Germinal

9780199536894

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.

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Secrets to Getting Published

My public library had a great talk about getting published. They got a good crowd of aspiring writers who want to write fiction, non-fiction, children’s books and poetry. The talk was led by an editor and a writer, who does both self-publishing and publishing through an established publisher.

I don’t think I should share all the secrets as their handout was copyrighted, but I’ll share some facts and tips:

  1. Know why you want to get published. Have a clear vision of what you consider success to be. (Getting published, wining an award, getting good reviews or what?)
  2. More non-fiction books are written by first time writers.
  3. Most self-published books sell less than 100 copies, and most of those copies are bought by the author. Ugh. ;-(
  4. Learn to “eat rejection for breakfast.” So develop a thick skin and remember that major writers often got dozens or hundreds of rejection letters.
  5. Adequately test your idea by seeing how people, not just loved ones, think about your idea.
  6. If you do self-publish get your books into different sorts of shops. In a book shop your books is one of many, but in a florist or hospital shop there’s only a handful of other books.
  7. The average new writer spends $3000-$5000 of their own money on preparing their books. Both speakers stressed that you should hire a professional editor. Someone who’s an English teacher or reads and edits professionally is required not just a pal.The cheapskate in me balks at spending so much money, but I’m mulling this over. I do have people whom I trust as good writers and grammarians read my work as a favor, but should I be paying someone? What do you think, readers?

From The Writer’s Almanac

zolaIt’s the birthday of of writer Émile Zola (books by this author), born in Paris in 1840. His father was an Italian engineer, and he died when Émile was seven, leaving the family to get by on a small pension. Émile’s mother hoped he would become a lawyer, but he failed the qualifying examination, and so he took a series of clerical jobs. He also wrote literary and art reviews for newspapers.

In his early career, Zola generally followed the Romantic Movement in literature, but he later began a writing style he dubbed naturalism, for which he is best known. He defined naturalism as “nature seen through a temperament” and was inspired by Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1839) to apply scientific principles of observation to the craft of fiction. Between 1871 and 1893, he wrote a 20-novel series called Les Rougon-Macquart about different members of the same fictional family during France’s Second Empire. He wrote of this project: “I want to portray, at the outset of a century of liberty and truth, a family that cannot restrain itself in its rush to possess all the good things that progress is making available and is derailed by its own momentum, the fatal convulsions that accompany the birth of a new world.” The most famous books from the cycle are The Drunkard (1877), Nana (1880), and Germinal (1885).

He was also involved in the famous Dreyfus affair, in which a Jewish army officer, Alfred Dreyfus, was wrongfully accused of passing military secrets to Germany and imprisoned on Devil’s Island. Evidence later came out that strongly implicated another man, but the evidence was suppressed to protect the original verdict. Zola published an open letter on January 13, 1898, entitled J’Accuse…!, on the front page of Paris daily L’Aurore. In it he accused the French army of obstruction of justice and anti-Semitism. He was convicted of criminal libel on February 7, but fled to England before he could be imprisoned, wearing only the clothes on his back. The following year, the government offered him a pardon, which he accepted, even though doing so implied that he was guilty. He was finally exonerated of all charges in 1906, four years after his accidental death of carbon monoxide poisoning from a stopped-up chimney.

I want to read Émile Zola’s A Lady’s Paradise.