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Germinal by Émile Zola
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Germinal (1885)

by Émile Zola

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: Les Rougon-Macquart (13)

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4,235651,899 (4.13)1 / 438
The thirteenth novel in Amile Zolaas great Rougon-Macquart sequence, "Germinal" expresses outrage at the exploitation of the many by the few, but also shows humanityas capacity for compassion and hope. Etienne Lantier, an unemployed railway worker, is a clever but uneducated young man with a dangerous temper. Forced to take a back-breaking job at Le Voreux mine when he cannot get other work, he discovers that his fellow miners are ill, hungry, and in debt, unable to feed and clothe their families. When conditions in the mining community deteriorate even further, Lantier finds himself leading a strike that could mean starvation or salvation for all.… (more)
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English (53)  French (4)  Italian (2)  Dutch (2)  German (1)  Catalan (1)  Spanish (1)  Hebrew (1)  All languages (65)
Showing 1-5 of 53 (next | show all)
"When you're young you think that you're going to be happy later on, there are things you look forward to; and then you keep finding you're as hard up as ever, you stay bogged down in poverty... I don't blame anyone for it, but there are times when I feel sick at the injustice of it all."

In the thirteenth novel of Zola's staggering Rougon-Macquart cycle, we are reunited with Étienne Lantier, brother of Nana and son of Gervaise, the pathetic heroine of L'Assommoir (neither of which is required reading here, although the latter is my favourite of the cycle thus far). Étienne, impoverished and unemployed, finds himself at the coal mines of Le Voreux, where he attempts to radicalise the miners and their families into a strike to protect their working conditions.

By now, Zola was at the peak of his powers. Buoyed by a fear that he would reach death or senility before the planned end of his great series of novels, the author found himself writing with a renewed vigour. While he has previously explored the lives of the working classes in L'Assommoir, this was to be a novel about active resistance, as opposed to the "passive" poverty of the former. Although Étienne has dreams for a great socialist state, most of the miners are fighting not for revolution but to hang on to their existing (barbarous) conditions in the face of new restrictions imposed by management. Living in the factory town - with the cookie-cutter name of Village Two Hundred and Forty - entire generations trudge each morning to the mines, children being enrolled as soon as they are able, with the oldies transitioning to above-ground work once the back-breaking labour becomes too much. Their life is one of 'knowing their place', like the heartbreaking - and richly symbolic - horses, Bataille and Trompette, who have served their entire adult lives hundreds of metres below ground, clinging to some atavistic memory of sunlight. And always in the background, the mine of Le Voreux "crouching like a vicious beast of prey, snorting louder and longer, as if choking on its painful digestion of human flesh".

I read the final chapters of the novel during the early stages of the 2020 global pandemic, which was an interesting parallel to stories of families scraping to get by, pantries exhausted of resources as the strike drags on, vacillating between the two great human urges of kindness to others and self-preservation. Zola chooses a different narrative tone for each of his novels, and here his narrator is scrupulously fair. This is not the same voice that moralised on Nana or gossiped about the sex lives of the characters in Pot-Luck. This is Zola the social anatomist, asking the reader to decide from the evidence alone whether the current system is a fair one. The ownership class are either cautiously sympathetic, too removed to be aware of the reality of the situation, or pitying... but appreciative of the hierarchical nature of society ("Doubtless they were brutes", says one such with compassion, "but they were illiterate starving brutes"). The peasant mob is too easily spurred on by their hunger and oppression to commit acts of grotesque violence (the single most stomach-churning scene in the series thus far occurs, but I'm not going to repeat it here). And the extreme radicals whom Étienne admires are - like the advocates of social reform in any modern era - all too easily caricatured by the media and the bourgeois to appear as ungrateful or even spiteful.

