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Translated and Introduced


Havelock Ellis

Translated and Introduced by Havelock Ellis


Aldine House - Bedford St. - London


Introduction By Havelock Ellis

'GERMINAL' was published in 1885, after occupying Zola during the
previous year. In accordance with his usual custom - but to a greater
extent than with any other of his books except _La Débâcle_ - he
accumulated material beforehand. For six months he travelled about
the coal-mining district in northern France and Belgium, especially
the Borinage around Mons, note-book in hand. 'He was inquisitive, was
that gentleman', miner told Sherard who visited the neighbourhood at a
later period and found that the miners in every village knew _Germinal_.
That was a tribute of admiration the book deserved, but it was never
one of Zola's most popular novels; it was neither amusing enough nor
outrageous enough to attract the multitude.

Yet _Germinal_ occupies a place among Zola's works which is constantly
becoming more assured, so that to some critics it even begins to seem
the only book of his that in the end may survive. In his own time, as
we know, the accredited critics of the day could find no condemnation
severe enough for Zola. Brunetière attacked him perpetually with a fury
that seemed inexhaustible; Schérer could not even bear to hear his name
mentioned; Anatole France, though he lived to relent, thought it would
have been better if he had never been born. Even at that time, however,
there were critics who inclined to view Germinal more favourably. Thus
Faguet, who was the recognized academic critic of the end of the last
century, while he held that posterity would be unable to understand how
Zola could ever have been popular, yet recognized him as in Germinal
the heroic representative of democracy, incomparable in his power of
describing crowds, and he realized how marvellous is the conclusion of
this book.

To-day, when critics view Zola In the main with indifference rather
than with horror, although he still retains his popular favour, the
distinction of _Germinal_ is yet more clearly recognized. Seillière,
while regarding the capitalistic conditions presented as now of an
ancient and almost extinct type, yet sees _Germinal_ standing out as
'the poem of social mysticism', while André Gide, a completely modern
critic who has left a deep mark on the present generation, observes
somewhere that it may nowadays cause surprise that he should refer with
admiration to _Germinal_, but it is a masterly book that fills him with
astonishment; he can hardly believe that it was written in French and
still less that it should have been written in any other language; it
seems that it should have been created in some international tongue.

The high place thus claimed for _Germinal_ will hardly seem exaggerated.
The book was produced when Zola had at length achieved the full mastery
of his art and before his hand had, as in his latest novels, begun to
lose its firm grasp. The subject lent itself, moreover, to his special
aptitude for presenting in vivid outline great human groups, and to his
special sympathy with the collective emotions and social aspirations of
such groups. We do not, as so often in Zola's work, become painfully
conscious that he is seeking to reproduce aspects of life with which
he is imperfectly acquainted, or fitting them into scientific formulas
which he has imperfectly understood. He shows a masterly grip of each
separate group, and each represents some essential element of the
whole; they are harmoniously balanced, and their mutual action and
reaction leads on inevitably to the splendid tragic dose, with yet its
great promise for the future. I will not here discuss Zola's literary
art (I have done so in my book of _Affirmations_); it is enough to say
that, though he was not a great master of style, Zola never again wrote
so finely as here.

A word may be added to explain how this translation fell to the lot of
one whose work has been in other fields. In 1893 the late A. Texeira de
Mattos was arranging for private issue a series of complete versions of
some of Zola's chief novels and offered to assign _Germinal_ to me. My
time was taken up with preliminary but as yet unfruitful preparation
for what I regarded as my own special task in life, and I felt that I
must not neglect the opportunity of spending my spare time in making
a modest addition to my income. My wife readily fell into the project
and agreed, on the understanding that we shared the proceeds, to act
as my amanuensis. So, in the little Cornish cottage over the sea we
then occupied, the evenings of the early months of 1894 were spent
over _Germinal_, I translating aloud, and she with swift efficient
untiring pen following, now and then bettering my English dialogue
with her pungent wit. In this way I was able to gain a more minute
insight into the details of Zola's work, and a more impressive vision
of the massive structure he here raised, than can easily be acquired
by the mere reader. That joint task has remained an abidingly pleasant
memory. It is, moreover, a satisfaction to me to know that I have
been responsible, however inadequately, for the only complete English
version of this wonderful book, 'a great fresco,' as Zola himself
called it, a great prose epic, as it has seemed to some, worthy to
compare with the great verse epics of old.



Over the open plain, beneath a starless sky as dark and thick as ink,
a man walked alone along the highway from Marchiennes to Montsou, a
straight paved road ten kilometres in length, intersecting the beetroot
fields. He could not even see the black soil before him, and only felt
the immense flat horizon by the gusts of March wind, squalls as strong
as on the sea, and frozen from sweeping leagues of marsh and naked
earth. No tree could be seen against the sky, and the road unrolled as
straight as a pier in the midst of the blinding spray of darkness.

