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Germinal (2004)

Germinal (2004)

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4.06 of 5 Votes: 5
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0140447423 (ISBN13: 9780140447422)
penguin classics

About book Germinal (2004)

When I noticed, over on the Classics Circuit blog, that the April tours would focus on French Alexandre Dumas and Emile Zola, it seemed like a great opportunity to continue with my pledge to read more literature in French, and expose myself to the father of French naturalism, whose work I had never read. What better starting point than his acknowledged masterpiece, the tale of a harrowing coal-mining strike in the Normandy of the 1860s? When my edition of Germinal arrived in the mail, however, I was a little shocked: I hadn't really thought about the time commitment involved in reading 600 pages of 19th-century French in less than a month. Add to that the sudden memory that my previous forays into naturalism haven't exactly been favorites, and the bracing unfamiliarity of all that coal-mining vocab, and I was feeling a bit apprehensive. I decided to plow ahead, however, and since then I've been on a strict 20-pages-a-day regimen. I have to say that I've learned a massive amount as a result of the experience. I hope you'll forgive me if I just stop and pat myself on the back for a moment: I actually thought for the first few days that I wouldn't be able to read this novel, but in the end I not only read it, but felt like I achieved a fairly nuanced understanding of it as well.It helped that Zola's techniques, on the level of plotting, chapter- and paragraph-construction, are so firmly rooted in the old-fashioned 19th-century tradition. His prose has that padded, old-armchair quality of a Dickens or a Thackeray: I could afford to let many words slide by, incompletely grasped, and still have a perfectly clear idea of what was going on, even appreciating much of Zola's stylistic power. I think, had I been reading this novel in English, I might have wearied of his blatant metaphors: the mines as monstrous, gaping maws feasting on human flesh, for example, which is a trope repeated MANY times throughout the book. I've been a little put off by extracts of English translations I've read in other posts on Germinal, and I was certainly frustrated with Theodore Dreiser for similar tricks. But, either because of my remedial French skills or because Zola's heated rhetoric comes off better in the original, it didn't bother me as much in Germinal. Actually, I think I was more amenable, both because the conditions Zola was describing were genuinely more horrible, more worthy of overheated prose, and partly...well, partly it was down to Zola's excellent storytelling abilities.Because, despite the occasional cliché in its language, Germinal is masterful storytelling. Even with my limited French, I found the scenes down in the coal pits amazingly vivid and frightening: the moist, gaseous air; the viscous darkness, the rickety metal cages descending a third of a mile underground on a creaking cable, the miners huddled together with their elbows in each others' faces; the intensely claustrophobic mining veins in which the workers had barely room to swing their tools, the men stripped bare to the waist as the heat rose, coated inside and out with sweat and coal dust. Setting is often the high point of naturalist novels, but few authors I've ever read have captured a sense of place so viscerally, and who used the setting to such great effect. (I don't have an English translation, so I'll be quoting in French.)C'était Maheu qui souffrait le plus. En haut, la température montait jusqu'à trente-cinq degrés, l'air ne circulait pas, l'étouffement à la longue devenait mortel. Il avait dû, pour voir clair, fixer sa lampe à un clou, près de sa tête: et cette lampe, qui chaufflait son crâne, achevait de lui brûler le sang. Mais son supplice s'aggravait surtout de l'humidité. La roche, au-dessus de lui, à quelques centimetres de son visage, suisselait d'eau, de grosses gouttes continues et rapides, tombant sur une sorte de rythme entêté, toujours à la même place. Il avait beau tordre le cou, renverser la nuque: elles battaient sa face, s'écrasaient, claquaient sans relache. Au bout d'un quart d'heure, il était trempé, couvert de sueur lui-même, fumant d'une chaude buée de lessive.I've never really agreed with the naturalist idea that, since people are products of their environment/heredity, a well-drawn setting is the better part of character development. It's still not my favorite approach, but I have to say that Zola somehow makes it work. I really cared about his characters, about the whole, tragic-fated Maheu family and their lodger Étienne, despite (or maybe because of) the fact that many of them acted atrociously to one another much of the time. This was partly down to Zola's knack for good, old-fashioned suspense: one scene, in which hundreds of miners are trapped at the bottom of the pits and must climb seven hundred meters straight up the side of a cliff on semi-broken ladders, had me reading well past my 20-page requirement and my midnight bedtime, just to find out what would happen. It's been a long time since I read a book in such a plot-based, almost childlike way, hanging on the edge of my seat for the next installment even though I knew from the beginning that most characters were doomed to tragedy. It was a nice change of pace.But I think, also, my interest in Zola's characters has to do with a certain unexpected complexity about his depiction of human nature. I went into this novel expecting a straightforward "people are animals" approach, like that Amateur Reader has been finding in Thérèse Raquin. And Zola certainly takes a good, hard look at human animalism in Germinal: plenty of characters are ruled by their lust, aggression, addictions, cowardice, and so on. Others, like Étienne and la Maheude, possess what we might call nobler, more idealistic sides, which duel with their more animal natures. What interested me, though, was how conflicted Zola's narrative seemed about the role of idealism and "nobility." Some of the most appealing scenes, like those at the village feast day, are a bacchanal of undifferentiated—yet exuberant, companionable—humanity. Some of the most content characters, like the Maheu son Jeanlin, seem completely devoid of morality. Scenes of so-called "improvement" on the other hand, such as the evenings when Étienne reads aloud to the Maheu family about his new-found socialist ideals, are often accompanied by a sense of dread. On the one hand, the reader agrees with the young man that the miners deserve a better life than they have. On the other hand, we see clearly that his naive declarations about taking over the mines and becoming the masters can only lead to hardship and tragedy. ***SPOILER WARNING***Similarly, Étienne has inherited a genetic blood-lust from his Macquart ancestors, and several times throughout the book he comes close to committing murder. Always his civilized, idealistic side wins out, and he lets his rival escape, even when the man has fought unfairly and tried to kill Étienne himself. After these triumphs of his civilized side, the young man is left feeling drained, frustrated, confused—and, since his enemy is one of the least likeable characters in the book, the reader can't help but be a little bit disappointed as well. On the contrary, when events finally conspire so that Étienne can carry out the murder he lusts to commit, he feels a wild happiness:Confusément, toutes ses luttes lui revenaient à la mémoire, cet inutile combat contre le poison qui dormait dans ses muscles, l'alcool lentement accumulé de sa race. Pourtant, il n'était ivre que de faim, l'ivresse lointaine des parents avait suffi. Ses cheveux se dressaient devant l'horreur de ce meurtre, et malgré la révolte de son éducation, une allégresse faisait battre son coeur, la joie animale d'un appétit enfin satisfait. Il eut ensuite en orgueil, l'orgueil du plus fort.***END SPOILER WARNING***Here we have the expected "people are nothing but animals" attitude—but it almost comes off as a claim that people SHOULD be nothing but animals, that their evolution into a more thoughtful, idealistic being has only brought them unnecessary suffering. After all, in the natural world, la Maheude's maternal bond with her children would be unlikely to be corrupted with temptation to sell her daughter's sexual favors to the grocer for food, or by frustration that her son's crushed limbs will mean less money for the household. In the natural world, animals fulfill their natural roles without guilt or baggage. In lean times they may starve, and they may kill each other, but at least they do it cleanly. It seemed to me that the idealism in Germinal brought the characters more hardship than any other factor (except the vast Capitalist System), which made the famous final lines, about an army of revolutionaries germinating under the soil, ring oddly false, even sinister, in my ears. Has this story really taught us to pursue an idealistic revolution? Or has it taught us to embrace our animalistic natures and live how best we can in the moment? Whatever the philosophical outcome, however, reading Germinal was a gripping ride, not to mention a confidence-boost for me: I now feel empowered to seek out other French novels, even ones written in a pre-20th-century style. Big thanks to everyone at the Classics Circuit for motivating me on this one!

