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Germinal Paperback – Aug 10 2008
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'masterpiece' Oxford Times
'A good translator uses the language of his day; the original text remains fixed, but translations must move with the times. Collier's, though differing from, and not always improving on, Tancock's, is likely to have the same startling effect on the reader coming fresh to it today as his prdecessor's had forty years ago.' F.W.J. Hemmings, French Studies, Vol. 48, Part 4
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But all of the politics would seem hollow if the book wasn't filled with unforgettable people. Monsieur Hennebeau's life of luxury is sharply contrasted with the lives of the starving workers - and yet one simply _cannot_ dismiss the aching, naked loneliness he feels every second as the pettiness of a rich man. It's real and it's terribly sad. Likewise, the repressed love that Etienne and Catherine (as well as Bebert and Lydie - now that was one of the most touching scenes I've ever read...) feel for each other is poignant beyond words.Read more ›
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Zola weaves a strong plot line along with a multitude of characters. The hallmark of this novel is the wealth of people who populate the pages. The miners are not the noble poor but men and women who live day to day, cruel in some ways, generous in others. The managers are owners are not evil, greedy men but complex characters who in some ways envy the freedom of the miners from conventional morality.
As with most Zola novels, don't expect a happy ending. But the reader can expect to be transported to a world and a way of life almost unimaginable for its brutality and bleakness. Like other great works of literature, the novel explores the thoughts and actions of people who suffer the daily indignities of poverty and injustice. Germinal is different however because the thoughts and actions are not noble and the consequences of their actions are felt by all. I would strongly recommend Germinal as one of the major novels of the 19th century but one that transcends time and place. The issues evoked in the novel regarding labor versus capital are just as relevant to today's world.
But in spite of their poverty and general misery, the miners still enjoy a level of freedom that the bourgeoisie, whole live a life of idleness and ignorance among their workers, do not. They are free to openly engage in sexual activities, which is something that is absolutely forbidden to the upper classes. Even the manager of the mine, M. Hennebeau, as he looks out his window at the swarm of strikers, envies them for their emotional freedom, his own marriage being nothing more than a loveless sham.
There are events in the book that will shock the uninformed reader. The miners regularly beat their wives and children, and the mothers look on their children as little more than wage-earners in some respects. A reader must place himself in the period and environment in which this story takes place. These mining families are holding on with both hands, and struggle everyday just to simply survive. So it's no wonder that when a child's legs are crushed in a tragic mining accident, his mother laments the loss of his income more than his injuries and pain. In the end, this book simply shows that the will to survive, and to achieve a just world, can conquer anything.
"Germinal" is widely regarded as Zola's masterpiece. I'm inclined to agree. It's surely his most passionate, suspenseful, kinesthetic novel, with a cast of characters so vividly depicted that you'd recognize them on a crowded street. The focal character is the young laborer Etienne Lantier -- the family link to the other novels of Zola's Rougon-Macquart epic -- who takes a job, out of desperation, in a coal mine. Zola did his homework on mining technology and working conditions in the mines of mid-19th C France. His word-paintings of the mines are worth a thousand pictures, and the conditions of work are beyond hellish. Life for the miners and their families in the company-owned villages is squalid and brutish, while the luxury enjoyed by the bourgeois managers and stockholders is hatefully excessive. Exploiters and exploited are both trapped in an orgy of moral and psychological corruption. Young Etienne, a self-educated idealist pushed and yanked every which way by his reading and his contact with utopian socialism, becomes the instigator of a massive strike that begins with orderly optimism but that devolves into misery and violence. Meanwhile the poor lad falls in love with a miner's daughter ...
