As the master of naturalistic fiction, Émile Zola reigns supreme. His depictions of the lives of ordinary people subsumed by an indifferent society are as true and relevant today as when they were written in the late 19th century. A towering achievement within Zola’s extraordinary oeuvre, Germinal, based on a real event, was first published in 1885. Young migrant Etienne Lantier is forced to take a menial job at the Le Voreux mine and is soon horrified at the exploitation he and his fellow workers suffer. Impassioned and articulate in his rage, Etienne rises through the ranks to lead the miners in their desperate strike against ever-deteriorating conditions.
Zola’s contemporary, novelist J. K. Huysmans, called the book ‘a lament rising from the darkness of hell,’ and indeed Zola’s is a world on the brink of catastrophe. Human instinct – driven by hunger, cold, sexual desire – becomes the catalyst for violent action. The images are chilling and nightmarish, and yet a deep humanity shines through in Zola’s masterful storytelling and the finely drawn characters – the passionate Lantier; Catherine, the woman he loves, but who is tied to the brutal Chaval; Maheu, Catherine’s father and steadfast patriarch of the community; and the anarchist Souvarine, whose actions precipitate the tragic climax. Zola exposed the dark side of human nature, but also held on to the belief that out of despair, change could come. ‘Germinal’ was the name given to the month of April by the 1789 revolutionaries, convinced it marked a new beginning. More important for Zola was the fact that on 12 Germinal, Year III the people of Paris, starved and disillusioned, in turn rose up against the National Convention.
Germinal was attacked by many on the Right as a call to revolution, yet Zola’s overriding message is the human consequence of indifference, injustice and greed. His status as the leading French writer of his generation was demonstrated at his funeral on 12 October 1902, when 50,000 people followed his cortège through the streets of Paris. Swelling their ranks was a delegation of miners chanting ‘Germinal! Germinal!’