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August 26, 2022

I was recommended Germinal, Zola’s masterpiece about the mining strikes in northern France in 1866, by a friend, a writer I admire and respect. We were talking about the temptation to stay in our narrative comfort zones, to continually write narrators in the ways we previously have. In my case: close to myself, close to my narrator’s POV. She recommended this novel as an example of a narrator who moves, chapter by chapter, through an array of characters, omnisciently revealing their thoughts and feelings in ways I don’t generally tend to. My motivations, going into this book — besides the interpersonal ones, of wanting to speak about it to the friend who recommended it — were largely formal.

But by the end, it was the book’s swirling, ambiguous politics which struck me the most: its class tensions, militant worker rebellion, and aborted revolutions. It spoke to the emotional, often interpersonal motivations behind political actions, the pitfalls of mob anger, and the futility of uprisings against larger, overseeing forces that go much deeper than we could ever see.

Written between April 1884 and February 1885, and published serially starting in December of 1884, Germinal tells the story of a young man, Etienne, who shows up to a mining village one night looking for work. He’s been sleeping out, is broke and hungry. Despite initially getting denied, he’s given a job by Maheu, the leader of the workers. He’s offered lodging under Maheu’s roof, sleeping alongside Catherine, Maheu’s daughter, who also works in the mines, and becomes Etienne’s love interest. But they are prevented from consummating their love due to an almost incestuous, taboo-like proximity caused by their living arrangement, and because Catherine gets taken by another man, Chaval, Etienne’s rival. As the novel progresses, we see Etienne gradually get accustomed to the job. We see what life for these workers looks like, their festivals, how they turn up, how they bathe — each household member taking turns in a single big tub.

But before long, Etienne starts wanting more. He starts reading about revolutionary ideas. He starts asking his fellow workers if they are content with the life they’re living. Some, like Souvarine, an anarchist extremist who was part of an uprising back in Russia, are all about it. Others, like Maheu’s wife, who has a household of children to consider, are more apprehensive to get riled up about a life they could be living. They talk it out at the pub, at Maheu’s before going to bed each night. Etienne starts giving speeches to increasingly receptive crowds of workers. Then the Company docks their pay, and they decide to strike.

What we see next is the gradual frenzy of the mob. Of how ugly things can turn when a single employer monopolises an area’s available work. The striking workers first mob to Hennebeau’s, the local bourgeoisie manager’s house, presenting their demands. When they’re rejected, they mob, on foot, from mine to mine in the area, attempting to prevent other workers from returning to work. They surround and try to break into Hennebeau’s house. When that fails, they turn on the local shopkeeper, Maigrat, attempting to raid his store. Maigrat climbs onto the roof, attempting to protect his goods with projectiles from above, only he slips and falls, bashes his head open. His corpse gets mutilated by the mob in a stomach-turning scene and even Etienne looks on with horror.

It has long been debated whether Germinal is a revolutionary or a reactionary work. On the one hand, how Zola describes the bleak conditions of these workers aligns him squarely on their “side”. Under constant risk of getting crushed underground by rock falls, or asphyxiated by firedamp, and coughing up huge hunks of phlegm their whole lives, they’re given just enough bread to survive, have no horizon of hope, and “life’s only pleasures [are] getting drunk and giving your wife a baby”. But Zola, interestingly, also shows the other side. After the striking workers surround the bourgeoisie manager Hennebeau’s house, Zola switches to Hennebeau’s point of view, giving the reader a contemporaneous rundown of his day.

We learn that a) Hennebeau doesn’t even have the power to meet their demands — he’s only answering to the higher-up stockholders in Paris, and b) he’s not even thinking about the workers, he’s just discovered that his wife, who hasn’t slept with him for years, has been sleeping with his nephew. Hennebeau spends the day, when workers are rioting and throwing rocks at his windows, feeling silently cucked and in fact deeply envious of the shameless, visceral way these workers live, rioting and drinking and fucking at will. Even Etienne, as soon as he starts getting some power as the leader of the uprising, starts buying new clothes and dreaming of becoming a political leader in Paris. He, too, is looking out for himself.