"Germinal" IS a 19th C novel, and accordingly there's a lot of predictable melodrama and improbable coincidence in it, none of which detracts from its real dramatic potency. It's a "labor" novel, right? In fact, possibly the first muck-raking hard-hitting labor novel ever written, and still arguably the finest! But in a "labor" novel there has to be a strike, and the strike has to be crushed by the cynical might of avaricious capitalism. Likewise, it's a novel set in the dank dark fissures of a coal mine; what could a reader possibly expect but a cave-in followed by heroic efforts to rescue the trapped miners? Would Zola's first readers in the 1880s have had such obvious expectations? Perhaps not. One could credit Zola with inventing all the formulae of the modern novel and be at least half right. In any case, the descriptions of the catastrophic cave-in and the struggles of the trapped miners to survive will curl your hair and set your heart thumping. [Yes, teacher, this is an exciting novel that I could hardly put down even for dinner and that's why I couldn't study for my math test.]
Etienne's efforts to prepare himself as a charismatic 'leader' of the working class are stimulated by his friendship with Souvarine, an educated Russian exile employed as an engineer in the mines. Souvarine has books to lend and ideologies to impart, as well as a sinister arrogance that will strike fear in the heart of a post-20th C reader. He's an astoundingly prophetic figure, this Souvarine, a libertarian/anarchist fanatic as cold-blooded and self-righteous as Pinochet or Pol Pot. If only Zola had had his hands on the real man and could have expunged him from the future!
Naive awareness of Bakunin, Marx, and Darwin all add confusion to Etienne Lantier's worldview, as Zola portrays him becoming strangely aware of his own ambiguity. The more he learns and thinks about the injustice of capitalist society, the more he separates himself from the brutish and brutalized workers whom he aspires to organize and elevate. There's a good measure of profundity in Zola's portrayal of Etienne, whose mentality is uncomfortably familiar to readers a century later. He's the prototype of all ardent organizers and politicians whose "sympathy" for the downtrodden and degraded of society eventually clashes with their disapproval of the stubborn ignorance and viciousness of the 'masses.'
Conservative critics of Zola in his own era and in the earlier decades of the 20th C harped on his 'lascivious' amoral depiction of sexuality. Liberal critics berated him for his portrayal of lower-class vices - drunkenness, wife beating, child abuse, filthiness, shiftlessness. Yes, there's a "whole lotta shakin' goin' on" between the males and females in Germinal, the poor and the rich, in the moonlit fields, in the fetid galleries of the mines, and in the poshly wallpapered bedrooms of the bourgeois also, and very little of all this fornication is devoted to the protection of marriage. But Zola was actually a rather stiff-necked moralist and all the raw sexuality in his novels was anything but erotic. Despite the conventions of the 19th C melodramatic novel that Zola never defied, "Germinal" is fearlessly realistic in its exposure of human nature and social complexity. The Rougon-Macquart novels rank among the highest accomplishments of all literature.
For those unfamiliar with Zola, he is regarded as one of the two greats in French literature (Hugo being the other), standing well above all other authors. He is certainly one of the greatest novelists ever to put pen to paper in any language. He is perhaps best known, however, for a newspaper article that he wrote entitled `J'accuse' (I accuse) in which he called much of the political and military leadership of France in the 1890s liars for their role in covering up the innocence of Alfred Dreyfus. The novel `Germinal' is one in a series of twenty books that Zola wrote (the Rougon-Macquart series) to describe various aspects of life in France under the Empire before it was destroyed by the Prussians in 1870. All the books are linked (ala Balzac), with many characters recurring throughout the series. For example, the main character in `Germinal', Etienne Lantier, is the son of the washerwoman Gervaise from `L'Assomoir', an earlier book in the series.
I cannot write a review to do this outstanding novel justice. The characters are realistic, three dimensional, well developed, and believable. Zola's dialogue is outstanding. He writes as people actually talk, I have never read anyone who writes dialogue as well as Zola. He writes about the human condition and all that is good and evil in men. The story is complex and well developed, yet easy to read. This translation is highly readable, and contains detailed endnotes that give the reader information on people, places, and historical events that contemporaries of Zola would have understood, but that modern readers may not be familiar with. I would, in general, recommend Zola's work to others with caution, but I highly recommend this book to anyone who is perusing these reviews. This is a great novel by a great writer - you will not be disappointed.