Review Rewind

Welcome to our very first Review Rewind at the Classics Club!

What is Review Rewind?

Review Rewind is a chance for all of us to take a closer look at a book or an author on our ever growing review list. We aim to see who has been reading it and what they think.

How do we select which book to feature?

Variety is the spice of life, so we plan to highlight the diversity of books being reviewed for the club. We may also co-ordinate the featured reviews with an upcoming readalong or blog event.

If you haven’t checked out the amazing work that Kay has been doing on the review page – fixing dead links and arranging the authors, their books and our reviewers in alphabetical order – then we hope you use this post to prompt you to do so. We have built up such a wonderful resource of classic stories, please use it to find your next favourite thing ever!

April is #Zoladdiction month over at Fanda’s blog, so we’ve decided to start Review Rewind with a book by Émile Zola. His most frequently read and reviewed book by Classic Club members is Germinal.

Poster Advertising the Publication of 'Germinal' by Emile Zola (1840-1902) in 'Le Cri Du Peuple'
Poster Advertising the Publication of ‘Germinal’ by Emile Zola (1840-1902) in ‘Le Cri Du Peuple’

Germinal was first published in 1885, although like his contemporaries across the sea, Dickens, Gaskell and Collins, his work was often serialised before being published as a book. Germinal was one of those, first appearing in the French periodical Gil Blas throughout 1884/5.

Germinal is the thirteenth book in Zola’s Les Rougon-Macquart twenty book series. The books do not need to be read in order to be fully appreciated or understood. Several bloggers have been known to read them all in chronological order for the perverse pleasure of it though!

Given that Germinal is often said to be Zola’s masterpiece, it will be very interesting to read what our reviewers think. Below are snippets pulled from each review to give you a taste of the book and the review. Click on the reviewers name to read their full response.

Germinal was a big, epic, heart-wrenching read, full of the daily drama’s of a mining community in 18th century France.The attention to detail and intimate knowledge was extraordinary – in fact, my edition included 20 pages of Zola’s Notes on the Mines at Anzin, which revealed just how much research Zola did before writing Germinal.

This personal knowledge gave the book a tangible, visceral quality especially in Zola’s descriptions of the miner’s work. I felt every sharp edge, every constricted passage and every airless chamber. I felt their exhaustion and their helplessness to change their situation in life.

As you have probably noticed, the book was quite moving for me, and this is entirely because of Zola’s writing, which is very precise, realistic and visual. However, I feel that he overdid the description of the miserable life of miners just a little bit. I find it hard to believe in all the sex habits these people had.

First there are the miners. Dirty poor and just dirty in general. They labor and break their backs for a pittance. They are half starving most of the time, sick, have to share beds and are freezing. For enjoyment they drink and have sex… with everybody… seriously. They crave what their masters have.

Germinal was a combination of humanity, Darwinism and socialism, packed beautifully with metaphors and romance.

Zola still described poverty, hunger and moral degradation brutally to the most extremes, yet he still slipped a hope, a bigger hope for a better future in the end. Germinal was only the beginning, the seeds sowing of workers’ battle against the oppression of capitalism. Germinal would show the world that there is a possibility for the weak to fight the strong. It only took time and refinement, and one day the seeds that were now germinating would harvest perfectly and change the earth.

Étienne becomes interested in socialism. He begins reading socialist books and learning all he can about the subject. Fed up with the dangerous conditions of the mine and the shabby treatment of the workers, revolutionary ideas begin to brew in his mind. When the company introduces a new compensation structure designed to reduce worker pay, he makes a concrete plan and leads his coworkers in a massive strike. Most of the novel is centered around this strike and its aftermath, which Étienne leads masterfully in its early days. However, as the weeks drag on, and people begin to truly starve, he loses control of the situation. As the workers become more desperate, violence erupts and events spiral towards a dangerous conclusion.

Reading this novel was quite the experience. It’s one of those books that feels epic; I was out of breath when I finished reading it. Zola masterfully describes the town of Mountsou, the Le Voreux mine, and the people that inhabit them both with a level of detail that truly brings the reader into the story. His descriptions of the mine are especially artistic, as he uses imagery of a monster to show the scope and danger of the place

When I think about “Germinal”, I get this huge back-flow of emotions and feels that I went through while reading.

