Saturday, August 15, 2015

He could not even make out the black ground in front of him - Zola's Germinal, a novel in the dark

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.


  1. I read Zola's cycle of novels in old public domain translations. I think I missed a lot of the "grit" of Zola.

  2. I think I will write a bit about the un-Victorian parts of Germinal. Really, really un-Victorian.

    Those early translators were heroes, operating under severe constraints.

  3. The first translators of Balzac had to be doing a labor of love. In some cases when Ellen Marriage translated a work she used the name James Warick as she felt the work was too improper for a lady to read let alone translate.

  4. There's a film version of Germinal if interested.

  5. I have seen the movie. The part of Maheu is made to order for Gérard Depardieu. This was back when Depardieu was a great actor.

    mel, do you know which books "James Waring" did? That is fascinating. Same era as the Zola translations. Same regime of censorship.

    1. Among the "James Waring" translations were Cousin Bette, The Girl With the Golden Eyes, The Loves of Courtesan, The Scavenger's Cabin, Louis Lambert And Parisians in the Country. Ironically in the first editions of the works of Balzac James Waring was listed first among the translators. Once I complete my read through of The Human Comedy I might just as a small tribute do a post on the early Balzac translators.

    2. "Louis Lambert" surprise me, but Cousin Bette and The Girl with the Golden Eyes, yes, of course. A translator would want some safety.

  6. I read the Tancock translation as well. It still holds up well I think, even though it's 60 years old now. I can imagine the Vizetelly version missing a lot out.

    I didn't think it was going to be that good before I started it, even though it's claimed as a classic by everyone. But, it's true, it is a true classic. I had similar feelings about The Debacle and was blown away by it when I read it. It would make a good companion piece for Germinal.

  7. Tancock really won me over. A lot of smart decisions.

    I should save The Debacle for just before I am tired of reading Zola. It sounds like the perfect ending to his project.

    Ah, I just realized what happens at the end of Germinal. I mean just after the end. I will write about that - thanks for the insight.