Thursday 30 April 2015

Germinal by Émile Zola

I cannot thank Fanda @Classiclit and O @Behold the Stars enough for introducing me to the wonderful world of Zola.

Last year I read Nana for Fanda's Zoladdiction month with great enjoyment...and anticipation...for my next Zola.

This year I wanted to read Zola's most famous and most well-regarded novel, Germinal.

It is the 13th book (chronologically) in the 20 volume Les Rougon-Macquart series. Although Zola, himself added a recommended reading order in his last book, Doctor Pascal, in which he placed Germinal in 16th position. (Nana was the 9th book published, but Zola placed it at 17th on his reading order.)

I'm not sure where to start with my love and praise for Germinal though. (My 'initial thoughts' post can be found here).

Germinal was a big, epic, heart-wrenching read, full of the daily drama's of a mining community in 18th century France.The attention to detail and intimate knowledge was extraordinary - in fact, my edition included 20 pages of Zola's Notes on the Mines at Anzin, which revealed just how much research Zola did before writing Germinal.

This personal knowledge gave the book a tangible, visceral quality especially in Zola's descriptions of the miner's work. I felt every sharp edge, every constricted passage and every airless chamber. I felt their exhaustion and their helplessness to change their situation in life.

The true genius though, is that Zola also made it possible for you to feel a similar level of empathy for the bourgeois characters. Not completely, but enough to see how the bourgeois upbringing affected the way they viewed the world and the worker's conditions.

It took the disaster at the end of the book for both sides to see, fleetingly, each other's humanity.

One of Zola's literary devices that I really enjoyed was his personification of the mines:
the monster swallowing down its daily ration of human flesh, the cages emerging, then plunging downward again, engulfing thier loads of men without stopping, gulping them down like a voracious giant.
The mines became another character to become attached to - so much so that I found myself deeply affected by one of the mine's demise towards the end.

Germinal's ending is quite beautiful and hopeful, which I believe is unusual for Zola. He brought the story full circle with his 'germinating' symbolism & Étienne's walk.

I also adored my translation by Raymond N. MacKenzie. He brought Zola's language to life. I was delighted that I had taken the time to research which translation worked best for me before purchasing & reading. I will be using the Compare Literary Translations site again.

Thank you to Fanda for hosting Zoladdiction again this year. I'm excited about next year's Zola already!


  1. Anonymous30/4/15

    This is one of my favorite books. Personification is powerful as is the part that haunts me still:
    the plight and vivid description of the horses working in the mines.
    Great classic, Germinal and great review!

  2. It's an outstanding book - I'm so so happy you enjoyed it!

    I read the Peter Collier translation, but if I ever happen to see the MacKenzie I'll try and get it :)


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