In short, there is no way to win. Accepting the status quo is an implicit death-knell for oneself and one's children and grandchildren. Politely asking for more is a humiliating and fruitless task. Pushing for it, demanding it, taking it by force is considered the act of brutes - and indeed, often is barbaric in its execution. (Zola's refusal to sugar-coat the lives and intentions of the poor, just as the rich, is especially remarkable - contrast with his contemporary, Charles Dickens.) Germinal is not without hope, but it is a distant hope, a plea for an awakening. This is a novel of ideas, at heart, although Zola's delight in crowd scenes, dissection of character, and "spirit of place" remain on show. Most of his novels have at least one great set-piece, and here it is the final 100 pages, in which a great catastrophe is recounted in excruciating detail. (As always, the author had spent some brief time at an actual coal mine to understand the intricacies of the field.)

There is an additional note for modern readers, which we should keep in mind. Although set in the mid-1860s (the peak of Second Empire France), this was being written in 1884, the year in which trade unions were finally legalised in what was now the Republic of France. Zola was reflecting on the importance of a movement, although many of the outrageous practices chronicled herein still continued, in France as in other countries. And I would be remiss not to mention a translation: go for a modern one. I read Peter Collier's, as I am devoted to the Oxford series, but what's important is to avoid anything older than the 1970s. You will be inevitably faced with cuts, extreme censorship, or just archaic prose. Avoid it!

Subjectively, Germinal easily sits within my Top Five of Zola's series but from an objective standpoint, it is perhaps the most important. ( )
  therebelprince | Apr 27, 2020 |
Depressing account of the coal miners in France who are led into striking for more money. I couldn't tell if the author really believed that socialism was a better way, but the life in the mines was brutal and deadly. ( )
  LindaLeeJacobs | Feb 15, 2020 |
I found this book to be very engaging. It is one in a extensive series by Emile Zola. The 13th. In this book, set in coal mining village in North France. This book shows the class struggle between the owners of the minds, the management of the mines and the workers and the beginnings fo organization of the worker. I was surprised by the sexual content of this book. Poor people only having sex to engage in when not working. The promiscuity of the girls and boys at ages too young to even be sexually active. I was not surprised by the abuses fo labor, the abuses of men toward women. The author is considered a master of naturalism. He brings in social evolution, discussing Darwin on occasion. ( )
  Kristelh | Feb 8, 2020 |
If you thought L'Assommoir was as gruelling as an account of working-class life can be, well, you ain't seen nothing yet! Germinal is longer, tougher, more political, more complex, more engaged, more physical, more ambiguous, more everything. It's the ultimate industrial novel of the nineteenth century. Bar none. Zola takes us into the epic survival struggle of a mining community in the north of France with an unmatched closeness of observation and a viewpoint that is tied right down at the level of the miners and their families. We are only allowed to step back to our "normal" middle-class liberal novel-reader's viewpoint for a few short interludes where the strangely detached and unreal existence of the bourgeois management families is contrasted with the harsh reality of the miners.

It's not obvious how Zola did it, or how much is actual reportage and how much his own interpolation, but he shows us so much graphic detail of the practicalities of living with seven people and next-to-no money in a two-room cottage, or of how men, women and children work in the appalling underground conditions of the mine, that we can't help being drawn in and imagining ourselves in that situation.

And of course this is all about how that kind of life brutalises people and makes the normal conventions of social existence irrelevant. The brutality — of course, this is Zola we're talking about — comes out in the irresponsible and unrestrained sexual behaviour of the miners, in the anything-but-submissive behaviour of the women in the community, and in the frightening outbursts of violence that mark the big strike that forms the centrepiece of the action.

We see that the miners are hopelessly caught in the power of the capitalist mining companies, who are free to reduce their wages to the very limit of starvation. When they strike for more money, they are doomed to lose: they will always starve before the owners do, when it comes to the crunch the owners can always call up police and army to back them up, and there's always the real risk that by stopping work they give the earth the chance to take its revenge on the mine and thus do themselves out of a job... The miners look to socialists and anarchists for help, but the attractive picture of world revolution and the eventual overthrow of capitalism is belied by the revolutionaries' short-term political ambitions, which always end up overriding the miners' need for bread and a fair wage. And of course Zola's readers would have the fate of the Paris Commune fresh in their minds, and would be more than sceptical about revolutions.

