|What you mean Gerard Depardieu starred in a mid 1990s French film version of Zola's Germinal? That is the least surprising fact of all time.|
by Emile Zola
Let me put one thing out there: If you consider Germinal to be Zola's greatest work then I hate you. There I said it. Germinal has two things going for it: One, it is fucking raw as shit- the main characters are coal miners who fuck and shit and fight for the entire book- often in graphic detail. One of the main female characters is essentially raped while she is still waaay underage- like hasn't hit puberty yet and the characters in Germinal are generally depicted as behaving one step above animals. Two, Germinal is political, perhaps the first avowedly "working class" focused novel.
Although many Russian novelists had already broached the subejct, none really dig into it- to the point where I'm certain that Germinal is the first novel centered around a labor action- I can think of one Trollope or Eliot novel where discontented workers are a plot point, but the action is limited to a single confrontation outside a factory. Here, we get a "naturalist"/realist look at actual coal miners doing actual coal mining.
Personally, I think Germinal represents the first step down a long, dark path, that of the "political novel." I understand the post-modern argument that all novels are political in some sense, but avowedly political novels, particularly those that focus on the working classes of the 20th century, are particularly burdensome from an aesthetic standpoint. The idea that a novel has to have political content to be "important" is so dumb and wrong headed that the prospect of reading what is to come in this department makes me cringe. Don't get me wrong, I'm a big Joseph Conrad fan and a HUGE George Orwell fan, and I love what they do with politics, but I'm talking about the Zola/Steinbeck workers-in-the-fields genre here.
Criticisms aside, it's fair to say that Germinal is the most popular of Zola's novels as far a general (read undergraduate students taking a European literature survey course) is concerned. And it does pack a bawdy punch, and the mining portions are well written and hold your attention. But the politics...moooaaaannn.
On a related note, I am within striking distance of closing out the 19th century. Maybe 20 books left? The 20th century is like 800 books though, so it is going to take a while.