Germinal by Emile Zola. Just typing that made me want to go dig it out and re-read it. I loved this book. It was so depressing and horrible and everybody was so miserable I don't know how you couldn't like this book. :-} It was published in 1885 and has been called Zola's masterpiece. I have no idea if it is his masterpiece because I've read lots of other Zola novels that I like just as much. But it was an awesome book, if you like being depressed that is.The novel is set in the 1860s in a mining community in northern France and I would say it is a cry of protest against the oppression and misery of the poor miners and their families. This novel will follow Etienne Lantier, our "hero", on a journey through the working mining community that brings him face to face with violence and despair and also total misery. Etienne is the son of Gervaise Macquart, the alcoholic at the centre of L'Assommoir (1877), an earlier novel in the Rougon-Macquart series. (that was also a really cool book.) Etienne arrives in town looking for work as an mechanic, he has been sacked from his previous job on the railways for assaulting a superior, Étienne befriends a veteran miner who finds him somewhere to stay and gets him a job pushing the carts down the pit.While this is going on, Étienne also falls for Catherine, also employed pushing carts in the mines. At first Etienne mistakes 15-year-old Catherine, for a boy, because she is so small and her puberty has been delayed by the physical strain of her job pushing a cart at the bottom of the pit. When he realises she is both an attractive girl and his friend, helping him learn the job, sharing her food with him, he falls for her.The lives of the miners and their families is horrible. It is one of severe poverty and oppression, as their working and living conditions continue to worsen throughout the novel; there are horrible conditions in the mines; falling rocks, bad air, explosive gases. The miners finally decide to go on strike and violence erupts. This book is filled with lots of people. There are lots of mining people, of course, there are mining men and mining women and mining children. There are the owners and the managers and the people who have been made invalids by working in those mines. There are bar owners, who seem to end up with most of the miners money. The men beat their wives, the wives are miserable, so are the children. There is some hope in the book, but you have to search for it.Just writing this I'm sitting here thinking "who will want to read it after this?". But it was amazing. The story just seemed so real. I'll never be done reading this book. Here are two of my favorite quotes just to prove there is some humor in there: “You’re better off on your own, there’s nobody to disagree with.” “When the men and the girl came back from the pit, they’d have to eat again; for nobody had yet discovered how to live without eating, unfortunately.

