you intend taking a book or two with you on holiday
and your taste extends beyond the ghost-written
memoirs of various minor celebrities and big-name
football stars, then it is advisable to buy something
before arriving at an airport.
this reason, I was wandering around a Dublin bookshop
a few weeks ago when I bumped into an old friend
I had not seen in years. Well, not quite, but that's
how it felt when I came across a couple of Emile
Zola novels, The Earth and Germinal.
form part of a 20-volume series written between
1869 and 1893 which loosely follow the fortunes
of various members of the extended Rougon-Macquart
family. Taken as a whole, the series covers a wide
range of perspectives, invariably casting a damning
light on the social and political situation within
France at that time. Every book stands as a self-contained,
gritty, engrossing and beautifully-written narrative
in its own right. Germinal (1885) and The
Earth (1887) are set, respectively, in mining
and peasant farming communities.
publication, each was greeted with a torrent of
criticism from many otherwise incompatible sides.
The church and conservative elements complained
that some of the scenes in the novels were needlessly
crude. Their main concerns, though, were Zola's
anti-clericalism and the widespread unrest they
imagined might be sparked by his descriptions of
the unbelievably harsh conditions under which miners
and peasant farmers were forced to scratch a living.
The left was outraged at his brutal, unsentimental
depiction of the lives, actions and affairs of the
was unmoved. He said that sentimentality was irrelevant
in the context of his work and, if anything, he
had actually moderated many of the harsh realities
of the workers' behaviour and social interactions.
anyone raised in a rural setting on meagre resources
will readily attest, the only people who imagine
that abject poverty and endless back-breaking, mind-numbing
work can be cast accurately in a noble or romantic
light are those who never have had personal experience
of either. There is nothing remotely noble or romantic
had been deeply impressed when I first read Zola
in my late teens and, as I paid for new copies,
I wondered if he would still seem as relevant to
me now. I need not have worried: his writing is
even better than I remembered.
the passage of time comes a greater understanding
of the complexity of human nature and this, I am
sure, has allowed me to appreciate more fully the
enormity of Zola's contribution to the international
Zola's books invariably provide a painfully accurate
commentary on the strengths and weaknesses inherent
in us all.
his many talents was the ability to construct multi-faceted,
sometimes self-contradictory characters who continue
to develop as a storyline unfolds. In his writings
there is an almost complete absence of simplistic
individuals. In Zola's work, as in life, it is extremely
rare to find anyone without some compassion or empathy.
Indeed, the despicable La Grande in The Earth
is the only such example that comes to mind. Even
the thoroughly dislikeable, bullying, woman-beater
Chaval, in Germinal, is shown to be capable,
albeit only momentarily, of expressing a modicum
of affection and tenderness.
Buteau, the anti-hero in The Earth, is depicted
as extremely hard-working (a distinctly positive
characteristic in the 1880s world of French rural
peasantry) and as having an occasional sense of
completely negative characters are at a premium
in Zola's work, then entirely positive ones are
nowhere to be found. Every champion, no matter how
sympathetically portrayed, comes complete with all-too-human
imperfections. A good example of this is the newcomer
Etienne Lantier in Germinal who, initially with
the best of intentions, leads the miners out on
strike. Over time, Etienne's primary motivation
gradually begins to change as he starts daydreaming
about his own advancement and the possibility of
national recognition as a workers' hero. That the
stoppage he initiated was such a disaster for the
miners proves no brake on the growing personal ambitions
of an essentially decent young man.
think, in respect of his characterisations, Zola
was seeking to illustrate one of life's often overlooked
truths: absolute devils are rare and complete saints
are non-existent. Each of us is made up of a multitude
of conflicting emotions and inclinations that, simply
put, are both positive and negative.
our overall character reflects the proportionality
of these inclinations and what tends - or we permit
- mostly to predominate.
intention was to provide accurate social and political
commentary, however unpalatable, on 19th-century
of what his writing said then about not painting
people individually or collectively as all good
or all bad is just as relevant today.
claimed that Germinal was essentially about
pity for the workers: all of his writings, I believe,
stem from a deep pity for humankind.