The Anzin miners’ strike (FrenchGrève des mineurs d’Anzin), sometimes known as the great strike of the Anzin miners (FrenchGrande grève des mineurs d’Anzin), was a long strike of the miners of the mining company of Anzin (“Compagnie des mines d’Anzin”) in 1884 which resulted in the recognition of the unions’ right to strike under the so-called Waldeck-Rousseau law of the same year.[1][2] It brought together more than 10,000 strikers for 56 days and as covered by the press had a national impact. Émile Zola was inspired by it to write Germinal. (Wikipedia)

As an adjective, the word describes the early stages of development, as of an embryonic germ cell, and, by extension, of any system coming into being. It was the name of the seventh month in the French Revolutionary calendar, seen as the start of the Spring quarter, falling between mid-March and mid-April – the period in which Zola’s novel is set.

Beginning with horrific heart-rending depiction of the backbreaking work carried out by starving men, women, and children in dark tunnels so narrow and low as to render their tasks even more prone to injury than the dangers of collapsing openings, Zola shows us how they live, with barely enough income to feed themselves, let alone provide them with adequate clothing in their damp, unheated, homes, lacking even basic privacy in their overcrowded conditions.

The cold, wet, weather plays its part in ensuring that the workers spend their days in skimpy, soaking, garments. Trailing through sloshy mud fit to suck off shoes of those who have any, they drag themselves down the pits when too ill and exhausted to work. Many, especially the children, are killed, or maimed for life.

Even horses who, like small children have to push or tow containers on rails, are subjected to a life underground. When young they are lowered to the darkness in which they will spend decades until their corpses are hoisted hoisted back up in slings. At least the humans blink in the daylight at the end of their shifts when carried aloft in the cages that dropped them down at the beginnings.

The slightest misdemeanour or missing of targets results in docking of already meagre wages.

Zola focusses on one family group and the small community around them, contrasting with the comfortable conditions of the owning families, equally vulnerable to the economics of maintaining the mines.

Despite all this, the miners and their families accept their lot – too afraid the challenge the status quo. Although some manage their homes brilliantly in their circumstances, women in this community accept the often violent ill-treatment by their men. This is one of Zola’s repeated themes.

Promiscuity, adultery, and fornication seems to be the norm where even pre-pubescent sexuality is a main source of relief from grinding oppression.

The young couple who are the main protagonists in this tale respect each other too much to indulge their desires, yet their love remains an important thread.

This is a study of politics and precarious leadership subject to the vagaries of humanity ready, reluctantly to follow an angry, eloquent, character, turning against him when events don’t turn out well. We witness debates for and against direct action while people wrestle with fears of consequences.

Zola’s painstaking research gave him real insights into the processes, details of the operation of machinery, and the underground labour, such that one would feel he had lived the life. His descriptions of the environments, the terrain, the personalities, and their thought processes are crafted with care.

The action sequences are thrilling, often intense, and move appropriately at a fast or slow pace. The prose is as fluid as ever with conversations convincingly conveyed.

These illustrations by Berthold Mahn capture the mood of the book with insightful sensitivity.

Henri de Montherlant’s introduction is knowledgeable and informative.

I have refrained from further analysis of Zola’s sublime prose, since the sample pages, gathered together here for ease of reference, give interested readers the opportunity to judge for themselves.

My edition was published in 1942, the year of my birth, only 80 years from the first publication, which puts the conditions in stark perspective.

While I was working on this, Jackie and Ellie were having fun. Regular readers will know that our great granddaughter has an acute ear for music, repeating tunes and swaying accordingly.

She also enjoys listening intently to the ticking of a clock, sometimes having one in each ear.

As Jackie has shown in these pictures, she turns her back in order to concentrate without interruptions.


This morning I finished reading Emile Zola’s masterpiece and later spent a good while scanning the illustrations and drafting this post.

It is 50 years since my previous enjoyment of the Folio Press edition of 1973, being a reprint of the Folio Society’s 1956 publication. I have not studied the original French, but Charles Duff’s translation is fluent and contains number of colloquial English phrases such as “kick the bucket” which suggests effort to render them intelligible to UK readers.

This is the title page and the frontispiece.

From the opening paragraphs depicting the feverish anticipation of the theatre-goers of a city waiting the opening of the new presentation of the Théâtre des Variétés and the first sight of The Blonde Venus to the intense excitement of the races Emile Zola carries the readers along at breakneck speed as if we are present in various venues, also including stately homes, bucolic environments, streets splendid and sordid; night and day, light and dark, playing their part in the narrative.

All senses, especially keenly that of smell, are engaged. The pungent, foetid scents, pervading the back rooms and corridors of the theatre, its windows closed against the cold outside in the depths of inadequately heated winter, assaulting the olfactory nerves which are enticed by sweeter scented warm flesh in a variety of bedrooms more or less savoury.

Nana, a young girl from poor, muddy, streets, by virtue of her generous nature and her gifted charms, rises to be the virtual Queen of Paris capable of attracting and bedding numerous wealthy men until she bleeds them dry and eventually discards them.

She places the child of her teenage pregnancy with an aunt; she visits when she can, though often neglects him; she occasionally falls in love, but usually uses her sexuality to earn wealth and admiration, otherwise indiscriminately. She also has a lasting lesbian affair.

Zola’s insightful characterisation shows how destructive obsessions can be, including almost modern text-book understanding of a lover’s compulsion to return to a physically abusive partner, or to tolerate constant insults and betrayal; being the source of self-destruction.

The fluent, poetically descriptive prose, so full of detail makes it hard to believe that this exploration of contemporary sexual norms comes from Ludovic Halévy’s having introduced him to an operetta at the above-mentioned Théâtre, and providing him with many supplementary stories about the star.

An early morning episode after a night on which Nana has no wish to sleep is just one of the many delightful paragraphs encompassing the author’s evocative skills: “She looked at the sky through the window panes, a livid sky across which soot-coloured skies were scudding. It was six o’clock. Opposite, on the other side of the Boulevard Haussmann, the still sleeping houses showed in sharp outline their moist rooftops in the morning twilight; and on the deserted roadway a troupe of street- sweepers passed by with a clattering of their clogs. And, contemplating this woebegone awakening of Paris, she found herself seized by the tender emotion of a young girl, by a need for the countryside, for the idyllic, for something gentle and white.”

The perhaps inevitable conclusion is beautifully told with an unexpected twist, and set in an historical context which puts it in an apt perspective.

The delicate etchings by Hungarian born Marcel Vertès exquisitely capture the essence of the period.

This evening we all dined on Jackie’s tasty lemon chicken; savoury rice with garlic and peas; sweet potato chips; and tender Broccoli stems, with which I drank Côtes du Rhône Villages 2022.