Germinal

“This sounded the death knell of small family businesses, soon to be followed by the disappearance of the individual entrepreneur, gobbled up one by one by the increasingly hungry ogre of capitalism, and drowned by the rising tide of large companies.”
― Émile Zola, Germinal

“Working in a Coal Mine” – illustration from Emile Zola’s Germinal.

For three years I have been working my way through the 20 novels of Émile Zola’s Les Rougon-Macquart series. So far:

For all of 2021 I’ve been reading Germinal – reading too slow – I haven’t been reading enough. Over the last few days, however, I took a few days of vacation with the family in Hot Springs Arkansas, and that gave me the time to finish the book.

Germinal is generally considered Zola’s masterpiece and is the most popular of all the volumes in Les Rougon-Macquart cycle. It is the story of the terrible conditions in the coal mines of France during the Second Empire (set in the 1860s). It’s protagonist is Étienne Lantier, the son of Gervaise from L’Assommoir and the brother of Jacques Lantier from La Bête Humaine and Claude Lantier from L’Œuvre. Étienne suffers from the family malady of drunkenness and fits of violent madness, but balances that with a sharp mind and a truly caring spirit.

Suffering from a business slump the owners of the mines keep reducing the pay of the colliers in the pits until they can barely feed themselves. There is a strike, which does not go well for anybody.

The story is truly heartbreaking, both in the terrible conditions in the mine and associated villages – plus the inevitable doom as they all go on strike.

One overarching theme is the philosophical battle between capitalism and socialism (in several various flavors). Zola spills a lot of ink contrasting the struggles of the mine workers with the lavish lifestyle of the bourgeoisie living off their investments in the mines. It is well done and absolutely heartbreaking.

It is interesting to read a book about socialist and communist ideals written in 1885 – long before Stalin, Mao, or Castro. Despite the terrible horrors of the strike there is still a youthful optimism about the struggles that were to come.

Zola ends the novel on a note of hope:

Beneath the blazing of the sun, in that morning of new growth, the countryside rang with song, as its belly swelled with a black and avenging army of men, germinating slowly in its furrows, growing upwards in readiness for harvests to come, until one day soon their ripening would burst open the earth itself.

One other point that I have learned reading the entire Zola cycle is the importance of a good, modern translation. When I started I thought I’d read the free, Project Gutenberg ebook editions. However, those are contemporary and highly bowdlerized translations. I actually read Germinal… maybe forty years ago, in one of those versions and barely remember it. This time I bought the Oxford’s World Classic edition, translated by Peter Collier – and it is an amazing, modern, memorable translation. I highly recommend it (though there are probably other modern translations as good).

I also see that there are several film editions of Germinal. A fairly recent French version is available to stream and I’ll see if I can set aside some time in the next few days to watch it.

Otherwise, it’s on to the next book, Nana. This is about the half-sister of Étienne Lantier and her decent through the underbelly of sexual exploitation in Paris. It’s another one that I read a long, long, time ago and am looking to revisiting a better translation.

It’ll be slow, though. My Difficult Reads Book Club is about to embark on Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 – which will be a good bit of work.

So many book, so little time.

A good article on the book:

Rereading Zola’s Germinal

Sunday Snippet – from “Toesucking in Albania”

“Jealousy is a disease, love is a healthy condition. The immature mind often mistakes one for the other, or assumes that the greater the love, the greater the jealousy – in fact, they are almost incompatible; one emotion hardly leaves room for the other.”
― Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land

St. Vincent’s, New Orleans

Oblique Strategy: You can only make one dot at a time

Snippet from a novel I’ve worked on off and on – originally from Nanowrimo
Working title – Toe Sucking in Albania


Sanibar crawled up over the ridge, watching the handheld tracker that indicated the position of Boromech’s flyer. He had placed a remote bug on the machine a week before and now it was time to see it pay off.

He knew that Boromech and Wenwiki had landed somewhere not too far over the edge and he would be able to see them once he cleared the crest. He folded his flyer and wedged it behind a rock and pulled out the powerful pair of stabilized digital tele-binoculars that he had ordered from offworld.

Down on his belly, Sanibar wiggled across the scree and cleared the ridge between two rust-red ragged boulders. The rock was warm from the bright sun; Sanibar wiped the sweat from his eyes and looked down into the valley past the ridge. His eyes were shocked with the bright green he spotted there, and it took a minute to recognize the valley as Area 51B25, a spot he himself had discovered and explored a year earlier.

