Germinal by Émile Zola (1885), he last of the books featuring long arguments about radical politics that I read on vacation. By the time I got to Zola’s, I was sick of them, but that is not his fault. To be fair – fair to me – in Turgenev, Wells and Zola alike, the scenes of political argument are all now period pieces. Not good examples of the art of any of these novels.
But the rest of Germinal, well all right. Zola kept me on my toes.
Germinal is Zola’s novel of coal mining, bad labor practices, and crushing poverty caused not by coal mining as such but a global recession followed by a strike. The style is accordingly tamped down, with less pure description, less metaphor for its own ingenious sake. No one’s description is purer than Zola’s, so what I mean is that Germinal has nothing like the Symphony of Cheeses from The Belly of Paris. I enjoy this stuff and missed it, but the luxuriousness Zola style is unsuited to subject. Style is an ethical choice, not just aesthetic.
L’Assommoir was moving in this direction, but Germinal is more radical. The result is a novel of plain houses, empty landscapes, and little color. A novel that takes place in the dark. Sensory immiseration to complement the material immiseration of the coal miners.
On a pitch-black, starless night, a solitary man was trudging along the main road from Marchiennes to Montsou, ten kilometres of cobblestones running straight as a die across the bare plains between fields of beet. He could not even make out the black ground in front of him, and it was only the feel of the March wind blowing in great gusts like a storm at sea, but icy cold from sweeping over miles of marshes and bare earth, that gave him a sensation of limitless, flat horizons. There was not a single tree to darken the sky, and the cobbled highroad ran on with the straightness of a jetty through the swirling sea of black shadows.
The first lines, Zola laying out the challenge he has set for himself. He does not even allow himself a curved road. There is instead more description of movement.
There was only one thing he could see clearly: the pit gulped down men in mouthfuls of twenty or thirty and so easily that it did not seem to notice them going down. The descent to work began at four; the men came from the locker-room barefoot and lamp in hand, and stood about in little groups until there were enough of them. Like some nocturnal beast the cage, with its four decks each containing two tubs, leaped noiselessly out of the darkness and settled itself on its keeps… Without a sound the cage would first make a little jump and then drop like a stone, leaving nothing behind but the vibrating cable. (Part I, Ch. 3)
That last line is especially cinematic, meaning a camera could mimic it, the camera stationary with everything in motion around it. The film would lose the metaphors, though, which are abundant but simplified, even clichéd (“like a stone”) so that Zola can share them with his characters, and perhaps with readers who are like his characters.
I read the Leonard Tancock translation which is very, very British to the point where I had to look up some words, and not just the coal mining terms. Good solutions. Most importantly, the text is complete, unbowdlerized. Tancock’s Germinal is appropriately earthy.