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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

Revisiting a Literary Genius

David Adams • Irish Times, 21 July 2006

If 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.

For 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.

These 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.

On 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 "noble" workers.

Zola 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.

As 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 about it.

I 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.

With 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 literary canon.

For Zola's books invariably provide a painfully accurate commentary on the strengths and weaknesses inherent in us all.

Among 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.

Likewise, 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 humour.

If 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.

I 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.

Roughly, our overall character reflects the proportionality of these inclinations and what tends - or we permit - mostly to predominate.

Zola's intention was to provide accurate social and political commentary, however unpalatable, on 19th-century France.

Much of what his writing said then about not painting people individually or collectively as all good or all bad is just as relevant today.

Zola claimed that Germinal was essentially about pity for the workers: all of his writings, I believe, stem from a deep pity for humankind.


Reprinted with permission from the author.





























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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



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Index: Current Articles

25 July 2006

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By Their Friends You Shall Know Them
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Mission Impossible
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Lit Crit Well Writ
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Revisiting A Literary Genius
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The Framing of Michael McKevitt: Conclusion
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The Framing of Michael McKevitt: Additional Information
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Blast from the Past
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An Elegant End
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