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.

The Ladies’ Paradise, Au Bonheur des Dames

Ladies Paradise

In November my book club read Émile Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames which Bill Gallagher’s BBC TV series The Paradise was based on. I loved this book!

It’s quite a bit different, and darker than the BBC program. Denise, the heroine, comes to Paris after her father dies with her two brothers. They’d tried to make ends meet for a year after their father died, but finally had to see they’d never stay afloat in the countryside. Besides Jean, Denise’s teenage brother was dabbling in some dangerous liaisons that were getting him into trouble. Throughout the novel Denise faces greater hardships with higher stakes since her brothers depend on her financially than Denise Lovett on TV.

When they arrive at their uncle’s home cum shop, they find out he’s been having tough times like all the little shops due to the emergence of a white marble monster that’s revolutionizing and ravaging commerce. The Paradise keeps growing and Zola depicts it as a machine that almost has a life. It’s a machine that consumes — its employees, its rivals and in some cases its customers who spend more than they can afford. The machine creates strife and desire and seems unstoppable.

Denise is intrigued by the store and there is no where else for her to work. The uncle has a wife, daughter, shop assistant, who’s engaged to his daughter, and some servants. Zola shows a lot about the toll that the price wars with The Ladies’ Paradise, much more than in the TV program. Here lives are a t stake as I’m sure they really were.

In the store, the rivalry and back stabbing is high pitched. Most of the staff sleeps around and plot to get promotions by betraying colleagues. There’s little friendship in the store. The shoppers also seem to jockey for social position, which is all the more noted and crucial based on what you buy and where you shop. Those at the top of the social stratum have their own dressmakers and feel a sting when they learn that these dressmakers now get their silk from The Paradise.

Stealing is a huge problem and even wealthier women can’t resist and get caught. Pregnant women were drawn to stealing the most. Yet there is an attraction to the lush fabrics and fashions. Zola masterfully sets up a tension between the enticing beauty of the goods and the disastrous consequences the emporium has on the other shops. The Paradise gobbles up the neighborhood as it expands. We also see how wonderful the handmade goods were, how you could buy an umbrella with a hand-carved handle that looked like a parrot or some whimsical creature.

While I’ve enjoyed the BBC series, I found Zola’s writing, which I’ve been told isn’t his best, to be absorbing and exciting. I now want to read all 20 of his novels in his series Les Rougon-Macquart which chronicles the history of the legitimate and illegitimate sides of a French family.

According to my sources (i.e. Wikipedia) Octave Mouret’s family figures into the earlier books. Yet you can pick this novel up and not feel you missed anything.