75. (Émile Zola)

Here is the second part of the Zola post; undoubtedly shorter, as the fire of fresh reading has sputtered. But there are a few more points I’d like to sort out in my head. They are all interrelated: the balance of high and low, comic and tragic, absurd and terrible; the depiction of the mob as a unit of life and intelligence; and the narratological unit of the epic scene.

The novel is supported by a great number of these epic scenes: or perhaps, if we are thinking of it as an immense structure, they are the spans suspended by the supports. The commerce of the novel runs across the epic scenes.

There are several: the first is Étienne’s initial descent into the mine. In this scene, the Zola achieves a depiction of labor (both the people who labor and also the activity of labor, of work) that is not found anywhere in the British tradition until Lawrence, perhaps. But Lawrence’s scale is not Zola’s. The scenes unfold over chapters, not paragraphs, so quotation cannot take their measure properly. But here are a few paragraphs from the start of Chapter IV, of the novel’s first part:

The four hewers had just taken up position, stretched out at different levels one above the other and covering the entire height of the coal-face. Wooden planks, secured by hooks, stopped the coal from falling after they had cut it, and between these planks each man occupied a space of about four metres along the seam. This particular seam was so thin, barely fifty centimeters at this point, that they found themselves virtually crushed between roof and wall; they had to drag themselves forward on their elbows and knees and were quite unable to turn round without banging their shoulders. In order to get at the coal they had to lie on one side, twist their necks, and use both arms in order to raise their rivelaine, a short-handled pick, which they wielded at an angle.

Zacharie was at the bottom; then came Levaque and Chaval above him, and finally Maheu at the very top. Each man hacked into the shale bedrock, digging it out with his pick. Then he would make two vertical cuts in the coal, insert an iron wedge into the space above, and prise out a lump. The coal was soft, and the lump would break into pieces which then rolled down over his stomach and legs. Once these pieces had piled up against the boards put there to retain them, the hewers disappeared from view, immured in their narrow cleft.

Maheu had the worst of it. Up at the top the temperature reached third-five degrees; there was no circulation of air, and the suffocating atmosphere was potentially fatal. In order to see what he was doing he had to hang his lamp from a nail, just by his head; and the continued heat of the lamp on his skull eventually raised his body temperature to fever level. But it was the wetness that made life particularly difficult. The rock above him, just a few centimetres from his face, was streaming with water, and large drops of it would keep falling in regular, rapid succession, always landing with stubborn insistence on exactly the same spot. Try as he might to twist his neck or bend his head back, they splattered remorselessly against his face and burst. After a quarter of an hour he would be soaked through, and with his body also bathed in sweat he steamed like a wash-tub. That particular morning a drop of water was continually hitting him in the eye, and it made him curse. He didn’t want to stop hewing, and as he continued to hack fiercely at the rock, his body shook violently in the narrow space, like a greenfly caught between the leaves of a book and about to be squashed completely flat.

Not a word was exchanged. Everyone was tapping away, and all that could be heard was the irregular clunk-clunk of the picks, which seemed to come from far away. There were no echoes in this airless place, and sounds were more like a dull rasping. The darkness itself seemed to consist of an unfamiliar blackness that was thick with flying coal-dust and filled with gases that made the eyelids heavy. The wicks in the lamps were no more than reddish pinpricks of light beneath their gauze mantles. One could see almost nothing, and the coal-face simply rose into a pitch-black void, like a board, flat, sloping chimney piled high with the soot of a dozen winters. Ghostly shapes moved about in it, and chance gleams of light picked out the curve of a hip, or a sinewy arm, or a wild-looking face blackened as though in readiness for a crime. From time to time, lumps of coal would gleam in the darkness as they came away, suddenly illuminated–a flat surface here, a sharp edge there–by the glint of light on crystal. Then it would all be dark again, and apart from the loud thudding of the picks all that could be heard were gasping lungs and the occasional groan of discomfort and fatigue caused by the thick air and the water raining down from the underground springs.

Auerbach remarks that the effect of Zola’s prose might be diminished for twentieth-century readers accustomed to journalistic literature: he refers chiefly to the accuracy of detail, to the weight of research communicated without pain of expertise. But I find instead that accustomed to most journalism’s shoddy metaphors, conjured tension, and moralizing subterfuges, Zola’s scene stands out.

In part, his success is on account of the syntax of sentences: leading with strong, inanimate subjects. In part, the success depends on the tone: the curious, sympathetic naturalist; the scientific observer who does not present to prove, but who writes to accurately present an entire complex system. There is specificity, but there is no fetishization of detail; there is sympathy, but there is no election of any one individual; they are all components of something else, something larger.

Because of Zola’s sense of a whole, a larger entity that, if not harmonious, at least coheres, the details are held in perspective, the individuals are balanced against one another, the tone is controlled. In large part, then, it is the scene’s epic expanse, the men at battle with the rock, that accounts for the many smaller ways in which Zola is to be distinguished from most journalists.

