Germinal, by Émile Zola

47935102._sy475_Etienne Lantier, an unemployed railway worker, is a clever but uneducated young man with a dangerous temper. Forced to take a back-breaking job at Le Voreux mine when he cannot get other work, he discovers that his fellow miners are ill, hungry, and in debt, unable to feed and clothe their families. When conditions in the mining community deteriorate even further, Lantier finds himself leading a strike that could mean starvation or salvation for all. (from Goodreads)
This book is the 13th in the Rougon-Macquart series, but the 16th in the author’s recommended reading order, which is the one I’ve been following. It’s worth noticing that each book could be easily read as a standalone and any detail worth mentioning from the previous ones is always entwinned within the text.
It was a while since my last immersion in the series. These are not easy books to find down here, and one must scavenge through second hand bookshops and online stores to find physical copies at a price I’d be able to afford, so it was a rather large hiatus (almost 2 years!). However, even though I had to stretch my mind a little to remember where Étienne standed in the Rougon-Macquart family tree, the author’s prose readily introduced me into the story and it was as if I had never left that world.
This as a heart wrenching story, as usual in this series, in which one is forced to witness the extreme pauperization of already extremely impoverished people, and their inane attempts to improve their living condition, meanwhile those who could change for good their lives are either unwilling to do so, unable to do it without ruin themselves, or completely oblivious to the situation. Considering that for many people the working conditions are still this terrible (or a different kind of terrible) today, made me want to go set fire to everything.
This ficticious story is well historically settled with the inclusion of the accession of the Socialist International and discussions on unionization, as well as vivid descriptions of the actual working and living condition of the miners of that time (some of the descriptions from the inside of the mines are very asphyxiating, and as someone who doesn’t suffer from claustrophobia, well… I almost felt it).
One of the things that strike me the most while reading is that this book seemed to be considerable more raunchy (for a 19th century novel) than the previous ones that I’ve read. Historically, this series has been catalogued as obscene and vulgar from its conception, and many editions and translations have been censored. Since my French isn’t strong enough to give the original material a try, and most of the books I’ve been reading are old editions, I’m never certain about the fidelity of the translation I’m reading [except for that time] compared to what Zola intended, or if it varies from one book to the other, taking in consideration that they are settled in different social strata, with extremely different customs. One more reason to improve my French, I guess…
Over all, I ended up giving it a 5/5 stars on Goodreads, because I enjoyed (or suffered?) the reading so much! And as it was going through it, I could see why, among all the titles in the series, this is the one that’s usally most brought up.

The beast within, by Émile Zola

36551997 Roubaud is consumed by a jealous rage when he discovers a sordid secret about his young wife’s past. The only way he can rest is by forcing her to help him murder the man involved, but there is a witness – Jacques Lantier, a fellow railway employee. Jacques, meanwhile, must contend with his own terrible impulses, for every time he sees a woman he feels the overwhelming desire to kill. In the company of Roubaud’s wife, Severine, he finds peace briefly, yet his feelings for her soon bring disastrous consequences. (from Goodreads)

For each book in this series, Zola picked one or two main subjects, which he studied thoroughly, and presented them to us in an impeccable way. In this work, the leading theme is murder and violence, and as secondary (yet omnipresent) topic was the railway system.

What I found interesting about the first part of the book was that it practically became a regular murder mystery book, except that, for once, we already knew the murderer. Zola amuses himself making a fool of the detective, who has a very high opinion of himself and believes to be such a great thing, but has not a clue of what was going on, while higher ranks were already pulling the strings behind him to arrange the case in a way that wouldn’t damage the political power.

Being murder the main subject, Zola gave us not one, but several killings in this book, all for different motives and different MOs, exploring what makes a person to make such decision, how do the murderers live with the consequences of their act and why do they manage (or not) to get away with it.

Fun fact (?): I read mostly while commuting, so a large portion of this book was read on trains. One afternoon, coming back home, I was reading a part where a train collided against an obstacle, with very tragic consequences. While waiting for my train to leave the station, I overhear the engine driver talking to a woman… “I won’t do a thing today, I have a trainee”.