The mining industry has always generated a lot of spook in me. Earth is our home, but it can also be treacherous for those who challenge it. Somehow, the thought of sending people down to hundreds and hundreds of metres, into the belly of the earth, feels so unnatural. One wrong move, and one can end life there. In this book, mines are characters – in Zola’s world, they are breathing and they are alive.

If you ever want to read a book about miners, or a book about family, or a book about unions, or a book about poverty, or a book about the whole wide-world and how awful and wonderful, hopeful and disappointing, romantic and coldly real it is – if you ever want to read a book about humanity and everything that it means, Germinal is that book.

Germinal, similar to its peers (such as Les Miserables, War and Peace, and The Grapes of Wrath) is an epic tale about “the people.”  It’s a story of desire and passion, working life, family, friendships, and community.  The nature of humanity, from its most noble capacities to its darkest, most dangerous possibilities, is explored in microscopic detail, painful and wondrous to witness. It is, quite literally, a tale about germination – the planting of a seed, an idea, and the birth and growth of a movement.

Germinal has all the qualities of a good book, to emotionally involve its reader: it is persuadable, sympathetic, raw, gruesome, realistic, solemn; it may even make you mad with contention, which is a good thing because it means the author is effective.

…if you like a book in which the author reaches out and grabs you by the shoulders and shakes you forcefully, then Germinal is a book for you.

Have you read Germinal? What did you think?

If you’ve been wondering about Zola, or thinking it was time to finally get to that Zola on your TBR shelf, then April and #Zoladdiction could be the opportunity you’ve been waiting for!

For more information about Zola check out Fanda’s old Zola blog as well as the collaborative effort at Reading Zola. There was a 2015 BBC 4 radio adaptation of the series that you may or may not be able to source here. Sadly, it doesn’t appear to have been archived or podcasted in any way that I can discover.

Have you read and reviewed Germinal and don’t see your review linked here?

Perhaps you forgot to link it or maybe your link was one of the ones that was ‘broken’. Please add your link here.

Main photo credit: Photo by Susan Yin on Unsplash

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16 thoughts on “Review Rewind

  1. My favourite Zola though since I read it before I joined the classics club or even started the blog. I haven’t reviewed it. The book resonated with me because I come from a coal mining area myself (though in Wales not France) and could recognise the level of suffering some of these areas experienced in the dark days

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    1. Yes I started school in a coal mining town in NSW & can still remember how hard it was for mum to get the washing dry and for it still to be clean. The smell of burning coal is forever in my nostrils – even when I drive through this town 40 yrs later, the smell of the coal still brings back all sorts of childhood memories. The divide at school about whose father worked in the mines and those who had professional dads. Germinal brought a lot of that back for me too.

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  2. awesome feature!! As a French native< i read Germinal at school, a few decades ago. I don't remember much of it today, just that like all the other books by Zola I have read, I loved it, loved all the details around the social condition, and the way he creates the atmosphere.
    I hope to be able to start re/re-reading the series at the end of 2019 or in 2020

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    1. Yes after reading Gerninal & Nana, for my first 2 Zoladdictions, I decided I wanted to read the rest in chronological order, so I’m up to the third book in the series this Zoladdiction – Le Ventre de Paris (1873) -The Belly of Paris.
      I look forward to your reread reviews!

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  3. Sorry for the third post in a row. But I’ve just come back from looking at the review pages, and…WoW!! That is a tremendous amount of work put in!!

    Thank you, Kay!! 🙂 … and the rest of the team!

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  4. I’ve read Zola’s Flood. The translation was beautiful, as was the story. But it was heartbreaking… for that alone I cannot bring myself to try this. If I can avoid the heartbreak, I avoid it.

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  5. I agree, great feature, thank you! I knew nothing about Zola beyond the name. Now I fear he needs a place on my CC list…. The one I’m trying to cut down rather than build up!

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    1. There are some amazing books and authors in our review list now – I had never heard of Zola until Fanda’s first Zoladdiction either – but no looking back now 🙂

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