74. (Émile Zola)

In the spirit of a reading journal, here’s the first of a two-part attempt to say something coherent about Zola’s masterpiece Germinal, which I’ve just finished reading in translation.

For some initial orientation, here is Erich Auerbach, esteeming the novel:

Zola took the mixing of styles really seriously; he pushed on beyond the purely aesthetic realm of the preceding generation; he is one of the very few authors of the century who created their work out of the great problems of the age.

Even today, after half a century the last decades of which have brought us experiences such as Zola never dreamed of, Germinal is still a terrifying book. And even today it has lost none of its significance and none of its timeliness. There are passages in it which deserve to become classic, which ought to be in anthologies, because they depict, with exemplary clarity and simplicity, the situation and the awakening of the fourth estate in an earlier phase of the same era of change in which we now find ourselves.

What excited them [his critics and opponents] so was rather the fact that Zola by no means put forth his art as “of the low style,” still less as comic. Almost every line he wrote showed that all this was meant in the highest degree seriously and morally; that the sum total of it was not a pastime or an artistic parlor game but the true portrait of contemporary society as he–Zola–saw it and as the public was being urged in his works to see it too.

What level of style should be ascribed to such a text? There is here, beyond all doubt, great historical tragedy, a mixture of humile and sublime in which, because of the content, the latter prevails. Statements like Maheu’s (si l’on avais plus d’argent on aurait plus d’aise —  or, Ca finit toujours par des hommes souls et par des filles pleines), not to mention his wife’s, have come to be part of the great style. A far cry from Boileau, who could imagine the people as grimacing grotesquely in the lowest farce.  Zola knows how he these people thought and talked. He also knows every details of the technical side of mining; he knows the psychology of the various classes of workers and of the administration, the functioning of the central management, the competition between the capitalist groups, the co-operation of the interests of capital with the government, the army.

The errors in Zola’s anthropological conception and the limits of his genius are patent; but they do not impair his artistic, ethical and especially his historical importance, and I am inclined to think that his stature will increase as we attain distance from his age and its problems–the more so because he was the last of the great French realists.

I’ve quoted at length because Auerbach touches on several of the main areas in which Zola’s novel seems especially remarkable. To these, I will add a few others:

—His depiction of a class consciousness, or a group consciousness, in formation; and relatedly, his depiction of a mob, as an intelligent life of its own, consisting nonetheless of individual intelligences; or, more generally still, his mastery over, his dissolution of, the individual/group, part/whole dichotomy.

—His utterly serious conflation of high and low subject matter, comic and tragic circumstances; his simultaneous grasp of the terrible and the absurd.

—What Auerbach does not dwell on, perhaps because it exists in French literature (Hugo?) before Zola: his device of narrative structure: the epic scene.  A scene of public events, spectatorship, unpredictable meeting of personalities, motives, and desires; conflict, and sweeping movement  (of narrator and subject) over a massive landscape; amidst these scenes, events, locations and objects become charged with a significance that, if symbolic in the eyes of characters, is not forced on the reader.

— Again, what Auerbach does not mention: the representation of labor as a form of endurance that is both heroic and ignoble, active and passive, disruptive of social categories of young and old, masculine and feminine, human and animal.

—Connected to his presentation of labor, Zola’s embrace of humans as animals, without recourse of divinity, spirituality or spiritualism, or primal psychology (D.H. Lawrence is not helped by it); an embrace—not fatalistic, not resigned—of material existence.

—Finally, what Auerbach hints at in his own insistence on Zola’s worthiness for anthologizing and in his invocation of Boileau, a word that he knows to be loaded for the nineteenth century: Zola’s determination to be a “Classic.”

(The first and last of these perhaps belong together. As do the first, fourth and fifth. The second stands alone, but touches all of them, and might be most easily related to the first and last.)

Zola quite obviously wants to write a novel with epic ambitions: the struggle of an entire people, with a few central heroes and a cast of minor heroes. He has, likely, the Greek and Latin models in mind; at least somewhere in mind. And with these models behind him, he aspires also to write for the working classes of France what Homer and Virgil had written for their peoples. Zola’s novel is tragic, the collective action of the workers a failure, but the title and the final pages give away that nonetheless, it is a failed action that will prove the origin of something greater. Troy’s ruin led to Rome, after all, and the defeat of the miners will lead to a better future.

Perhaps, then, a novel epic for the novel: an epic of expectation and promise. In the nineteenth-century, history was no longer written cyclically; the past was not the ideal to which civilization would return; Zola writes against a historiography of progress, and an epic written for that historiographical perspective must, perhaps, be incomplete, looking ahead from what will prove to be an origin, rather than back at what we claim as one.

Zola aspires to Classical epic in his large-scale scenes: a narrative structuring device that is, for instance, absent from most British novels of the century. In these scenes, the mob is also the people, a people; the heroes are both of the mass and operating within it.

