Part of Émile Zola’s Rougon-Marquart series, Germinal is set in a mining town in 19th century France. Whatever you might imagine the life of a miner to be like, it was far worse in France. At times I had to put the book down, because it was just too heart-breaking to read about the suffering people endured.
The hero is Étienne Lantier who arrives in town seeking work. Trained as a mechanic, Étienne accepts the only work available, working in the mines. Pay’s low so he moves in with a mining family and shares a room with Catherine, their teenage daughter to whom he’s attracted. But love is not in the offing. Catherine’s jus 14 and her poor diet has stunted her maturation, but she’s involved with Chaval, a boy, who also works in the mine. Brutish and abusive, Chaval is a product of the mines, not the sort of boyfriend who can respect a girl. Respect though is a luxury item, just like a good meal. Like all their peers, Chaval and Catherine work all day in a back-breaking environment and spend their nights having sex in a kind of quarry. The young and old’s spirits have been crushed and there’s no hope, romance or joy. Life offers few choices so if you’re pregnant and your boyfriend beats you, you put up with it. Life’s about survival.
The work and environment is described in acute detail. Work was arduous in the sweltering mines. Pay was so low that children had to work. Encouraged by Étienne and a couple others who’ve read up on socialism and labor rights, the miners go on strike. Then the oppression reaches new lows. They’re tough and dedicated, but are soon starving as their pooled savings run out. As you’d expect the workers’ pay gets reduced and their expected output increased. The owners are far off in Paris. The mine’s run by managers who’re well paid, but have no power. Miners and their families start to die. Some return to work and violence ensues. Just as things appear to improve more disaster, disaster based on a true event, strikes.
Each day I looked forward to reading more of this gripping story, but then would have to put it down as the hardship was unbearable, worse than other stories of coal mingling like King Coal by Upton Sinclair. I appreciated Zola’s descriptions and how he portrayed his era with such clarity. (Though when people were moving through the mines it was hard to grasp how extensive they were.)
To his credit, Zola doesn’t glorify the miner’s and vilify the managers and elite. There’s plenty of realism and fairness to go round. I appreciated Zola’s prose and his complex characters. I read that Zola researched Germinal painstakingly and even went into the mines to see the conditions.
The film character doesn’t look like this
As I’ve recently finished Germinal, when I saw the film The Life of Émile Zola (1937) displayed with Oscar Best Picture winners, I had to watch it. Starring Paul Muni, The Life of Émile Zola begins with Zola sharing a cold garret apartment with Cezanne. Both are struggling to launch their creative careers, while trying not to freeze to death. Soon Zola meets a prostitute in a café, hears her life story, writes a novel based on it. When it’s published it’s criticized for its immorality and it flies off the bookstore shelves. Still poor, Zola goes to the book seller who published the book to beg for a small advance. Instead he gets a check for 30,000 francs. He’s rich!
Zola continues to write popular books and lives in comfort and luxury with his wife in Paris. One day his still struggling friend Cezanne drops by to announce that he’s off to the South of France to paint. Paris is no longer the place for him. Before leaving, he feels compelled to point out that Zola has become materialistic and complacent. He’s lost his ideals. This opens Zola’s eyes.
The story shifts to the army office where treasonous letters are found and the innocent Captain Alfred Dreyfus is soon arrested and sent to prison. The Dreyfus Affair is a dark corner of French history, showing how quick the army leaders were to allow their Anti-Semitism to condemn an innocent man with out fair due process. The very odd aspect of this Warner Bros. film is that the anti-semitism is never mentioned. If you didn’t know about the history, you wouldn’t realize that Dreyfus was Jewish and that was a factor in his arrest and imprisonment. A 2013 New York Times article stated that studio head Jack Warner, who was Jewish himself, insisted that any mention of Jewish heritage be removed from the film.
When Dreyfus’ wife pleads with the comfortable bourgeois Zola, she convinces him that the right thing to do is to take up Dreyfus’ cause. The famous article “J’accuse!” results and Zola’s soon arrested for libel. A fierce courtroom battle ensues where Zola is the David to the powerful government’s Goliath. (This time David loses though.)
While this chapter of history is worthy of a film, this production is outdated. To whitewash the events by editing out anti-semitism makes no sense. Muni’s Zola hops around the scenes and is so almost comical in his vibrancy, that it’s hard to take him seriously. Other characters like his wife, Cezanne and the military leaders are one dimensional. The film was the Best Picture of 1937 and won other awards, but it doesn’t stand up to the test of time.
19th century novelist Zola shows us more of the machinations, betrayals of French politics in his sixth published story in the Rougon-Marquart cycle, Zola depicts the greed, manipulation and ugliness of French politicsthrough His Excellency: Eugene Rougon. When the story begins title character Eugene Rougon has fallen from his lofty government job. He’s resigned to take some heat off the emperor and hopes this action will be rewarded. Soon Rougon meets Clorinde, a beautiful, flirtatious troublemaker. She’s much younger and spends her days tantalizing the rich, powerful men who’re happy to waste their days gazing at her in her boudoir as she poses for a portrait and rambles on. She’s not the brightest light, but we all know how little that matters when it comes to powerful men.