It was probably the most terrifying ride I had… for 5 minutes or so. The trainee did a good job, but still, I had such an adrenaline rush!

Fun fact 2: I think this is the oldest I own. It doesn’t have a date of print, but after some research I did online it made me think it was published during the 1900s or 1910s, and it was probably printed in a linotype machine. I believe it originally had a paperback, as a tiny piece of its original cover remains, but it was rebound into a hardcover.

The Masterpiece, by Émile Zola


The Masterpiece is the tragic story of Claude Lantier, an ambitious and talented young artist who has come from the provinces to conquer Paris but is conquered instead by the flaws of his own genius. (from Goodreads)

Zola’s works could (and probably should) be read as a great historical document to better know and understand the lives of French people during the 1850s-1870s. He thoroughly researched those subjects he wasn’t familiar with, which gave a very veridical feeling to the stories he told.

In this case, I doubt he did any research at all. He lived the things he wrote, he was a first-hand witness. This story is believed to be a highly fictionalized account of Zola’s friendship with the painter Paul Cezanne (*). In this book, he represented what was the art world like at the time of the uprising of the impressionists, seen from their point of view. Even when the events are fictionalized, it’s very easy to pinpoint real-life references. The first of Claude’s paintings introduced to us is a clear reference to Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe. His later obsession with the Île de la Cité reminded me of Monet’s painting and repainting of the Rouen Cathedral. And I’m pretty sure that each and every one of the bohemian characters could be easily recognized by Zola’s contemporary readers. He even portrayed himself in the character of Sandoz, Lantier’s best friend. Through Sandoz, Zola gives way to all of his ideas about writing, which makes of this book not only a depiction of the Impressionism movement, the bohemian life and the struggles of artistic creation,  but also a manifest of his life work and the Naturalism movement.

For me, as an art student who really enjoyed art history classes and readings, this book was… I don’t think I have words to describe it. I had read about the impressionists until exhaustion, but I think they never felt real, or alive, to me until this very moment. It also gave me a better view of what the Salons were like, what the merchants were like, and other things that usually were left behind in my classes. While reading it, it was like history was developing in front of my eyes.

If you consider yourself an artist, this is the book for you. If you’re interested in art history, and/or are fond of the Impressionism movement, this is the book for you. If you are a writer, this is the book for you. If you’re none of the above, I still recommend this work, because I think it is very good.

(*) “The story was perhaps too personal for Cezanne, whose correspondence with Zola ended immediately after the novel’s publication”. When I knew about this, it made me sad. I believe Cezanne was such a sensitive person, which is a trait that, I think, comes with great blessings, but also can bring huge sorrows.

L’Assomoir , by Émile Zola

36290072L’Assommoir (1877) is the story of a woman’s struggle for happiness in working-class Paris. At the center of the story stands Gervaise, who starts her own laundry and for a time makes a success of it. But her husband soon squanders her earnings in the Assommoir, a local drinking spot, and gradually the pair sink into poverty and squalor. (from Goodreads)

Compared to the last book read in this series (The joy of living), this was such a pleasure to read. The translator made such a nice and tidy work, with lots of footnotes and all that academic crap that I just LOVE. Absolutely nothing is left behind and that was such a relief, considering that probably this was one of the most (if not THE most) “outrageous” and “depraved” books Zola wrote.

This book messed a little with my mental timeline in the beginning, because a character we met in The belly of Paris, Claude Lantier, Lise’s nephew, a young painter, is revealed here as Gervaise’s son, less than 10 years of age.  This happened because I’m following Zola’s recommended reading order, instead of reading by the chronological order of publication or the chronological timeline within the series. Zola’s order takes one branch of the family tree at a time, from beginning to end. Gervaise’s branch is preceded by Lise’s, her older sister, which finished in The joy of living, with Pauline’s story (Lise’s daughter). What a tangled mess!

Back to Claude Lantier, his presence here is little more than a mention because, luckily for him, he’s taken back to Plassans, where an old man is going to pay for his artistic education. More of Claude will be seen in the next episode, The masterpiece, his very own book.

