The Germination of Genius: an examination of Zola’s Masterpiece


Book: Germinal

Author: Émile Zola

Date of Publication: 1885

Type: Novel (592 pages)

Though it may seem a coincidence that I am doing a review on one of the gems of French literature after my diatribe on Freedom of Speech and on Multiculturalism, I have to admit that this move to review Germinal is in no way planned to coincide with my ranting on the tragic occurrences at Charlie Hebdo. My determination to wax lyrical on the power and beauty of this novel has long been in the deepest depths of my mind, though it lay useless and dormant for a while, choosing to make way to literature essays, innumerable translations, and the occasional running around for the sake of college interviews. However, now that it is the vacation, and I have pledged to write at least one review per month, I am screwing my creativity to the sticking place, and writing a review before the furore that is college life takes over all over again.

Now, it is with some trepidation that I sit down to write this book review. This is not necessarily because I dread the task; quite to the contrary, in fact. I am looking forward to exploring and analysing the different nuances which make up this incredibly complex and wonderfully detailed book. My trepidation mainly derives from the inability to ascertain whether I shall be able to stem the flow of my ‘eloquence’ once I get started, thus flinging the virtues of clarity and succinctness out of the metaphorical window. I say this from the outset to warn my dear readers, to tell them to beware of waffle and all-round babble.

Anyway, I had already approached this book with great thoughts of positivity and optimism. Out of all the French authors I have read so far (and I’ll admit that there are not that many), Zola is by far my favourite. According to my more erudite friends, this is a distinctly pedestrian and unintellectual choice, but, as I had never made any pretensions towards intellectualism, I don’t mind not being considered ‘intellectual’. I had read other classics by Zola in the Rougon-Macquart series, namely, L’Assommoir and Nana, and had especially enjoyed the dedication to explicit detail and the tentative exploration of nature versus nurture. Looking forward to more of the same in Germinal, I was certainly not disappointed; the savage power and beauty of the novel left me speechless, and profoundly move. This power derives from its skilful exploration of key themes; its gritty realism and vividness of description; its complex use of imagery; as well as its incredible emotional appeal.

Germinal is so named after the seventh month in the French Republican Calendar, and roughly follows the same dates as the star sign Aries in the zodiac. The month was named after the Latin word germen, meaning “germination”. Though it is a reference to the springtime phenomenon of growth and regeneration that is often associated with the month of April, and with Spring in general, the title is also an allusion to a growth, or germination, if you like, of rebellion and change that was becoming increasingly stronger both in the story, and in the large political and economic situation of Zola’s France. Following the story of Etienne Lantier, the son of Gervaise (the ‘heroine’ of L’Assommoir), and the brother of Claude (the protagonist of L’Oeuvre) and Anna, or “Nana” (character in the eponymous Nana), its traces his trials and tribulations as a miner in the mining town Montsou, as he battles with antagonism, politics, and the societal, economic, and political pressures that were so integral in contemporary France. Living a miserable and destitute life as a poorly paid and ill-treated miner, and an increasingly angry member of what we would now call “the 99%”, Etienne manipulates the growing discontent of the mining community in order to go on strike, thus rebelling against the Establishment, and wreaking absolute havoc in his own life, and in the lives of all those around him.

The book is thematically strong, and these themes are beautifully woven into an equally excellent plot. Zola makes light work of what could have been overly heavy material, seamlessly combining all of the elements that make a Zola novel so memorable; namely, its exploration of nature versus nurture in human personality, its examination of the limits of human rapacity, desperation, and willpower, as well as its examination into the social issues and ethical problems of the day. The themes of optimism in change; despair through absolute penury; rebellion; and cyclical regeneration, are carefully explored in this classic tale of conflict between two sets of individuals that widely differ in education, social class, and ideology, and mind-set, each, to a certain extent, yearning for what the other has, without precisely understanding or caring to appreciate the other’s situation or circumstances. This misunderstanding and resentment is especially well sketched when contrasting Etienne Lantier and Monsieur Hennebeau; the former of whom desires the latter’s better financial standing and possession of worldly luxuries, without understanding the social pressures that accompany such an individual in the circles he moves in, whereas the other craves the lack of inhibition and raw animal sensuality which allows Etienne and those of his ‘ilk’ to pursue whatever they desire freely; yet Hennebeau too does not appreciate the sheer destitution and lack of opportunities that has resulted in this fairly fatalistic and almost hedonistic approach to life and its pleasures. Thus, by carefully constructing different situations and different characters to mirror and reflect one another, Zola has been successful in interlacing these disparate themes into one coherent and cohesive narrative of human tragedy and emotion.