Makes Sons and lovers look like a walk in the park... ( )
1 vote thorold | Dec 20, 2019 |
It's unrelenting and it's brutal. The last hundred pages are the most brutal of all. And normally I hate books like that, full of suffering, but it's also brilliant, and the suffering has a purpose. And it's even more pro-communist than I'd thought it would be. It depicts the plight of the coal miners in such a compassionate way, so that any time the bourgeois characters are on the scene, you can really see the stark contrast, how self-absorbed they are, and their obliviousness to the degree of misery they are inflicting. I love that there is such a diverse cast of characters, and so many different viewpoints are depicted, from both sides. I can't even imagine what people must have thought about this book when it first came out. It's radical in so many ways - its frank depictions of sex, the pro-working class ideas, and the depiction of the bourgeoisie as utterly loathsome and ignorant. I recommend this to anyone on the side of unions and the working class, but be prepared for brutality and suffering. ( )
  xiaomarlo | Apr 17, 2019 |
Showing 1-5 of 53 (next | show all)
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» Add other authors (66 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Zola, ÉmileAuthorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Armiño, MauroTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Balzer, HansTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Bannister, PhilipIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Bartócz, IlonaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Becker, ColetteEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Bittencourt, FranciscoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Buuren, Maarten vanEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Buvik, PerAfterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Collier, PeterTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Ellis, HavelockTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Grant, Elliott M.Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Jong, A.M. deTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lethbridge, RobertIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Mahn, BertholdIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Minervini, ElisabettaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Montherlant, Henry deIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Pearson, RogerIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Pearson, RogerTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Roldanus, W.J.A.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Sbarbaro, CamilloTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Tancock, Leonard W.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Valenti, StefanoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Dans la plaine rase, sous la nuit sans étoiles, d’une obscurité et d’une épaisseur d’encre, un homme suivait seul la grande route de Marchiennes à Montsou, dix kilomètres de pavé coupant tout droit, à travers les champs de betteraves.
[translation by Havelock Ellis, 1894] Over the open plain, beneath a starless sky as dark and thick as ink, a man walked alone along the highway from Marchiennes to Montsou, a straight paved road ten kilometers in length, intersecting the beetroot-fields.
Quotations
— Longtemps, ah ! oui !… Je n'avais pas huit ans, lorsque je suis descendu, tenez ! juste dans le Voreux, et j'en ai cinquante-huit, à cette heure. Calculez un peu… J'ai tout fait là-dedans, galibot d'abord, puis herscheur, quand j'ai eu la force de rouler, puis haveur pendant dix-huit ans. Ensuite, à cause de mes sacrées jambes, ils m'ont mis de la coupe à terre, remblayeur, raccommodeur, jusqu'au moment où il leur a fallu me sortir du fond, parce que le médecin disait que j'allais y rester. Alors, il y a cinq années de cela, ils m'ont fait charretier… Hein ? c'est joli, cinquante ans de mine, dont quarante-cinq au fond ! (I, i)