Are Zola’s visions of what happens once a crowd becomes a mob, what happens when the leader of an uprising gets some power, assertions, or simply true reflections of the world that he’s merely reporting? That is up to the reader to decide. The difficulty the reader has deciding this, in fact, is what makes Zola’s storytelling so strong. What jolts the reader out of empty political theorising.

In the end, the strike does, for a time, seem to work, if backhandedly. The conflict culminates in a clash when the Company brings in foreign scabs and troops, and the local workers surround the mine, throwing rocks at the armed gendarmes. Shots are fired — as, we’re told in a footnote, happened at a mine near where the novel is set, in 1869. It’s only at this point, when news gets out to the rest of the country that troops are shooting workers, that the stockholders do something. Attempting to save face, they abandon their plan to implement foreign scabs and invite the local workers back, promising, in cold corporate speak, that all is forgiven. Most of the workers, beaten down, demoralised, and starving, return to work.

Only, the night before the miners return, Souvarine, the extremist anarchist, commits a destructive, terroristic act against the Company, sneaking into the mine and rupturing its already compromised main vein. The mine explodes, water bursting through the barriers, swallowing all the mining equipment underground, and trapping Etienne and a few dozen workers down there. Etienne eventually gets rescued — by Hennebeau’s nephew, Negrel, the engineer, who, in a rare subversion of the worker-bourgeoisie binary, risks his life to do so — and ends the book bathed in sun one morning, recovered from his injuries, seeing off his coworkers, who are back working at the mine with pre-strike wages. He’s off to Paris to take an entry-level political job. A type of class mobility, for the few seeds able to make it through winter, is possible. But otherwise: people fight, people die, and those who don’t die, according to cycles beyond our control, endure, continuing their endless striving upwards, out of the earth, into the sun and clean air.

That’s the political conclusion. A sense of futility in the face of larger natural forces. The mine explodes when it wants to, things calibrate once spring comes, everything returns eternally according to its own timetable.

The emotional climax, however, comes during the armed standoff, when it appears that Catherine has been shot. The engine of the book — what pushed me, in any case, to finish it — are the interpersonal threads. The erotic desires, or internal biological forces, driving characters to act. Early on, Etienne accidentally witnesses Chaval taking Catherine behind a shed, despite her not being a woman yet. “You know I’m too young,” Catherine pleads. “Wait till later on, at least till I’m grown up.” Chaval ignores this, continues onto her, and she lets him. Witnessing this fills Etienne with “a kind of jealous excitement”, “together with a furious desire to get his revenge”.

When Etienne is first getting ideas about striking, he sees the way Catherine looks at him in that position of leadership. When he speaks to crowds, he keeps an eye out for if Catherine is there. These internal, libidinal energies, like the larger, external cyclical forces, drive and orient his political actions. And that intersection between internal, biological forces and external, political ones culminates when, during the armed standoff, Catherine appears to be one of the casualties, passed out on the muddy field out front of the mine, her stomach soaked in blood. Only she hasn’t been shot; she’s finally become a woman. Her mother, discovering this, scoffs at the cosmic irony of starting menstruation the minute the world has gotten too fucked to bring children into. But it seems significant that Catherine, once the Company invites the workers back, is the first to go. She tells Etienne she can’t sit around doing nothing. She’s got to do what she can for the future.

This seems like a more optimistic acceptance of the cyclicality of the world: it’s not just that we’re deterministically led along paths we can’t see or control, according to larger natural rhythms. But each of us are driven by interpersonal motivations within ourselves, to impress a prospective lover, to protect a family, or even, like Souvarine, who lost his wife to public execution back in Russia during a revolt he himself led, to find nihilistic expression for heartbreak. This insight doesn’t resolve any political conflicts we might have, nor justifies terroristic political acts, but could open the door to having compassion for where political differences might stem from — might emotionally, interpersonally, in unseen, cyclical ways, be driven by.

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