This is further enhanced by the realism of Zola’s narrative, a characteristic of Zola’s authorial voice that has always been remarkably good in all his novels, and has always been, in my opinion, worthy of praise. However, Zola’s skill in creating a series of tableaux through the written word in order to recreate everything as realistically as possible for the detached and ignorant reader is especially marvellous in Germinal. His depictions of the sexual relations of all the characters; the way he narrates the ebb and tide of human emotion in reaction to a series of political speeches made by Etienne and other politically active characters; his descriptions of the disgusting circumstances in which all the miners live, whilst cleverly contrasting this with the almost repellent opulence and excess of the “1%” who benefit from the almost-slavery of their miner employees; the conditions of the underground network within the mines themselves; the almost savage power and ferocity of the angry mob as they pillaged and burned their way from one village to the next, leaving ruins and destruction in their wake; and, most importantly of all, the relentless and unsparingly grim narrative on the abject hunger and deprivation of all the miners and their families as they tried to endure the strike, and the subsequent hunger and poverty; all of these little scenes are described in such vivid and gruesome detail as to leave the reader drained and sickened by the unrelenting grittiness of the plot. There is not one splash of sunshine in the dark and grim painting created by Zola, and Zola, skilful as he is, ensures that he makes his monochrome shades of his black and grey narrative utterly stark and without solace.

Though I have described scenes and themes in my praise of Zola’s skill of realistic narration, his ability to create realistic and brutally stark text is no more evident than in his characterisation. From what I understand, Zola’s large and ambitious RougonMacquart cycle of books was both a social and a psychological commentary: not only did he want to offer to his readers an education of sorts concerning the state in which many different sorts of people lived, he was also profoundly interested in understanding the human psyche, and the capacity for madness and crime within an individual. Darwinism and Natural Sciences had been taking an increasing hold on polite intellectual society, and the concept of hereditary tendencies versus societal pressures and upbringing. The Nature vs. Nurture question has never been so thoroughly, or so adeptly, explored by a novelist than it was by Zola, who used the sprawling family tree of the fictional Rougon-Macquart to investigate, through literature, the perennial genes vs environment question. Zola’s almost obsessive examination of this has enabled him to create characters so raw, so real, and so fundamentally human, and yet so utterly bestial, that their actions and thoughts both shock and enlighten. Chaval’s bestiality, Zacharie’ flippancy, Etienne’s temperamental nature, Catherine’s utter resignation, Jeanlin’s cunning and resourcefulness, the Gregoires almost irritating sangfroid and blissful ignorance, even Hennebeau’s frustration and sexual impotency, these are conveyed by Zola with such feeling, such passion, and with such skill, that though no character within his narratives are ever eminently likeable, they are too uncomfortably close to being utterly realistic for us to hate them. For, to hate them for their flaws and mistakes would be to condemn and dislike the entire human race; thus is Zola’s skill in creating such beautifully human fictional creatures.

All of this is all expressed through Zola’s incredible prose, as well as his ability to take metaphors and allegories, and transform them into something absolutely incredible. Though I read this in translation (and therefore the potency of the original French would be lost through the translation), I could, even then, feel the absolute power and potency of Zola’s written word. By describing the mine as a living, breathing entity, with ‘veins’, and ‘arteries’, which ‘devours hordes of miners continually’ and which seems to be ‘always hungry for more’, he thus blurs the lines between man and machine, making the mining industry come alive on the page, and thus using the metaphor of the mine to caution future generations of people to be wary of greed and excessive consumption, as it leads to disastrous consequences. Zola furthers weakens the boundaries between different objects and beings by constantly describing the miners as beasts or animals, using his prose to strip them of anyone remotely ‘human’ and ‘civilised’, degrading them to the status of animals, and thus questioning moral and biological boundaries that apparently separate humans from animals. In a similar way, he almost elevates the mine to being a sentient being through his language. This makes for beautiful and effective literature, and Zola’s mastery and manipulation of language is no clearer than here.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the book, despite its technical brilliance, is also a book of incredible motive power. The emotions that it evokes are so real and ever so powerful. This is what makes it a truly good book; it may be uncomfortable and painful to read, as it forces us to confront certain realities about the human condition, and about the lives of others, but it is truly educational, and truly inspiring. I am not usually an emotional or sensitive person, but there were several points in this book when I was close to tears, moved by the pain and destitution and frustration felt by all the characters as they struggled on with their poverty-stricken lives. Its realism and wonderful prose thus enables the reader to live, through words, the lives of all these individuals, and therefore to empathise and to grow with them. Thus, Germinal is truly a book of great power and resonance.

In conclusion, Germinal is an absolute must-read. Magical in its skilful combination of thematically strong material, gritty realism, excellent characterisation, eloquent prose, and emotive text, Zola has created nothing short of a masterpiece. Well deserving of being his most celebrated of his works, Germinal is such a thing of beauty that I would hesitate not a bit to recommend this book to any person I meet in the future.

I am well aware that the structure and style of this review is not as good as it should be. I apologise for that, and I hope that whatever I offer up on this blog in the future. Hectorella.