Germinal

7/10: Good. Upon finding that I ran out of novels that I borrowed from the library, and because the French copy had been sitting on my shelf for a while.

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Émile Zola’s Germinal commences with a recently fired Étienne Lantier drifting to a mining town called Montsou during post-revolution France looking for work. Along with the work, he gets miserable living conditions, hazardous working conditions, and a mix cast of co-workers. It takes him a few weeks to settle into the grungy rhythm of said work, but less than that to grow weary of it. Étienne organizes a drive to unionize, and things take an aggressive turn from there.

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I’ve had a beautiful illustrated hardcover copy of Germinal in the original with gilded gold pages for a while, and I always intended to read it alongside the English copy (as I’m not confident that I’d be able to fully grasp the French if I read only the French). I was at the end of my rope come Halloween when I realized that I had yet to read a suitable book to review. For the record, this month I’ve read some non-fiction including Dychtwald’s Young China and a collection of Gaiman’s essays, some short stories from various authors and an anthology from Palahniuk, polished off the third book of the Stormlight Archives and Don Quixote, which I was not comfortable passing judgment on. That list was composed to show that I haven’t been slacking, but it’s actually me bragging. Just like Germinal has a perky title invoking spring, but it’s actually a book depicting the most miserable people I have ever read.

Germinal sits amongst the ranks of 1984 and Grapes of Wrath wrote as the most depressing books that I’ve ever read. Books where an entire society is actively miserable. Not books where the characters are leading empty lives, but are happy, or strung out on soma. Call me unimaginative, but I felt that I could better relate to society in Germinal than either of the other two books.

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Normally I do a little blurb on writing style, but since I read the English translation, I can’t pass judgement. Who am I kidding. I am entirely unqualified to give opinions on French diction and syntax as well, seeing as I didn’t know half the words used in Le Petit Prince. The irrelevance of my opinions notwithstanding, this translation by Peter Collier is provides an especially gloomy setting with detailed description. Much of the exposition is also conducted through this third person omniscient narration, with little dialogue to explain what’s going on. I found that this lends power to the narrator’s voice and ideas; with minimal evidence, what the omniscient one says, goes.

And the going is sure rough. Montsou’s inhabitants live from paltry paycheck to meager paycheck, rising at 4 in the morning to make their perilous and uncomfortable shifts in the shafts. They barely earn enough to scrape through each day, often having to go buy things on credit from the storekeeper, who isn’t the archetypical benevolent old man, but the archetypical lecherous old man. The despair is so thick that Étienne’s drive to unionize and eventual revolt felt doomed from the start, just as Enjolras is sure to die during his revolution. There is character named Bonnemort, which is literally “good death” in French. There is a mine literally called Tartarus. Tartarus!

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The only pastime that the inhabitants of Montsou all seem to enjoy is sex. All the time. All of them. From the aforementioned lecherous old men, to girls that haven’t even had their periods start. Which was considered an advantage, because there would be no chance of pregnancy. All the families were a product of a vicious cycle where girls that became pregnant would become married to the men who got them pregnant. They would not stop having children because they would not stop having unprotected sex. To support themselves and their children, they’d have to continue working in the mine, and would never ultimately leave. The children would be made to work as soon as they were able to, until they started families of their own.

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Germinal does read a little preachy. The inhabitants of Montsou are depicted as dull and dependant on alcohol. If only they’d stop having so many kids and were actually productive, then they wouldn’t be so destitute! The people are to be pitied, but they’re also poor and boorish and keep on getting into fights. Étienne has a “hereditary ill, the long ancestry of drunkenness, no longer tolerating a drop of alcohol without falling into homicidal mania.” It seems that things are to a certain degree their fault, from their aimless lives, to their tendency to riot and succumb to mob rule when a union drive is eventually formed. As a city slicker determined to truly capture the life of a miner, Zola journeyed to a mine to observe the working and living conditions for himself. However accurate the demotivated depiction of the colliers is, it ultimately portrays them to the reader as rabble because of their choices, not because of their oppressors. The blue-collar life seen through the eyes of a literati. The workers are an aggressive group. The poor have poor character. The miners chose to riot instead of negotiating and holding out just a few days further, when the managers were at the end of their rope.

Line managers are portrayed as traitors to their class, stationed in between the owners of the mine and the workers. When things go wrong, it’s their fault, and at the end of the day, they’re just taking home a salary as well. Although the managers might have had a rope, the landowners had the whole coil. The capitalists, the people born into money have not a care in the world. As the unorganized mob protests screaming for bread, one of the heiresses, Madame Hennebeau, exclaims: “Those foul workmen deliberately chose the day when I had guests. What’s the point of treating them decently?” Her husband, Monsieur Hennebeau has his own set of problems. He married his wife for her money, and as a result, can’t do anything about her controlling, abusive behaviour. His wife is cheating on him, and whenever he walks outside, he becomes jealous of the miners having casual wanton sex. “He would have been more than happy to die of hunger just like them, if he could start his life over again, with a woman who would lie down on the ground and submit to him, open up her body and soul to him”. Someone introduce this man to Maslow.

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Despite the disconnect between the capital owning classes and the poor huddled masses, despite the eventual failure of the revolution and the death of a handful of central characters, the novel still ends on a seemingly positive note. Étienne marches away from Montsou with a spring in his step and spring in the air, optimistic about the future. A future where the ruling class is overthrown, and the rights of the workers are protected. Ironically, this made me sadder than George shooting Lennie. Étienne is just going to walk away? From all the pain and suffering, multiplied by his revolution? At least the future is better. Ha.

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In Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes: “On the whole, foragers seem to have enjoyed a more comfortable and rewarding lifestyle than most of the peasants, shepherds, laborers and office clerks who followed in their footsteps.” This quote was one of the many problems I had with Sapiens, until Steve Bannon said at a debate last week that “The millennials are basically 18th century Russian serfs. They’re better fed, they’re better clothed, and they’re in better shape. But the don’t own anything, and they’re never gonna own anything”. Germinal read within the context of these two quotes is what made me relate better to Montsou than to Oceania or dustbowl California. Like Étienne, I just stumbled into my corporate job. Like Étienne, I am condemned to work so long as I have bills to pay. Like Étienne, I believe wage earning is a new form of slavery. But like Zola, I believe that my indentured status is a result of my choices. And I saw what an attempt at revolution did to the people around Étienne.