The man had set out from Marchiennes about two o'clock. He walked with
long strides, shivering beneath his worn cotton jacket and corduroy
breeches. A small parcel tied in a check handkerchief troubled him
much, and he pressed it against his side, sometimes with one elbow,
sometimes with the other, so that he could slip to the bottom of his
pockets both the benumbed hands that bled beneath the lashes of the
wind. A single idea occupied his head - the empty head of a workman
without work and without lodging - the hope that the cold would be less
keen after sunrise. For an hour he went on thus, when on the left, two
kilometres from Montsou, he saw red flames, three fires burning in the
open air and apparently suspended. At first he hesitated, half afraid.
Then he could not resist the painful need to warm his hands for a

The steep road led downwards, and everything disappeared. The man saw
on his right a paling, a wall of coarse planks shutting in a line of
rails, while a grassy slope rose on the left surmounted by confused
gables, a vision of a village with low uniform roofs. He went on
some two hundred paces. Suddenly, at a bend in the road, the fires
reappeared close to him, though he could not understand how they
burnt so high in the dead sky, like smoky moons. But on the level
soil another sight had struck him. It was a heavy mass, a low pile
of buildings from which rose the silhouette of a factory chimney;
occasional gleams appeared from dirty windows, five or six melancholy
lanterns were hung outside to frames of blackened wood, which vaguely
outlined the profiles of gigantic stages; and from this fantastic
apparition, drowned in night and smoke, a single voice arose, the
thick, long breathing of a steam escapement that could not be seen.

Then the man recognized a pit. His despair returned. What was the
good? There would be no work. Instead of turning towards the buildings
he decided at last to ascend the pit bank, on which burnt in iron
baskets the three coal fires which gave light and warmth for work. The
labourers in the cutting must have been working late; they were still
throwing out the useless rubbish. Now he heard the landers push the
wagons on the stages. He could distinguish living shadows tipping over
the trams or tubs near each fire.

"Good day," he said, approaching one of the baskets.

Turning his back to the fire, the carman stood upright. He was an old
man, dressed in knitted violet wool with a rabbit-skin cap on his head;
while his horse, a great yellow horse, waited with the immobility of
stone while they emptied the six trains he drew. The workman employed
at the tipping-cradle, a red-haired lean fellow, did not hurry himself;
he pressed on the lever with a sleepy hand. And above, the wind grew
stronger - an icy north wind - and its great, regular breaths passed by
like the strokes of a scythe.

"Good day," replied the old man. There was silence. The man, who felt
that he was being looked at suspiciously, at once told his name.

"I am called Étienne Lantier. I am an engine-man. Any work here?"

The flames lit him up. He might be about twenty-one years of age, a
very dark, handsome man, who looked strong in spite of his thin limbs.

The carman, thus reassured, shook his head.

"Work for an engine-man? No, no! There were two came yesterday. There's

A gust cut short their speech. Then Étienne asked, pointing to the
sombre pile of buildings at the foot of the platform:

"A pit, isn't it?"

The old man this time could not reply: he was strangled by a violent
cough. At last he expectorated, and his expectoration left a black
patch on the purple soil.

"Yes, a pit. The Voreux. There! The settlement is quite near."

In his turn, and with extended arm, he pointed out in the night the
village of which the young man had vaguely seen the roofs. But the six
trams were empty, and he followed them without cracking his whip, his
legs stiffened by rheumatism; while the great yellow horse went on of
itself, pulling heavily between the rails beneath a new gust which
bristled its coat.

The Voreux was now emerging from the gloom. Étienne, who forgot himself
before the stove, warming his poor bleeding hands, looked round and
could see each part of the pit: the shed tarred with siftings, the
pit-frame, the vast chamber of the winding machine, the square turret
of the exhaustion pump. This pit, piled up in the bottom of a hollow,
with its squat brick buildings, raising its chimney like a threatening
horn, seemed to him to have the evil air of a gluttonous beast
crouching there to devour the earth. While examining it, he thought of
himself, of his vagabond existence these eight days he had been seeking
work. He saw himself again at his workshop at the railway, delivering
a blow at his foreman, driven from Lille, driven from everywhere. On
Saturday he had arrived at Marchiennes, where they said that work was
to be had at the Forges, and there was nothing, neither at the Forges
nor at Sonneville's. He had been obliged to pass the Sunday hidden
beneath the wood of a cartwright's yard, from which the watchman had
just turned him out at two o'clock in the morning. He had nothing, not
a penny, not even a crust; what should he do, wandering along the roads
without aim, not knowing where to shelter himself from the wind? Yes,
it was certainly a pit; the occasional lanterns lighted up the square;
a door, suddenly opened, had enabled him to catch sight of the furnaces
in a clear light. He could explain even the escapement of the pump,
that thick, long breathing that went on without ceasing, and which
seemed to be the monster's congested respiration.