It’s uncertain who Clorinde’s father is. Both she and her mother are gadabouts from Italy. It’s whispered that she’s the illegitimate daughter of an aristocrat, who’s introduced as her godfather. Right. Clorinde is all appetite, appetite for power, like Rougon, whom she sets her cap for. She could have any rich, powerful man, but she goes for this old bachelor. Despite being attracted to Clorinde, Rougon knows they’re no good for each other so he marries another more sensible wife and convinces Clorinde to marry a rich, malleable man who’s gotten a government ministry. Clorinde goes along, but vows to get even. And after many years she does.
It was interesting to see this greedy crowd of relatives and old friends who hang on to Rougon to get political favors that make them rich. The minute Rougon closes down the favor-trough they’re out to get him led by Clorinde. Rougon’s fortunes go up and down as the story progresses. I enjoyed the realism and even enjoyed disliking the corrupt hangers on and, of course, Clorinde, who had no good qualities or no uncorrupted qualities. This book would make a good movie.
Émile Zola continues his stories of the Rougon-Marquart clan with The Kill (La Curée), which tells the story of Aristide Rougon, who is introduced to readers in The Fortune of the Rougon-Marquart’s as a slothful (accent on full) son of the matriarch of this clan. Aristide changes his name to Saccard when the gets to Paris. He hits his well connected brother to get a cushy government job with loads of status. He’s disappointed at first with apparently low level job till he realizes that he will get all sorts of information on city plans that enable him to make real estate deals, quite questionably ethically ones, that will get him a fortune. Saccard is slimy for sure, but the house of cards he sets up is compelling. As a reader, I was just wondering when this all would fall.
Along with Saccard, his second wife Renée is equally questionable ethically. She’s materialistic, superficial, self absorbed and incapable of loyalty. The marriage was arranged to get Renée out of trouble. Her early life was pitiful, but by the time of the story she’s in control and for much of the story rather powerful and independent. Her undoing is her relationship with Saccard’s son.
The writing is beautiful and this portrait of a corrupt society feels real and moves quickly. It was fascinating to learn about the corrupt real estate market of 19th century France. Wall Street didn’t invent financial malfeasance..
What a crazy family! Well, that’s not quite right. They aren’t outright crazy, they’re just greedy, selfish, venial social climbers for the most part.
Emile Zola’s 20 novel series, Rougons-Macquart, begins with The Fortunes of the Rougons, which I’ve relished. I’m on determined to read all 20 books about the two sides of a family descended from Adelaide Fouque whose legitimate son spawns the Rougon side of the family and whose two illegitimate children are the start of the Macquart side.
Set in provincial France, the story opens with two young lovers, Silvère and Miette, marching with hopeful revolutionaries participating in a coup d’état led by republicans trying to wrest power the elites who’ve neglected the needs of the working class.
The story shifts back a generation to Adélaïde Fouque, who marries Rougon, a gardener, and they have a son Pierre. When Rougon dies Adélaïde takes a lover, Macquart, who’s a drunk and something of an odd ball. With Marquart Adélaïde has two illegitimate children, Antoine and Ursule. Antoine and Pierre are particularly at odds with each other especially after Pierre fools his mother into giving him control of her money.
This first book sets the stage for struggles and troubles to come as I’m seeing in the second book, The Kill. Zola’s style moves fast and I find learning about the French history of the Second Empire.
I’m now reading and very wrapped up in Emile Zola’s A Ladies’ Paradise, which the Masterpiece The Paradise is based on. Wow!
The story’s quite different as it’s set in Paris and Denise’s parents died leaving her with two brothers to look after and very little money. Thus she heads to her uncle in Paris, who’s a draper as in the television series. This uncle has more i.e. some customers and yet is more furious at Mouret (Moray on TV). Zola’s Mouret starts out as such a philanderer, with lots of contempt for women. I can see why the TV show lessened that aspect of his character. It’s just amazing to read about how huge the store is and how it’s run.
I’m also reading another Horatio Alger book. Again, I’ve just started the story, Joe’s Luck. Joe’s an orphan and a servant in small town New Jersey. He’s had it with the ill treatment of a miserly employer and heads to New York hoping to get on a ship to California while the Gold Rush is in full swing. Just now poor Joe was swindled out of the money for the ship’s ticket.
I’m also in the midst of a book on the Everleigh sisters who ran a high class, super high class brothel in turn of the 20th century Chicago. The Everleigh Club’s opulence is unmatched and the tales! Whoo. The girls. The men. The antics! Often beyond imagination.