[translation by Havelock Ellis, 1894] "Long? I should think so. I was not eight when I went down into the Voreux and I am now fifty-eight. Reckon that up! I have been everything down there; at first trammer, then putter, when I had the strength to wheel, then pikeman for eighteen years. Then, because of my cursed legs, they put me into the earth cutting, to bank up and patch, until they had to bring me up, because the doctor said I should stay there for good. Then, after five years of that, they made me carman. Eh? that's fine--fifty years at the mine, forty-five down below."
D’une voix ardente, il parlait sans fin. C’était, brusquement, l’horizon fermé qui éclatait, une trouée de lumière s’ouvrait dans la vie sombre de ces pauvres gens. L’éternel recommencement de la misère, le travail de brute, ce destin de bétail qui donne sa laine et qu’on égorge, tout le malheur disparaissait, comme balayé par un grand coup de soleil ; et, sous un éblouissement de féerie, la justice descendait du ciel. Puisque le bon Dieu était mort, la justice allait assurer le bonheur des hommes, en faisant régner l’égalité et la fraternité. Une société nouvelle poussait en un jour, ainsi que dans les songes, une ville immense, d’une splendeur de mirage, où chaque citoyen vivait de sa tâche et prenait sa part des joies communes. Le vieux monde pourri était tombé en poudre, une humanité jeune, purgée de ses crimes, ne formait plus qu’un seul peuple de travailleurs, qui avait pour devise: à chacun suivant son mérite, et à chaque mérite suivant ses œuvres. Et, continuellement, ce rêve s’élargissait, s’embellissait, d’autant plus séducteur, qu’il montait plus haut dans l’impossible.
D’abord, la Maheude refusait d’entendre, prise d’une sourde épouvante. Non, non, c’était trop beau, on ne devait pas s’embarquer dans ces idées, car elles rendaient la vie abominable ensuite, et l’on aurait tout massacré alors, pour être heureux. Quand elle voyait luire les yeux de Maheu, troublé, conquis, elle s’inquiétait, elle criait, en interrompant Étienne : — N’écoute pas, mon homme ! Tu vois bien qu’il nous fait des contes… Est-ce que les bourgeois consentiront jamais à travailler comme nous ? (III, iii)
[translation by Havelock Ellis, 1894] With his enthusiastic voice he spoke on and on. The closed horizon was bursting out; a gap of light was opening in the sombre lives of these poor people. The eternal wretchedness, beginning over and over again, the brutalizing labour, the fate of a beast who gives his wool and has his throat cut, all the misfortune disappeared, as though swept away by a great flood of sunlight; and beneath the dazzling gleam of fairyland justice descended from heaven. Since the good God was dead, justice would assure the happiness of men, and equality and brotherhood would reign. A new society would spring up in a day just as in dreams, an immense town with the splendour of a mirage, in which each citizen lived by his work, and took his share in the common joys. The old rotten world had fallen to dust; a young humanity purged from its crimes formed but a single nation of workers, having for their motto: "To each according to his deserts, and to each desert according to its performance." And this dream grew continually larger and more beautiful and more seductive as it mounted higher in the impossible.
At first Maheude refused to listen, possessed by a deep dread. No, no, it was too beautiful; it would not do to embark upon these ideas, for they made life seem abominable afterwards, and one would have destroyed everything in the effort to be happy. When she saw Maheu's eyes shine, and that he was troubled and won over, she became restless, and exclaimed, interrupting Étienne:
"Don't listen, my man! You can see he's only telling us fairy-tales. Do you think the bourgeois would ever consent to work as we do?"
D'un élan, elle s'était pendue à lui, elle chercha sa bouche et y colla passionnément la sienne. Les ténèbres s'éclairèrent, elle revit le soleil, elle retrouva un rire calmé d'amoureuse. Lui, frémissant de la sentir ainsi contre sa chair, demie-nue sous la veste et la culotte en lambeaux, l'empoigna, dans un réveil de sa virilité. Et ce fut enfin leur nuit de noces, au fond de cette tombe, sur ce lit de boue, le besoin de ne pas mourir avant d'avoir eu leur bonheur, l'obstiné besoin de vivre, de faire de la vie une dernière fois. Ils s'aimèrent dans le désespoir de tout, dans la mort.