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Germinal, the subject of several movies, is the thirteenth of Zola's twenty Rougon-Macquart novels. The books do not need to be read in order, each novel stands on its own as the story of a different member of the family. The catalyst of Germinal is Etienne Lantier. (His mother's extremely poignant story is portrayed in L'Assommoir.) I put off reading Germinal for many years, always hearing that it was a terribly depressing novel, but I found it exciting, full of action, and loved it enough to read it again. It is a portrayal of a strike in the coal mines of northern France. Because of the subject matter and the characters, much of the book is rather coarse, probably a fairly accurate picture of the coal mines of the area and era.

Moi, je vois autrement. Je n’ai guère de souci et de beauté et de perfection. Je me moque des grands siècles. Je n’ai souci que de vie, de lutte, de fièvre. -Émile ZolaZola is the supreme novelist, at least how I interpret that vocation. Like Dickens, Zola went out and studied France and her people for inspiration while Proust sat in a cork-lined room and dreamed up all of his stories in his head. I'll take journalism over the human imagination any day. Germinal is the essence of this style of writing. I like how Zola doesn't romanticize the life of the miners as he shows the terrible conditions of their work. I love how Zola trained his eye on an aspect of his society that desperately needed change and tried to effect that change. One of the culminations of this new power of the pen was his activism in the Dreyfuss Affair.I don't have much use for the other school of novelist represented by Proust. This seems to be the one followed by so much of the current literary output in America. Whenever I read a synopsis of a novel by one of the most favored American writers and the story deals with either a writer or a university professor, my eyes roll back in my head so hard I almost fall over backwards. I'm talking about Bellow, Irving, Updike, Cheever, Roth, Carol Oates, to name a few of these types who can't seem to be bothered to leave their university jobs and cocktail parties to find something worth writing about. Instead, they obsess over the little lives of intellectuals—sort of like Woody Allen and his childish fixation with relationships. Go out and learn something new. They always say that you should write about what you know. The problem is most of these writers don't know much. Their knowledge of politics and economics is embarrassing. Do some homework before writing and stop relying on your tired imagination. When I read something I can almost always tell if the author is a university professor. They almost all have the same lifeless style. They only write for other academics.I am working hard this year to improve my French so that I can read this classic in the original.

It was definitely stunning as a picture of the depth of human existence before basic human rights and unions etc. elevated the standards of living and working - much like the Grapes of Wrath. This book was recommended to me as a sort of French equivalent to the Grapes of Wrath. However, unlike the Grapes, which I found delightful and fascinating to the last page, I found Germinal more grim and less compelling. After the initial shock (most notably the descriptions of the conditions in the mines themselves), I found the story line started to ebb and about 1/3 to 1/2 of the way through my interest was waning, especially as it became more and more political (as the main character became all about propagating his idea of a strike). I'm not saying politics or strikes were the reason it became uninteresting, but the style of writing or way of telling the story did not tell it to me in an interesting way. I got to the point where I was aware I was reading it more out of duty to learn about this historical condition and less because it was really enjoyable, and decided to shelve it. I got the gist.I think the first quarter was a must read though and I'm very glad I did.
—Julia Good-Reads

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