Anyway, I should say something about this book. Just like it happened to me with The conquest of Plassans, this book was also hard to read, as one witnesses the downfall of people that began with such high hopes and morals. The same words came to mind: devastating and frustrating.

Gervaise arrived to Paris with his partner (not husband) Auguste Lantier and their two children*,  in the search of fortune. Barely surviving, their money soon fades away, mostly because of Lantier’s dissolute way of life. He leaves Gervaise, and that ends up being the best thing that could happen to them: Gervaise gets on her feet and works hard to maintain her children, marries her neighbor Coupeau, has a daughter, Anna (Nana), and is able to realise her dream and raise enough money to open her own laundry. From this point on, everything goes down. Coupeau, who was an honest, abstemious and hardworking man, suffers a terrible work injury and  takes first to idleness, then to gluttony and eventually to drink, turning into a wife-beating alcoholic. Eventually, Gervaise follows the same path. As if this wasn’t enough, Lantier comes back, befriends Coupeau and installs himself in their home. In this chaotic household, Nana grows until she’s old enough to get a job, and eventually runs away and becomes a prostitute (we’ll see more of her in Nana).

How do you think this tale ends?

Spoiler alert: BADLY.

I need to find more uplifting readings xD

*Fun fact (?): to the original two sons of Gervaise and Lantier, Claude and Etienne, a third one is added, Jacques, and has his own storyline in The beast within.

The joy of living, by Émile Zola

36181812Other english titles: The Joy of Life; The Zest of Life

Pauline Quenu, the daughter of shopkeepers in the Parisian business district Les Halles (see The Fat and the Thin, aka The Belly of Paris), is taken in by relatives on the coast of Normandy following the death of her parents. There, Pauline – kind and open-minded – is confronted with a gout-plagued host, his avaricious wife, and their lazy son, a morbid hypochondriac, whom she is expected to marry. While the family takes advantage of Pauline, using up the inheritance her parents left to her, Pauline is gradually transformed into a dejected and resigned young woman. Death and accident soon hang over the small house on the Norman coast… (from Goodreads)

The book was ok, but I’m going to rant a little about something that completely altered my reading experience.

I was happily reading this book when I found a footnote on page 31 (I will probable never forget the number of this page). The note, from the translator, said something like this: “We alert the reader that here and in other parts of the book we deleted details and entire paragraphs that are not related to the main action and are disgusting. These too naturalistic descriptions in which the author delights himself add nothing to the work and are what the French critics have called, properly, ‘ordures’”. WHAT. THE. HECK (the highlights are mine)

The footnote came after Pauline got her first period, an absolutely disgusting affaire, apparently.

The edition I read was from 1958, so you might think “well, that explains it”, but the book was first published in 1883, so what’s your excuse, Mr. Translator and Mr. Editor??? Ok, alright. Zola’s books were quite scandalous at his time, I know. But I still got completely outraged and I was unable to keep on reading that day. Oh, BUT, take a look at the cover, right? Ironically, it’s illustrated with a barely dressed pin-up style lady, which is of course completely unrelated to the story. Unless… Her character was deleted of the book, for being so disgusting.

I started looking for other editions to read instead, an impossible find, apparently, from my corner of the world. I looked for ebooks, and the only ones I could find were from an English translation that was, also, censored.

So yes, I ended up finishing my edition with resignation. Did I feel a difference? Well… I felt like there were little descriptions and too many dialogues, which could be explained by the lack of paragraphs that “didn’t add to the main action”.

But I can’t help but wonder… Would I had notice anything if they decided not to add that footnote? Should I be thankful that at least they let me know what they did?

Anyway, I‘m still mad.

About the story itself… I felt sorry for Pauline, ending up with such a ungrateful family, but keeping up her spirits no matter what (she reminded me a bit of Fanny Price). And Lazare? No long after I finished the book this article came out and I felt it described him perfectly.

