Monday, February 02, 2009

In earthiness is truth

I read Germinal more than a decade ago, and I still vividly recall the mine sequences. It's been hovering around the top of the "needs to be reread" pile for too long.
In L'Assommoir, the French public were thrilled to find characters who were ruled by their bodies and by the most basic of human instincts; they swore, used the slang of the streets, and had no time for moralising or philosophy. Britain took a lot longer to come to Zola. Dickens had written about social problems with his trademark blend of the grotesque and the sentimental, but with nothing like Zola's uncompromising eye for realism. The frankness of the Frenchman's language and the physicality of his characters - who crap and copulate as frequently as any real person - meant that publishers here considered his work pornographic. Translations of the Rougon-Macquart series appeared slowly and haphazardly. It is one of the greatest achievements in world literature, yet still, remarkably, we do not have the complete series in English.

Zola has far more to offer than the "dirt" that first captured the French public's imagination. With Rougon-Macquart, he aimed to capture every aspect of life under the Second Empire, a period of unparalleled economic expansion and unashamed materialism. With our current sense that two decades of ugly, turbocharged capitalism has come to an end, Zola's portrait of a society that sheds its morality and humanity in the pursuit of profit would strike a massive chord. When Zola began planning the series, he had a distinctly determinist view of character and plotting. He would use the novels, he declared, to prove that man's fate was determined by his genetic inheritance. He also researched his fiction more thoroughly than any previous novelist. For each novel, Zola spent months filling notebooks with first-hand observations on farming, mining or events at the Stock Exchange. But in the actual writing of the novels, the instincts of the poet and the painter join those of the journalist and the scientist. The result is a series of huge, complex and very human books.

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