1840 to 1902
Prior to today I have posted on three of Emile Zola's novels and two short stories. In order of my personal preference I have read Nana, The Belly of Paris and Therese Raquin. Germinal is considered by many to be Zola's masterwork. It is the thirteenth novel in his twenty cycle set of novels, Les Rougon-Macquart in which he attempts to set out the full of life in France in the 1880s. Zola is considered one of the greatest realistic writers in the European tradition. By realism one means that all people are terrible and life is horrible, over simplifying a trifle. Zola was a very important influence on George Moore, who changed the direction of Irish fiction after reading Zola. Zola through Moore turned the Irish away from the stories in the mode of Tales of an Irish R. M. to an attempt to write about the lives of ordinary people. This probably would have happened anyway but this is how it happened.
Germinal is a an oppressive and I would have to say depressing novel with its unremitting focus on the lives of French coal miners and the misery caused by a strike.
The coal miners and their families have terrible lives. There is very little pleasure in this book. It is set in northern France in the 1860s. The title refers to a month in the French Republican Calendar, in the spring. The central character is a young man named Etienne. He shows up looking for a job at the coal mines one day. He befriends a veteran miner who gets him a job and finds him a place to stay. (Wikipedia has a decent account of the plot if you need one for your homework).
This is a great book though I would not say it is a pleasure to read it. Zola relates the misery of the men and women working in the mines to the wealthy mine owners pursuit of status items and their vice. There is a lot of sex in the novel also, I admit I never knew there were women working along side men in the save mines. My translation is an old public domain one and I suspect it maybe slightly censored from the French original.
Based on my limited experience with Zola, I would say personally first read Nana then Germinal. I will read more of his work in 2013. His full cycle of novels would be a great reading project.
Please share your experience with Zola with us.
Is he just too grim? what should be my fifth Zola?
The Reading Life