My love affair with Emile Zola

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The man himself as pained by Edouard Manet in 1868

I’m reading Germinal at the moment and I can’t get enough of it; it really is the most astonishing thing I’ve read in a long time.  It’s so good that I’m torn between wanting to read it all day, and yet also wanting to savour each word because I don’t want it to end.  I’m sure an extract would convey this better, so:

‘He was Bataille, the doyen of the mine, a white pony who had been ten years below ground.  For ten years he had lived in this hole and occupied the same corner of the stable, performing the same task along the black galleries without ever seeing daylight . . . Now, with advancing years, his cat-like eyes sometimes took on a far-away wistful look.  Perhaps in his misty dreams he could dimly see the mill near Marchiennes where he was born, by the banks of the Scarpe amidst broad, wind-swept meadows.  Something used to burn high up in the air, a sort of huge lamp, but his animal memory could not quite recollect what it was like.  And there he stood shakily on his old legs, vainly trying to remember the sun.’

Aw.

Zola has a way of making my soul bleed.

This is the fourth book that I have read from the Rougon-Macquart series which follows the course of one family through Second Empire France.  I started with L’Assomoir, then Nana and The Masterpiece.  Up until now I think L’Assommoir was the most powerful.  Zola plumbs the depths of poverty and despair in a Parisienne slum.  Just as it seems like things might be about to improve some disaster befalls the family and they end up worse than they started.  This cycle is repeated and eventually they are all but living in the gutter pickled in absinth and cheap gin.  I read Nana immediately after this and the contrast was a bit of a shock.  Having somehow crawled her way out of slums Nana makes a meteoric rise from a two bit street whore to a decadent courtesan, fawned over by all the rich and powerful men of Paris.  Although Nana was good I identified a big flaw which became increasingly  apparent towards the end.  It felt as if Zola was struggling with his own conscience over the character he had created.  It was as if he realised that he had created a high class prostitute who was also a likeable character, and these two things could not be allowed to mutually exist.  In the final chapters he tried his best to turn Nana into a monster . . . but alas, I still liked her a lot.  Nana might be morally bankrupt but the extravagant luxury she lived in was infinitely better than the crippling poverty of her childhood in L’Assommoir, no matter how she acquired the money.  Now that I am reading Germinal Nana’s journey from rags to riches seems all the more poignant.  The miners in Germinal reflect on how they are trapped and oppressed by a wealthy class who lives off their misery and toil.  Nana managed to turn the tables for her own selfish gain, but I have a nasty feeling that her brother Etienne will not be able to save the weary masses in Germinal.

Germinal (1885) reminds me a lot of Hard Times by Charles Dickens.  Published as a series in 1854 Hard Times is the story of a northern industrial town and the struggle between mill workers ‘the Hands’ and the mill owners.  Although Zola was starting his career just as Dickens’s was ending, I often feel the need to compare the two.  I think there is much similarity in content, theme, social and political commentary etc. and most importantly, the desire to record contemporary life – especially the life of the lower classes.  I often find Dickens to be a little dull, the stories feel allegorical and preachy – like a manifesto thinly disguised as fiction.  Although Etienne’s socialist sympathies loom large in Germinal I still feel like the politics are secondary to the story.  Zola’s characters are first of all human beings, conjured up by beautifully rendered descriptions – not the puppets of social progress I always seem to find in Dickens.

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