In Germinal, a greater whole is always present by implication; not the whole of other lives, of a city, of history, passing around the circumference of the novel (though history certainly does); instead, the greater whole is the possibility of seeing individuals as both atomized intelligences with particular circumstances, and also as functions of, and contributions to, a larger intelligence, set against a more expansive and general ecosystem; both aspects are continuously present in the very action of these scenes. (Zola does not, like George Eliot, discursively belabor the point that life is interconnected; life in Germinal always manifests in both manifold singular and collective labors).

The account of Zola as a leader of naturalism tends to emphasize his view of humanity as animals or insects, as if this were a bad thing; it might be, except that he cares about the insects a great deal, and it is his vision of people as a herd of less-coordinated ants, as an especially odd social animal, that motivates his great epic scenes. Delight, humor, astonishment mingle with some uneasiness when he describes the breeding grounds of the mining community:

A hundred paces on he encountered more couples. He had reached Requillart, and here at the old, ruined mine every girl in Montou was to be found loitering with her man. It was where everybody met, a remote, deserted spot where the putters came and conceived their first babies when they didn’t want to risk it on the shed roof back at home. The broken fences meant that everyone could get into the old pit-yard, which was now a wasteland littered with the remains of two collapsed sheds and the still-standing supports of the overhead railway. Disused tubs lay strewn about, and half-rotten timbering stood stacked in piles, while lush vegetation was vigorously reclaiming the place in the form of thick grass and some young trees, which had sprouted and were already sturdy. Each girl felt at home here: there were secret places for all, and their loves could have their wicked way with them on top of the beams, behind the woodpiles or inside the tubs. They made themselves as comfortable as they could, cheek by jowl and yet oblivious to their neighbours. And it was as though, all around the defunct headgear and this shaft that was weary of disgorging its coal, creation itself were taking its revenge, as though unfettered love, lashed by instinct, were busy planting babies in the wombs of these girls who were hardly yet women.

All the same a caretaker still lived there, old Mouque. The Company let him have two rooms situated almost directly beneath the derelict headgear, whose last remaining beams threatened daily to come crashing down on top of them. He had even had to prop up part of his roof. But he and his family were comfortable living there, with himself and Mouquet in one room and La Mouquette in the other. As there wasn’t a single pane of glass left in the windows, they had decided to board them up: this made it dark indoors, but at least it was warm…

And this was how old Mouque came to be living his days surrounded by young love. From the age of ten La Mouquette had been having sex in every corner of the ruins, not, like Lydie, as a timid and unripe little urchin-child, but as a girl who had filled out and was ready for boys with beards. There was nothing her father could say or do about it, for she always showed him proper respect and never asked any of her boyfriends into the house. Anyway, he was used to such things. Whether he was on his way out to Le Voreux or coming home agin, the moment he ventured out of his lair he was always tripping over some couple hidden in the grass.

He finds something wholesome here; it is not civilization, but it is not without civility; and when cruelty and violence interrupt, he does not flinch but shows those too, with unease, with some astonishment. The teeming activity of humans living together, for good or for bad, is always in the novel a source of immense fascination for Zola—not because he is amoral, but also not because the scenes are immoral; he seems instead fairly in awe that existence in its various forms, mineral, animal, vegetable, and human, can arrange itself in sustaining figurations, with their range of love, kindness, suffering, and pain. And nowhere a restlessness that the matter of life in humans is continuous with that in animals, which is why he devotes such care to the lives of horses in the mine:

Bebert could not answer; he was having to restrain Battle, who was becoming excited at the approach of the other train. The horse had caught the scent in the distance of his comrade, Trumpet, for whom he had developed a deep affection ever since the day he had seen him arrive at pit-bottom. His was the warm compassion of an elderly philosopher wanting to comfort a young friend by imbuing him with his own patience and resignation; for Trumpet had not been able to adapt, and he hauled his tubs with reluctance, head down, blinded by the dark, and in constant longing for the sunshine. So each time Battle met him, he would stretch out his head, snort and give him an encouraging lick.

Zola’s affection for horses is not concomitant with a loathing of mankind; it is of the same spirit, working, however, to mankind’s ennoblement. Though he perceives the animal unity of human life, he intimates despair for the statistical analysis that would reduce the vitality of multitudes to numbers. When Catherine comforts herself about the prospects of returning to an abusive relationship, she relies on a statistic which she learned perhaps from the mining company’s management:

She was getting used to the beatings, and she told herself by way of consolation that eight out of ten girls ended up no better off than she was. And if he married her some day, well, that would actually be quite decent of him.

But Zola’s sense for the interconnectedness of life, its unifying into a greater organism than any one individual, is most powerful when it collides with nineteenth-century anxieties over revolution and the mob. The mob is one of the protagonists of the novel; a compound of protagonists. In Victorian studies, of late, there has been some interest in the relation between the “one and the many,” between major and minor characters; Zola’s novel would demand a reorientation of terminology, to account for the relation between single characters and collective characters.