Ensuite, il n'y eut plus rien. Étienne était assis par terre, toujours dans le même coin, et il avait Catherine sur les genoux, couchée, immobile. Des heures, des heures s'écoulèrent. Il crut longtemps qu'elle dormait ; puis, il la toucha, elle était très froide, elle était morte. Pourtant, il ne remuait pas, de peur de la réveiller. L'idée qu'il l'avait eue femme le premier, et qu'elle pouvait être grosse, l'attendrissait. D'autres idées, l'envie de partir avec elle, la joie de ce qu'ils feraient tous les deux plus tard, revenaient par moments, mais si vagues, qu'elles semblaient effleurer à peine son front, comme le souffle même du sommeil. Il s'affaiblissait, il ne lui restait que la force d'un petit geste, un lent mouvement de la main, pour s'assurer qu'elle était bien là, ainsi qu'une enfant endormie, dans sa raideur glacée. Tout s'anéantissait, la nuit elle-même avait sombré, il n'était nulle part, hors de l'espace, hors du temps. Quelque chose tapait bien à côté de sa tête, des coups dont la violence se rapprochait ; mais il avait eu d'abord la paresse d'aller répondre, engourdi d'une fatigue immense ; et, à présent, il ne savait plus, il rêvait seulement qu'elle marchait devant lui et qu'il entendait le léger claquement de ses sabots. Deux jours se passèrent, elle n'avait pas remué, il la touchait de son geste machinal, rassuré de la sentir si tranquille.
Étienne ressentit une secousse. Des voix grondaient, des roches roulaient jusqu'à ses pieds. Quand il aperçut une lampe, il pleura. Ses yeux clignotants suivaient la lumière, il ne se lassait pas de la voir, en extase devant ce point rougeâtre qui tachait à peine les ténèbres. Mais des camarades l'emportaient, il les laissa introduire, entre ses dents serrés, des cuillerées de bouillon. Ce fut seulement dans la galerie de Réquillart qu'il reconnut quelqu'un, l'ingénieur Négrel, debout devant lui ; et ces deux hommes qui se méprisaient, l'ouvrier révolté, le chef sceptique, se jetèrent au cou l'un de l'autre, sanglotèrent à grands sanglots, dans le bouleversement profond de toute l'humanité qui était en eux. C'était une tristesse immense, la misère des générations, l'excès de douleur où peut tomber la vie.
Au jour, la Maheude, abattue près de Catherine morte, jeta un cri, puis un autre, puis un autre, de grandes plaintes très longues, incessantes. Plusieurs cadavres étaient déjà remontés et alignés par terre : Chaval que l'on crut assommé sous un éboulement, un galibot et deux haveurs également fracassés, le crâne vide de cervelle, le ventre gonflé d'eau. Des femmes, dans la foule, perdaient la raison, déchiraient leurs jupes, s'égratignaient la face. Lorsqu'on le sortit enfin, après l'avoir habitué aux lampes et nourri un peu, Étienne apparut décharné, les cheveux tout blancs ; et on s'écartait, on frémissait devant ce vieillard. La Maheude s'arrêta de crier, pour le regarder stupidement, de ses grands yeux fixes. (VII, v)
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Serialized 1884-1885, first published as a book 1885
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Ger-mi-nal, Ger-mi-nal, Ger-mi-nal..., este era el grito que el 5 de octubre de 1902 una delegación de mineros franceses coreaba al arrojar sus ramos de rosas rojas sobre la tumba de Zola: cinco mil parisienses habían recorrido las calles de París con el féretro del escritor que había abanderado el enfrentamiento con el sector más conservador de la sociedad francesa a raíz del conocido como «affaire Dreyfus». Émile Zola , el padre del naturalismo, describe en Germinal , de una forma descarnada, el mundo sombrío y mísero de la mina, retratando a un grupo de personas que vive ahogado en condiciones infrahumanas y por cuyas venas Zola hace correr el odio y el rencor, seres humanos que se extenúan trabajando en medio de una terrible frustración. Los sueños de juventud, la búsqueda del amor, todo choca contra la realidad siniestra de la mina, que se cobra vidas y apenas permite vivir a los que logran salir de su oscuro pozo. Pero cuando falta el pan, cuando el sueño se convierte en pesadilla, los mineros se alzan contra las fuerzas de la destrucción: la huelga hace brotar de todos y cada uno lo mejor y lo peor del ser humano. Con Germinal, Zola escribe una epopeya radicalmente moderna: la denuncia de una realidad se convierte en mito.
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