Thursday, April 24, 2014

My First Zola: Germinal

Wow!  I have seriously struggled with this review.  I am supposed to describe my reaction to or my opinion of Émile Zola's Germinal.  I finished it over two week's ago, and I am still speechless. I had this same reaction to Gone With the Wind, although I was able to write about it a day later, at least.  With books like these, I am beginning to understand the reason for rereading them over and over again.  It is one thing to want to know what the story is about, but it is another to get into the soul of the author and discover his world, to understand him, and to walk in his shoes.  I will definitely have to reread Germinal if I expect to say something worthy about it. But for the sake of saying anything, please forgive me ahead of time for my inept response.    
When I joined Fanda's Zoladdiction, I invited a friend of mine, who does not blog, to read along with me for the month of April.  Neither one of us had ever heard of Zola until more recently. On the first day of reading, she texted me to say that she had finished part one already; she was enjoying it.  We both got into Germinal immediately.

Germinal has all the qualities of a good book, to emotionally involve its reader: it is persuadable, sympathetic, raw, gruesome, realistic, solemn; it may even make you mad with contention, which is a good thing because it means the author is effective.  The plot surrounds the lives and livelihood of poor miners and their families surviving in a French mining community during the 1860s.

Gorgeous illustration for Germinal
from illustrator Francesco Chiacchio
See more here!
I like the numerous ideas and conflicts warring against one another within the plot, such as: the basic desire for love and affection verses the want of food and sustenance; the different ways man thinks he can deal with injustice; and man's insatiable and impossible demand for utopia upon the earth, NOW!

Personally, one of my frustrations with the plot existed with the miners, who were beholden to the Company's management and ownership, who were completely removed from the reality of the workers:
But Mme Hennebeau was astonished to hear anyone talk about the miners of Montsou as being poor.  Were they not perfectly fortunate?  Men and women who were provided with housing, heating and medical care all at the Company's expense!  Given her indifference to the common herd, all she knew about them was what she had been told to tell others, and this was the version she used to pass on to her Parisian visitors, who were duly impressed. In the end she had come to believe it herself and so felt indignant at the people's ingratitude.  

This is pure welfare; and when the workers go on strike, naturally, all that they need for survival is cut off.  It would have benefited the people to be self-sufficient all of the time - to grow food, raise meat, make their own supplies, and trade with each other, if necessary - instead of only relying on the Company for housing, fuel, and a livelihood.  Even with such lousy wages, they still had to beg and borrow; so the problem was always present.  Instead the workers looked to the Company to supply them completely and, ultimately, control them.  It is obvious with the quote by Mme Hennebeau: the Company thinks they are doing them a favor.  Meanwhile, when the miners were demanding bread from the very people whom they claimed oppressed them, it looked a lot like voluntary slavery.

In truth, these families were in a bad way, and it appeared rather impossible that they would ever be able to change their own circumstances.  They could not move on and better their situations on their own. However, one thing they could have changed was the immoral behavior that was rampant within the culture and was rather complicating their situation.

But I digress.  I am not here to fix the characters within the novel; it is not possible.  However, I will end on this note: if you like a book in which the author reaches out and grabs you by the shoulders and shakes you forcefully, then Germinal is a book for you.


Marian said...

Great review! I really need to read more Zola. I feel like French history can teach us more than we realize, and what you pointed out, particularly this call for Utopia, is still very relevant.

Cleo said...

I'm so glad that you liked your first Zola! He pulls the reader right into the story with his amazing descriptions. I have been on a Paris street, listening to the carriages, jostled by people, skimming over the cobblestones. Just wonderful!

Thinking about the plot of Germinal, perhaps a good pairing would be How Green Was My Valley, if you haven't read it. It's about a Welsh mining town and the struggles and lives of the inhabitants. It immediately came to mind when I read your review.

I'm very curious as to which Zola you will choose next!

o said...

I love your post - exactly how I felt when I first read Germinal (which was my first Zola). It left me speechless as well, yet desperate to communicate :)

Fanda Classiclit said...

"if you like a book in which the author reaches out and grabs you by the shoulders and shakes you forcefully, then Germinal is a book for you." ==> indeed!
Ruth, I'm so glad you liked Germinal. About the workers, I think it's typical Zola to portray his characters (the victims) to be totally helpless. I think he wanted to bring us to the very bottom, to emphasize his message.

Ruth said...

Thanks, Marian.

Man's desire for Utopia is a major theme in a lot of classics, and because it is written on man's heart for the world to be made right and good. But it will never happen. (It's never happened under any political system: Socialism, Communism, Marxism, or Capitalism - although Capitalism is best because it allows people to be free to be independent and self-sufficient; and that is what the miners needed most: the freedom to be self-sufficient and mobile to make their own livelihood.

But I'm sure you didn't want to hear all of that. Sorry! That was my greatest frustration for the people.

Ruth said...

I will take a look at How Green Was My Valley. I've never heard of it.

Fanda gave me some suggestions, and I know I will read Nana for sure. But which one NEXT, I have not decided, yet.

Ruth said...

Thanks, O. Did you know: it is because of yours and Fanda's great reviews of Zola that I decided to finally read him? So, thanks!

Ruth said...

When you put it that way: Zola portraying his characters as totally helpless...I think that is why it totally works, to make the reader angry, sympathetic, and frustrated. If the miner could sustain his family without the mine, the outcome would not have been as effective. I also think there is a reality to their circumstance, as well, given the time period of the setting.

Right now I am reading Farmer Boy, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, to my kids, which is set in America 1860's, and it is a stark contrast to what was happening to the people in France at that time, compared to the liberty Americans were enjoying; that's why I so desperately wished they could experience the same. Yes, farmers in America 1860's worked before sun up to after sundown, but they were self-sufficient and independent of anyone over them. It was pure freedom and independence. Anytime man is his own boss, he is free; but when he works for someone else, there is some relinquishing of liberty. In the miner's case, they were practically slaves.

Brona said...

I left a message last week that seems to have gone missing into the bloggosphere :-(
Basically it was a very witty, succinct, intelligent appraisal of Germinal and glowing appreciation for you review :-)

I have also found Germinal to be a very physical read. I fell myself stuck in the cold, dark mines with the workers. I feel the cold through their skimpy clothes. I feel their hunger and their helplessness.

I feel outrage at the management attitude, but then we meet the individual characters within this sphere of society and suddenly I feel a sense of empathy for them too. They're only seeing the world through the eyes of what they know and what they've been told is true.
Both sides are guilty of being unable to walk in the others shoes (to quote Atticus Finch).
The culture gap is too wide for either side to cross.

And this is how I feel after only reading half the book!

Ruth said...

First of all, sorry about that missing comment. I think that has happened to me a few times, too.
Second, thank you, in deed, for your comment.
You bring up great points, as far as being physically invested, because I felt that, too. Most of the time uncomfortable and, well, really gross, for lack of a better word.

And your remarks of "both sides being unable to walk in the other side's shoes" and "the culture gap being too wide for either to cross" are spot on! That was the frustration I felt and wanted it to change, but obviously could not because of the time and place of the setting.

I do look forward to another Zola, but not sure which one to choose, yet.