For Dickens, Eliot, and Hardy, the mob, the mass of people, the public, represents a persistent representational challenge, which is never really met. In Gaskell’s North and South, a strike depends on collective action, but Gaskell cares more about the event and its repercussions than the cohesion of individuals, the force and life of a group as a group. For Zola, in Germinal, however, the life of the mob, and its intelligence, appetites, volitions, is source of literary ambition and inspiration.

One of the great epic scenes in the novel focuses on the striking workers marching on the mines in a coordinated, destructive campaign. I have already quoted from that in the previous post. But a rival scene, that recalls the violent pictures of Goya and Manet, comes later, when the miners confront the soldiers brought in to protect the mine as it operates under imported Belgian labor. With the risk of giving away a portion of the novel’s most intense and moving scene, I will quote some here, to make some points about what and how we are made to see:

Others kept saying they’d served in the Crimea and that a bit of lead had never frightened anyone, and they all continued to push forward towards the rifles. If the soldiers had fired at that moment, the mob would have been mown down.

Now in the front row, La Mouqette was almost speechless with indignation at the thought that the soldiers might want to put a bullet through a woman’s skin. She had spat out her full repertoire of foul language at them and still could think of no obscenity that was sufficiently demeaning, when suddenly, having only this one last deadly insult to fling in the squad’s face, she decided to display her bottom. She hoisted her skirts with both hands, bent forward and exposed a huge, round expanse of flesh.

‘Here, take a look at this! Even this is too good for you, you dirty bastards!’

She bent over double and swivelled from side to side so that each should have his share, and with each thrust of her bottom she said:

‘One for the officer! And one for the sergeant! And one for the squaddies!’

There were gales of laughter; Bebert and Lydie were in fits, and even Étienne, despite his grim forebodings, applauded this offensive exhibition of naked flesh. Everyone, the hardliners as well as the jokers, was now jeering at the soldiers as though they had actually been spattered with filth; and only Catherine, standing over to one side on a pile of old timbering, remained silent as sufficiently she sensed the gall rising to her throat and the warm fire of hate gradually spread through her body.

But then a scuffle broke out. In order to calm his men’s nerves the captain had decided to take some prisoners. La Mouquette jumped up in an instant and darted away between the comrades’ legs. Three miners, including Levaque, were seized from among the worst troublemakers and placed under guard in the deputies’ office.

From up above Negrel and Dansaert were shouting at the captain to come in and take refuge with them. He refused, aware that the doors had no locks and that when the buildings were stormed he would suffer the ignominy of being disarmed. Already his small detachment of men was beginning to mutter crossly about not running away from a miserable rabble in clogs. Once again the sixty men stood with their backs to the wall, rifles loaded, and faced the mob.

At first people pulled back a little, and there was complete silence. The show of force had taken the strikers by surprised and left them nonplussed. Then a cry went up, demanding the immediate release of the prisoners: some even claimed they were being murdered. And then, quite unprompted but acting as one in their common need for vengeance, they all rushed over to the nearby stacks of bricks, which were made on the premises out of the local marly clay. Children carried them one by one, women filled their skirts with them, and soon everyone had a pile of ammunition at their feet. The stoning began.

The scene extends into the distance before and after these paragraphs; the movement from character to character, minor intermingling with major, is rapid; the movement from individual to group likewise. There is no single action; there is a surge of actions, leading towards an eruption of violence, but Zola does not depict any one of these smaller actions–La Mouquette exposing herself, the captain refusing to budge indoors, Catherine seething with hatred, Negrel shouting down, the laughter of the miners, the children carrying stones—as the decisive link in a predetermined chain; the motives of each character are granted; each is acting by their own lights, by their own reason, and those reasons are not found more wanting than others; even the soldiers, earlier in the scene, were singled out for generous description, were noted for their well-trained refusal to fire when provoked (though of course that refusal will break). We do not know, as we read, what will come next; we know only that something else will happen, that someone else will move, perhaps in a direction towards violence, perhaps laughter, perhaps futile gesture.

Zola’s scene owes something to Carnival; the fray of the mob is a challenge to order, in its grotesque violation of decency and power, as well as in its potential for physical violence. But Zola’s scene cannot be Carnivalesque because of the imminence, and then eruption, of physical violence. His characters act on the world, on one another, on their environment, and on their oppressors with brute force of matter against matter. Though he is sensitive to the collective consciousness, he never divorces it from relentless action; though he is sensitive to motive, feeling, and desire, he never forgets that these are born viscerally, along nerves impinging, voices rasping, hips bruising. All of the passion and energy of the mob is the material energy and physical passions of the single lives contained within it, and the passage gains vital cogency because these act both aside and upon one another.

But to be matter, to be material, is to have an existence in time, and so worthy of the author’s attention. Zola’s abiding respect is for the world that can be healed and hurt, pleasured and deprived, made and unmade by touch, whether human or otherwise. The exemplary moment of the passage I’ve quoted comes I think when the people run to the bricks, and Zola takes a moment to tell us: which were made on the premises out of the local marly clay.  He is not playing the part of the pedant, not just remaining true to his imagined world; he is implicitly valuing the work that made them, the provenance of their making, and their having an existence beyond the immediate purpose to which they are to be put.


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