Etienne Lantier, son of Gervaise Coupeau of L’Assommoir fame, is the ‘star’ (if you will) of Germinal, my all-time favourite French novel, in which the initially shy and politically naive young man becomes an inspirational leader of a community (and stays politically naive).
Etienne leads a workers’ uprising at a northern coal mine, in search of improved working conditions. In the ensuing months-long strike, the miners and their families suffer appallingly and are driven to the very edge of survival. Ok so they don’t debate canibalism, but one family does sell (for a pittance) everything in their house, apart from the portrait of the benevolent Emperor, hung above the (cold, empty) fireplace, kindly provided free of charge by the company. In a particularly grimly captivating scene, as anger rises among the community and ferocious riots break out, the local shop-keeper (who insists on alternative forms of payment from the miners’ wives for what limited food stocks he has) has his manhood ripped from his body. It is then paraded around as if t’were a trophy.
A small number of miners (including Etienne – oh, Etienne) eventually cede and return to work, only to be trapped underground following a tunnel collapse brought about by sabotage (carried out by a Russian anarchist, a close friend of Etienne’s) intended to cripple the mining company’s position. Etienne’s own hereditary blood-lust finally takes grip, and sees him attack and kill a love-rival (a sub-plot), shortly before they are rescued. Etienne subsequently leaves, with his former colleagues returning to work for longer hours and lower pay than before the strike.
Despite this bleak resolution to the strike itself, the novel concludes as follows:
“Aux rayons enflammés de l’astre, par cette matinée de jeunesse, c’était de cette rumeur que la campagne était grosse. Des hommes poussaient, une armée noire, vengeresse, qui germait lentement dans les sillons, grandissant pour les récoltes du siècle futur, et dont la germination allait faire bientôt éclater la terre”
“Beneath blazing skies, in that youthful morning , it was with a growing murmur that the countryside swelled. Men were growing, a black and vengeful army, germinating slowly in the land’s furrows in readiness for the next century’s harvest, and whose ripening would soon burst open the earth itself”
I can in no way do justice to this novel; its portrayal of an impoverished mining community is hugely sympathetic without being romanticised; its consideration of the political and class struggle illuminates the immediate setting of the novel, but also speaks volumes about late 19th-century France; its depictions of conditions inside the mines reflect Zola’s (as always) devoted research to his novel, and are incredibly atmospheric to the point of claustrophobic.
I bought this book for 10FF (about a quid) from a second-hand bookstore in the very small town in Normandy where I lived and worked as a teacher for a while. I suspect the fact that I almost immediately adored this book was strongly related to the fact that I was fairly well isolated from friends and family at the time, I have a generally quite bleak outlook on life, and I’m also a raging lefty.