the end of La Bete Humaine includes foreshadowing of the Empire's fall.

Zola is too much of a realist to write a clear-cut victory. For example, the miners' march finishes with the wealthy characters finally able to sit down to an interrupted dinner, an image that initially suggests the march has made no impression on them at all. Ultimately, the strike may be neither a victory nor a defeat. The miners are painted as neither morally superior to nor inferior to the owners; Zola inserts plenty commentary from his characters suggesting the miners simply want to be the wealthy themselves, not eliminate inequity. This makes it impossible to view them as saintly underdogs. Similarly, Etienne may be neither a hero nor a villain. He is simply a person, borne of the mix of hereditary traits alchemizing with the situation he faces (which is the entire point of Zola's Cycle). That said, Etienne's story ends on an upward arc which is fairly rare in the Cycle, especially from the Lantier branch.

Gerard Depardieu as Maheu in the critically acclaimed
1993 film adaptation of Germinal
About this edition of the book: I read the Oxford University Press translation by Peter Collier. While the introduction by Robert Lethbridge is twenty pages of palaver, Collier's translation is wonderful. He captures Zola's manner of showing versus telling, especially in conveying the miserable existence of the miners of Le Voreaux. Though this, we are again reminded how talented and committed Zola is as a writer compared to the melodramatic cotton candy of many English-speaking writers with a social agenda (e.g., Dickens, Gaskell, Stowe, etc.). Zola never takes the easy way out by creating obvious villains against which he sets saintly protagonists; he is merciless with his reader. While the first two-thirds of Germinal is stunning in it's stark depiction of poverty, it is when the strike spirals out of control and crashes towards defeat that Zola uses the horror of the miners' lives to draw the reader into an emotional - and ultimately literal - abyss. This is all the more impactful because we can't truly pick many of these characters to identify with on their own merits. The ravenous mine itself is the true - and mindless - antagonist for all the characters, whether they work in it or attempt to make money from it. Collier's translation conveys these subtleties which I'm assuming, with good reason I think, were part of the original French.

Germinal is a powerfully written novel about the lives of miners in the late nineteenth century. It is a novel about social justice, but one that does not rely on religion or easy answers to paint its portrait of a large cast of characters caught up in the turmoil of social change. It's required reading for anyone interested in the social writing of the period.

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