This part of the planet, surrounding the dessicated edge of the drying salty inland sea, was, for the most part, lifeless and barren. Only small pockets, like Area 51B25, were able to support verdant vibrant life. The last sliver of an ancient dying glacier nestled up between the high peaks to the south, sent a constant dribble of meltwater down into the valley where it pooled into a turquoise lake, protected by the rugged ridges on either side. The lake slowly leaked water into the shattered rock valley where the roots of the strange alien forest drank it up. This little isolated pocket of forest was an orphaned echo of the vast jungles that were killed off along the toxic edge of the wasteland they created with the mining.

Sanibar had found this verdant valley during his initial survey of the sector. Between the steep and rugged ridges on either side and the high peaks to the south, it was hidden and would never be spotted by anyone not going right down into the gorge itself. He recorded it on the official maps, then made sure it had been buried deep in the central reports and he never told anyone about it. He knew the Rest and Recreation Corps would go nuts about it. They would build a rec facility on the shore of the little lake, blast trails through the woods, and put up some cabins in the most beautiful spots. They would give out weekend passes to people that had put in the most overtime, shipped the most product, or, more likely, kissed the most asses. Sanibar didn’t want this – he wanted to keep the hidden little green valley to himself.

After plotting for a month, he finally managed to get Wenwiki to go there with him. He had everything planned to the smallest detail – he had hauled in some stolen furniture, making a nice table and a couple comfortable chairs – up on a flat, rocky spot with a drop-dead beautiful view. He had paid the cook off to make a special meal for two, complete with rare off-world ingredients smuggled in on a mail run from home. Sanibar lied to Wenwiki and said he had prepared the picnic feast himself. He was even able to procure a bottle of fine old vintage – something unheard of on a remote mining base.

When he asked Wenwiki to go on a picnic with him and she committed to an afternoon three days away, she seemed honestly and truly excited. The three days of waiting were both hellish and heavenly for Sanibar. Both enervated with fear and ecstatic with anticipation, time clicked by in endless slow slivers. Finally the chosen appointment day and hour creeped up.

His extensive, expensive, and exhausting preparations complete, Sanibar flew his cleaned and polished flyer, complete with sidecar over to Wenwiki’s quarters and rang and rang. She wasn’t there. A neighbor cracked her door and said she had seen Wenwiki down at the cleaning station, doing her weekly laundry. His heart sinking, Sanibar flew over to the station and there she was. Wenwiki had forgotten. Sanibar was reduced to pleading, and after finishing a load of clothing, Wenwiki finally agreed to go with him after all.

But the day was ruined. Wenwiki seemed distant, her mind elsewhere. Sanibar’s careful preparations were for nothing. She picked at her food, refused the vintage, and simply nodded when Sanibar pointed out the rare beauty of the spot. Though the forecast had been for perfect weather, a small rogue storm tumbled down the steep slopes of the high peaks and dumped a sudden, cold, sodden shower onto the picnic. They abandoned the outing after only a short stint and Wenwiki was adamant about finishing her laundry when they returned and insisted on finishing it alone.

Sanibar was devastated. Back in his quarters he was racked with compulsive sobs of disappointment. He hurled the vintage against the bathroom sink and cut his feet on the shattered shards of the bottle. A long, sleepless night, and the next day Wenwiki was at breakfast laughing and acting as if nothing had happened. Now, thinking back about it, Sanibar realized that was the first morning he had seen Wenwiki sitting in the cafeteria with Boromech.

And now she had brought Boromech to his personal spot. A cold, bitter, sharp lump began crawling up from his gut as he wiggled his way into a hidden spot along the ridge crest and feeling sharp shards of rock digging into his propped elbows brought his digital binoculars up to his eyes and started to scan.

There they were. Boromech’s flyer landed and the two of them standing in each other’s arms along the light rippled shore. They were both barefoot, their four black work boots leaning against the flyer. Sanibar couldn’t see any supplies except for a large padded packing blanket spread out between the flyer and the lake and what looked like a small pile of soft folded towels. After a few minutes Wenwiki pushed Boromech away they began laughing about something. Sanibar wished he had put a sound transmitter on the tracking bug he had concealed in the flyer… but he gritted his teeth… thinking they were laughing at him.