The Belly of Paris, by Émile Zola

35681450Other English title: The Fat and the Thin

The Belly of Paris is the story of Florent Quenu, a wrongly accused man who escapes imprisonment on Devil’s Island. Returning to his native Paris, Florent finds a city he barely recognizes, with its working classes displaced to make way for broad boulevards and bourgeois flats. Living with his brother’s family in the newly rebuilt Les Halles market, Florent is soon caught up in a dangerous maelstrom of food and politics. Amid intrigue among the market’s sellers—the fishmonger, the charcutiere, the fruit girl, and the cheese vendor—and the glorious culinary bounty of their labors, we see the dramatic difference between “fat and thin” (the rich and the poor) and how the widening gulf between them strains a city to the breaking point. (from Goodreads)

This is the Zola I enjoy the most! He really delighted himself describing the stores and stands at the market, creating such vivid images in my head! And, of course, the setting allowed to a great amount of characters, with all the ill intended gossiping that one can imagine.

For once, the story is centered slightly out of the Rougon-Macquart family, in a character related by marriage. Florent is Lise (née Macquart)’s brother-in-law. Still, Lise is far from being a secondary character. Her character and story are as well explained as Florent, and her agency is very well developed.

I can’t put into words what it was like reading this book. Like I said, the scenery is so well described to us, that it’s hard not to see in your mind all these things: the vivid colors of the vegetables, the perfume of the flowers, the arrangement of all the meats, I could almost smell the cheese and hear the voices of hundreds of buyers and sellers.  I kept marking and marking so many passages. I’d love to share them with you, but they’re in Spanish :/

Another thing I loved was the mention of characters from previous books. This is not something that happens very often. Sometimes some other characters may appear, in a very secondary role, or maybe alluded without being named. But in a couple of times Lise mentions “her cousin Saccard” (the main character from The Kill and Money), and I was excited because it meant an acknowledgment that at least they knew of each other (the Rougons are not big fans of the Macquarts). Anyway, this was my nerd rambling…

Funny thing, at any point I felt sorry for Florent. Sure, I didn’t like his wrong imprisonment and all that. But once back in Paris… He was way too idealistic for the harshness of Zola’s novels, so I guess I just knew he didn’t have much of a chance.

A love episode, by Émile Zola

35225671The main character of this book is Hélène Grandjean (née Mouret). She and her daughter Jeanne are living in the suburbs of Paris, entirely on their own, as Jeanne’s father died soon after their arrival at this place. Her only friends are two brothers, former friends of her husband, who join them for dinner every week, and that’s all. She lives entirely for her daughter, a feeble child, prone to fever and convulsions.

The story begins during one of Jeanne’s episodes, in which Hélène runs to the street in despair, looking for a doctor. Their family doctor wasn’t at home, so she wanders around and knocks at a house, looking for help. This house happened to be one of a doctor, none other that her immediate neighbor, who ends up restoring the child to health. A few days later, Hélène and Jeanne pay a visit to their neighbors, to formally thank Dr. Deberle, and they get acquainted with his wife Juliette, which soon introduces them to her circle of friends, and they all start to spend a lot of time together.

Hélène and Dr. Deberle start to develop strong feelings for each other, but they don’t act on them. Until they do and all that was well isn’t anymore. Especially Jeanne, who suffers from the old “neurosis,” seen in earlier branches of the family (as in her great grandmother, her grandfather, her uncle, her cousin Serge… Remember him from Abbé Mouret?). In her, this neurosis is manifested as the unhealthiest jealousy I have ever read about. But, honestly, considering her heredity in mental health, the poor child didn’t have a chance.

I definitely didn’t know what to expect from this book. Considering its corny title, I thought it could be more on the line of The dream, something more idyllic, but well, I was absolutely wrong. Zola never fails on delivering us tragic fates disguised as something much more light.

And even though I liked it and enjoyed the reading, of all the books in the series that I’ve read, is probably one the less impressive, a minor episode in the main line of events, a place, I think, that shares with The dream (which is, however, one of my favorites). But, even when it looks like a lot less compared to others, it’s a good novel in its own right.