Saturday, October 17, 2009

GERMINAL by Emile Zola

While I am on the subject of books that it has taken me a long time in my career to finally read; I have finally read 'Germinal' by Emile Zola. Everything in my life is coal mining lately. I have a son-in-law who was injured in a coal mine. I recently watched the movie 'The Molly Maguires' (1970 - Sean Connery) about coal miners in 1876 Pennsylvania. And now this novel about French coal miners.

In his 'Journals' Andre Gide wrote that he was reading 'Germinal' for the third time and it... "seems more admirable than ever."

First off, I liked it. I was caught up in the story of a young man Etienne Lantier coming into the coal country of Northern France to seek employment there. He is taken in by one of the families and put to work. Seeing the injustice in the world of coal, however, he begins to struggle against the owners and managers. This leads to a protracted strike that leaves everyone out of work, without money, and without food. I guess having fought some of those battles before myself I am a sucker for a story about the struggle for worker's rights.

This is a prime example of French Naturalism. Zola is out to examine not only the conditions of coal and coal miners, but of working class people and the clash between capital and labor, and the sociological ramifications of such clashes. It is a dark tale, but very insightful of the human condition. (Perhaps whenever anyone chooses to focus on the human condition things turn dark - as the saying goes, an optimist is only one who has not yet seen reality).

'Germinal' is one of twenty novels Zola devoted twenty-five years of his life creating - 'Les Rougon-Macuart. Histoire naturelle et sociale d'une famille sous le Second Empire'. (I'm trying to impress here by typing out the entire title). The truth is, I am so taken with 'Germinal' that I am a little afraid to pick up any of the others because they may disappoint. Can anyone point me toward one that would be equal or better?

Let me know.


Friday, October 9, 2009

All The Not So Pretty Tales of Cormac McCarthy


I have finally gotten around to reading Cormac McCarthy and now I wonder what took me so long. I have not kept my blog current these last two weeks because I have been busily trying to finish my own novel and I'm having trouble with that. Maybe a novel is never really finished in the mind of the author. Hemingway wrote the ending of 'The Old Man and the Sea' twenty six times. When asked by a reporter what the problem had been, Hem said "I couldn't get the words right." Well... there you have it.

I found 'Blood Meridian' in the western section at the library. Even though I live in the west, I'm not a big reader of westerns. The big exceptions have been 'The Ox-Bow Incident' and 'Lonesome Dove'. So I don't often find myself browsing there. But when I saw the name Cormac McCarthy a little thing (is it a buzzer?) went off in my brain. "Oh, yes. That's someone I should be reading." So I took that one home along with the Border Trilogy - 'All The Pretty Horses'; 'The Crossing'; and 'Cities of the Plain'. (There's another problem with keeping a blog current - when I'm not writing, I'm reading).

McCarthy lives over here in Santa Fe, which is maybe fifty miles away, but I've never met him. He says he doesn't know any writers and he apparently prefers the company of scientists and hangs out, so they say, at the Santa Fe Institute, which he helped found, where they study complex systems, (and I presume language is one of those). He has won the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and more recently the Pulitzer for his post-apocalyptic 'The Road'.

The word apocalyptic has popped into my mind over and over again while I have been reading him. In an odd way his writing is prophetic while looking backward into our American past. Prophetic in the Biblical sense (not the mystical). Bible prophets warned against what the future would be if we do not change our ways. In the same way McCarthy is warning about the future based upon where we have been. So, to put it in more direct terms, (and declarative sentences is where McCarthy lives): If we don't change our violent ways, we are likely to end up where we have always been, with blood on our hands.

These books come at a perfect time for me because that is exactly the sort of novel I am writing, or attempting to write. The conclusions I have drawn from my own life have been different, because I have found the way of nonviolence - it is a way that offers a way out of the madness. But not many people in real life listen to me about that, and I wonder if many will listen in this blog or in my writing. If we continue our violent madness in our lives and in the world, we will end with blood on our hands.

To say these books by McCarthy are bloody is an understatement. I watched the movie version of 'No Country For Old Men' and guess what - it was bloody. But we have to get through the blood to get to the point. The point for Cormac McCarthy seems to be that violence and bloodshed in America is somehow redemptive. And that has been the story for a long long time. We confront the bad guys. We fight the bad guys but we are beset by obstacles. We reach a climax of blood and gore and the good guy (that's always me), wins.

Here's another possibility. We confront those who are destructive and violent. We would rather die than live in a world where such people get the upper hand. We confront that person or people with the truth of redemptive nonviolence. We stand up for that truth no matter what it may cost us. Then we either die, in which case we no longer live in such a world, or we open the truth up to that other person or people. They, having seen the truth, embrace that truth and the world is a better (more nonviolent) place. The thing is, I'm a writer of the realistic style. Most people believe that realism is violent climax with the good guy winning. Another way must be found to tell this other story.

Anyway, Cormac McCarthy is a great writer who must be read by anyone who is serious about books and such, and I make no apologies for the blood shed.