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.
I remember reading about Ralph, Piggy and the other boys lost on the island in William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies when I was a freshman in high school. While the writing was good, I didn’t particularly like the story showing how easily people revert to brutes. We may have seen the film, but I’m not sure.
A while back I ran across a cheap DVD of the Criterion Collection version of director Peter Brook’s 1963 The Lord of the Flies. It sat on my shelf till this week when as I avoided finishing my Government Documents’ paper. By now I’ve learned that Golding won the Nobel prize and I’ve seen and come to appreciate good filmmaking more so as you’d expect the experience was different, better.
While I still was horrified by the idea that two groups of English schoolboys get lost on a remote, uninhabited island and their fantasies about beasts and some desire for power warps them and turns them into brutes capable of murder and of denying responsibility for murder, I appreciated how naturally the boys acted and how hard it must have been to direct them. During filming Brooks had one camera man just take whatever shots he wanted. This decision turned out to be genius as that cameraman got dozens of small movements like when Piggy hesitates about getting into the water. His tentative steps back and forth weren’t directed or written, they were just real and true.
The DVD came with great bonus tracks including an interview with Golding, who rarely granted interviews. He explains how his parents were absolutely rational atheists and he came to see that that world view didn’t make sense. When WWII came, he fought and in the midst of the brutality and chaos he realized that the idea that if everyone’s educated and has enough to survive, and society embraced socialist values and forgot about religion, then all will be well, that we’d stop having wars. Golding found those ideas, which his father held to be wrong. The Lord of the Flies was an attempt, after three unsold novels, to illustrate how brutal we can all easily become. (Now The Lord of the Flies doesn’t perfectly argue against socialism or atheism, but those ideas prompted this story.)
I found the story captivating and may show it to one of my classes . . . if there’s time.
At school they’ve put up a large poster of the socialist values, that I’m guessing they’re trying to inculcate. I’m sure readers might be just as perplexed as I am about some of the chosen values. (Hint: Democracy? Really?)
You may not like their system, but you can’t call it bleak & you can’t say they aren’t free
The last few times I’ve gone to YouTube, I’ve had to watch a manipulative, or should I say extra manipulative, political advertisement. It consists of an old many talking about his bleak youth living under communism, which he calls socialism.
I know what the man lived through was true. The black and white photos that the video shows might be from his childhood or before that. There are no photos of say Russia prior to the Revolution, when people also were dirt poor, uneducated, and living in squalor. Yes, life under Mao, Stalin and Lenin and the like was horrible. I don’t contest that. But Obama has not brought us down like that NOR does he want to.
The commercial is just rabble rousing. Nothing more.
It does not feature any of the success stories of socialism like Sweden, Norway or Denmark, where people are free. One can open a business and one can get healthcare no matter what if you have cancer, etc. Are there long waits? I’m not sure, but the wait times in the U.S. are long. If I wanted to see a dermatologist say, I’d have to wait months for my appointment. Yet, when I was in South Korea the wait was one day.