But even in these scenes (which I will discuss at greater length later), where utterances might achieve (as Auerbach notes of Maheu’s wise proclamations) a rough Homeric heroic simplicity, Zola is limited in stretching his own language to epic grandeur, rough-hewn or not. For he cannot betray the particularity of his subjects and their lives by writing in a high-style; the conventions around the high-style are incommensurate with the subject matter of the novel and Zola would likely fall into bathos or parody if he were to elevate terrible but common suffering into a lofty register.

But he can nonetheless scatter traces of the Classical high style in his prose. Here is a pattern in the novel:

Three times she nearly fell, the damned cobblestones were so slippery.

Three times that day Maheu had been forced to make them strengthen the timbering.

Three times Étienne tried again. Behind him the comrades were becoming restive.

Three times the captain was on the point of ordering them to fire.

and three times he caught himself just in time, unfazed. First he would feel about with his hand, then he would set to, lighting a match only when he had lost his bearings among the greasy beams.

…and three times they had to pull a man free after he passed out for lack of air.

Three times he thought he’d lost her and that she was about to fall back into the deep sea of water whose rising tide was still growling at their heels.

The phrase “three times” perhaps has an illustrious history in French literature; it certainly has an illustrious history in Classical literature, where three times Achilles chases Hector around the walls of Troy, and three times Achilles drives horses around the corpse of Patroclus…and three times people charge and fall…and three times Achilles dragged Hector’s corpse round Patroclus’ burial spot. “Three times” recalls a Greek tag; it is not to be seen, amidst all of the other precision of the novel, as a solely accurate description of actions; it is to bring those actions into alignment with actions we associate with epic heroes.

But the phrase takes on greater relevance where it appears in the author whom Saint-Beuve, the great French critic, had set up as the exemplary exemplar, the Classic Classic: Virgil. In Virgil, the phrase is strongly associated with the underworld. Aeneas, when he encounters his father’s shade, tries and fails to embrace him three times (Virgil echoes Homer: Odysseus tries and fails to embrace the shade of his mother three times).But most relevant, there is the story of Orpheus and Eurydice in Virgil’s Georgics. Nearing the upper reaches of Avernus, Orpheus defies Persephones’ strictures, looks back to see Eurydice, and in the instant of so looking, loses her forever. Here is David Ferry’s translation:

Just as they were about to emerge

Out into the light, suddenly, seized by love,

Bewildered into heedlessness, alas!

His purpose overcome, he turned, and looked

Back at Eurydice! And then and there

His labor was spilled and flowed away like water.

The implacable tyrant broke the pact: three times

The pools of Avernus heard the sound of thunder.


The relevance to Zola should be quite clear: Le Voreux, the mine of the novel, is an underworld on secular Earth. The final instance of the tag in the novel comes when Étienne and Catherine are scrambling through deserted mine-shafts, along with Chaval, her abusive partner, towards the surface of a collapsed mine, hoping to escape the rising water and hoping, against hope, to be rescued. Étienne and Catherine’s is the great love story of the novel, and it will only be consummated in this final scene, once Chaval has been killed by Étienne. Shortly after the consummation, perhaps as result of expending her final effort on the procreative act, Catherine dies. We are now, in the chapter, some way from the tag; but the pressure from Virgil is supposed to be felt over the scene: two lovers fleeing upwards, the woman destined to die, the man destined to live; the pools of Avernus have been replaced by the pools of water gathering from the gushing springs, as fatal as the pools of Hades.

Zola is reluctant through the novel to invest scenes with “literary symbolic significance.” His descriptions can be heavy-handed, but even when he seems to be interpreting events in prophetic terms, or perhaps coloring them with suggestions of the future, he is careful to place the interpretations and descriptions within the perspectives (and horizons) of characters. For instance, as the mob of more than 2000 miners spills into the town, the bourgeois daughters (and nephew, Négrel) of the mining company management are forced to take refuge in a barn:

“I’m damned if I recognize a single one of them” Négrel said under his breath. ‘Where on earth have all these blackguards come from?”

It was indeed true that anger and starvation had combined, after the past two months of suffering, and this wild stampede from pit to pit, to turn the placid features of the Montsou miners into the ravenous jaws of wild beasts. At that moment the sun was setting, and its last rays of dark-crimson light were turning the plain blood red. The road seemed to flow with blood as the men and women raced past, and they too appeared to drip with blood, like butchers in the midst of slaughter.

“What a wonderful sight!” said Lucie and Jeanne softly, as the artist in each of them was moved by the horrible beauty of the scene.

The were frightened all the same, and they retreated towards Mme. Hennebeau.

The heavy-handed description cannot be dissociated from Zola entirely. But it also belongs to Lucie and Jeanne. And we cannot take his remark that each has an artist in them to be laced with fatal irony: the remark stands, as all of Zola’s do, as a valid observation. His narrator gains credibility not through a superior moral stance, but through a willingness to say straight out how he sees a matter at hand, even if that matter sits oddly with other relevant facts: the girls do have artists in them, even if their artistic potential will be compromised by their bourgeois limitations.

