Happy Deathday, Émile Zola!

1 Oct

Let’s all pretend that this blog post was made yesterday, okay?

Anyway, this week marked the 108th deathday of French author Émile Zola (April 2, 1840 – September 29, 1902).

Twenty of Zola’s twenty-eight novels were part of a cycle known as Les Rougon-Macquart.  The cycle explores the life and times of a family (the Rougons and Macquarts) during the Second French Empire (1852-1870), and are fantastic examples of both naturalism and realism.

I must confess, however, that I have only read one of the novels which I am praising so highly–GerminalGerminal is often considered Zola’s masterpiece and one of the greatest French novels.  It follows the story of Étienne Lantier, a young man who, while looking for work, stumbles upon the mining town of Montsou.  There he is taken in by a mining family by the name of Maheu, and is found a job pushing carts in the mine.  What follows is not only a damn good love story, but also an account of the terrible life of a French miner during the Second Industrial Revolution.  The family, despite sending its father, grandfather, and most of the children to work from dawn til dusk, can barely support itself.  The novel also explores some socialist principles, as we see Étienne somehow rise to a role of leadership in the movement to unionize.

That’s all well and good, but what’s the point?

You know that book some teacher made you read in high school (or college, even) that you thought you were going to hate but ended up loving?  This was that for me.

My AP European History teacher, Mr. Combs, made us all read this book, and everyone was intimdated by it due to its length–after all, this was a history class–but by the end of the year, several people actually thanked him for making us read it, and I personally know one guy who kept his assigned copy and was glad to pay the fee.

So I guess here I’m masquerading as Mr. Combs.  I am telling you to read Germinal.  It may be a little hard to get into at first, but it’ll be worth it by the time you’re through.

So here’s to you, Émile Zola.  You wrote a damn good book and inspired an Oscar-winning film based on your life (The Life of Émile Zola, 1937).  I’d say you did all right.

-Bryan Etheridge
Prose Committee Chair


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