Irony is the wrong word for Zola’s narration because irony implies a design or else an intentional playing of two sides of a judgment. Zola instead offers clear admiration and dislike for certain characters, but is nonetheless more interested in a direct analysis of their capacities, talents, hopes, ambitions and delusions, even where such analysis can seem excessively generous or harsh; he implies that it is the nature of the world that people have qualities we would not like them to have, that we might be surprised that they have; that it is in the nature of the world for people to act with genuine virtue and magnanimity, where they are otherwise vicious, stupid, or selfish, and that these virtuous and magnanimous acts cannot and should not be reduced to vice, stupidity or selfishness. The coherence of the world is such that Zola refuses to express shock or bemusement that not everything fits together according to an ethical or symbolic or interpretative scheme we or he would impose on it; the coherence of the world, the fact that it all exists together, takes priority over our desire to make it cohere in a certain way, and so he is willing to record moments which do not sit easily with any of the frameworks of judgment or interpretation that he has already hinted at or imposed in his own narration.


To take another example of Zola’s brusque narratorial analyses, in which he remains dispassionate in his assertion. Étienne feels the loss of the people after the confrontation with the army:

Yet behind his attempts at self-justification, behind all the arguments with which he tried to combat his remorse, lay the unspoken fear that he had not been equal to his task and the niggling doubt of the semi-educated man who realizes that he doesn’t know the half of it.

Once again, Zola’s analysis is framed by the character; but it is also endorsed by Zola. And yet the point is not that being only a “semi-educated man” takes away from (or adds to) Étienne’s standing, but that it does not affect his moral standing either way; despite these limitations, we are not to think worse of the man. This is who he has always been; though we wanted him to be more, though we find this truth to accord uneasily with our own sense of his achievements and moral worth, we should not feel distress or anxiety. Zola is not George Eliot.

I will offer one further example. M. Hennebeau, the company manager, is confronted with the mob outside his house, demanding bread; he has just discovered his wife’s affair with his nephew, in his own home, and his crushing personal disappointment collides with the public affair:

“You fools!” M. Hennebeau said again. “I suppose you think I’m happy!”

He was filled with anger at these people who did not understand. He would gladly have swapped his fat salary just to have their thick skin and unproblematic sex. If only he could sit them down at his table and let them gorge themselves on pheasant while he went off to fornicate behind the hedges, screwing girls and not giving a damn who had screwed them before him.

Comedy presses hard here; and laughter does not feel uninvited. But it would be wrong to say that the narration is ironic: Hennebeau does feel suffocated (we are told later that “the very thought of it [his ruined life] choked him” and should recall the choking, suffocating miners in the bad air of the depths) and angered by his bourgeois life; he sees the pathetic absurdity of his misfortune, and feels its pain; Zola does not need to insist. The passage is not at Hennebeau’s expense, even though we judge him, and judge also the bourgeois philosophical weariness that he expresses:

The only good in life lay in not being–or, if one had to be, then in being a tree, a stone, or even less than that, the grain of sand that cannot bleed beneath the grinding heel of a passer-by.

His despair blinds him to the suffering of others. But the despair is no less real because of it. Christina Rossetti has several genuinely moving poems that say just the same thing.

And it would be wrong to say that Zola intends us to see the irony of the situation: it is not ironic that a private despair from a management man, whose power against the mob is limited and preordained, would cause him to turn cold to their sufferings, to attend to his own, when he would stand cold to them in any case. They suffer vastly more than he does; but he suffers, and the attention Zola gives him is not to dismiss his suffering but to show its irreconcilable co-existence alongside the greater suffering of the miners.

I will swing back dramatically now to the Classical tag, “Three times,” where once again Zola wants to harken to a tradition without imposing its schema on his narration. The effect of the phrase is not to tell us that Zola is rewriting Orpheus and Eurydice; nor is it to tell us that Le Voreaux is Hades Redux. The intention is simpler, and yet just as ambitious: these events, he says, can be narrated with the same narrative convention because they are worthy of comparison with the Classical epics. Epic action can be found in the lives of these workers, without it being a repetition of the action of former epics.

In his relationship to irony and to the Classical tag, Zola shows a wariness not towards design, but towards overt literariness: the narratorial judgment is not erased or dialed down, but it is displaced. Rather than ask us to see the narrator standing aloof with a survey of how he writes any scene in relation to how others have written it, and how any action he presents accords with the interpretative or evaluative schema that he has constructed or imposed, Zola’s narratorial judgment draws attention to its own effort at analysis. In this effort, he resembles George Eliot; but in his concern for the coherence of analysis, he trusts (as she does not) to the coherence of the world, its material existence, which acts as a stable ground on which he can offer any number of explanations and accounts, provided he believes them to be true.




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