The workman, expanding his back at the tipping-cradle, had not even
lifted his eyes on Étienne, and the latter was about to pick up his
little bundle, which had fallen to the earth, when a spasm of coughing
announced the carman's return. Slowly he emerged from the darkness,
followed by the yellow horse drawing six more laden trams.

"Are there factories at Montsou?" asked the young man.

The old man expectorated, then replied in the wind:

"Oh, it isn't factories that are lacking. Should have seen it three or
four years ago. Everything was roaring then. There were not men enough;
there never were such wages. And now they are tightening their bellies
again. Nothing but misery in the country; every one is being sent away;
workshops closing one after the other. It is not the Emperor's fault,
perhaps; but why should he go and fight in America? without counting
that the beasts are dying from cholera, like the people."

Then, in short sentences and with broken breath, the two continued to
complain. Étienne narrated his vain wanderings of the past week: must
one, then, die of hunger? Soon the roads would be full of beggars.

"Yes," said the old man, "this will turn out badly, for God does not
allow so many Christians to be thrown on the street."

"We don't have meat every day."

"But if one had bread!"

"True, if one only had bread."

Their voices were lost, gusts of wind carrying away the words in a
melancholy howl.

"Here!" began the carman again very loudly, turning towards the south.
"Montsou is over there."

And stretching out his hand again he pointed out invisible spots in the
darkness as he named them. Below, at Montsou, the Fauvelle sugar works
were still going, but the Hoton sugar works had just been dismissing
hands; there were only the Dutilleul flour mill and the Bleuze rope
walk for mine-cables which kept up. Then, with a large gesture he
indicated the north half of the horizon: the Sonneville workshops had
not received two-thirds of their usual orders; only two of the three
blast furnaces of the Marchiennes Forges were alight; finally, at the
Gagebois glass works a strike was threatening, for there was talk of a
reduction of wages.

"I know, I know," replied the young man at each indication. "I have
been there."

"With us here things are going on at present," added the carman; "but
the pits have lowered their output. And see opposite, at the Victoire,
there are also only two batteries of coke furnaces alight."

He expectorated, and set out behind his sleepy horse, after harnessing
it to the empty trams.

Now Étienne could oversee the entire country. The darkness remained
profound, but the old man's hand had, as it were, filled it with great
miseries, which the young man unconsciously felt at this moment around
him everywhere in the limitless tract. Was it not a cry of famine
that the March wind rolled up across this naked plain? The squalls
were furious: they seemed to bring the death of labour, a famine
which would kill many men. And with wandering eyes he tried to pierce
shades, tormented at once by the desire and by the fear of seeing.
Everything was hidden in the unknown depths of the gloomy night. He
only perceived, very far off, the blast furnaces and the coke ovens.
The latter, with their hundreds of chimneys, planted obliquely, made
lines of red flame; while the two towers, more to the left, burnt blue
against the blank sky, like giant torches. It resembled a melancholy
conflagration. No other stars rose on the threatening horizon except
these nocturnal fires in a land of coal and iron.

"You belong to Belgium, perhaps?" began again the carman, who had
returned behind Étienne.

This time he only brought three trams. Those at least could be tipped
over; an accident which had happened to the cage, a broken screw nut,
would stop work for a good quarter of an hour. At the bottom of the pit
bank there was silence; the landers no longer shook the stages with a
prolonged vibration. One only heard from the pit the distant sound of a
hammer tapping on an iron plate.

"No, I come from the South," replied the young man.

The workman, after having emptied the trams, had seated himself on the
earth, glad of the accident, maintaining his savage silence; he had
simply lifted his large, dim eyes to the carman, as if annoyed by so
many words. The latter, indeed, did not usually talk at such length.
The unknown man's face must have pleased him that he should have been
taken by one of these itchings for confidence which sometimes make old
people talk aloud even when alone.

"I belong to Montsou," he said, "I am called Bonnemort."

"Is it a nickname?" asked Étienne, astonished.

The old man made a grimace of satisfaction and pointed to the Voreux:

"Yes, yes; they have pulled me three times out of that, torn to pieces,
once with all my hair scorched, once with my gizzard full of earth, and
another time with my belly swollen with water, like a frog. And then,
when they saw that nothing would kill me, they called me Bonnemort for
a joke."

His cheerfulness increased, like the creaking of an ill-greased pulley,
and ended by degenerating into a terrible spasm of coughing. The fire
basket now clearly lit up his large head, with its scanty white hair
and flat, livid face, spotted with bluish patches. He was short, with
an enormous neck, projecting calves and heels, and long arms, with
massive hands falling to his knees. For the rest, like his horse, which
stood immovable, without suffering from the wind, he seemed to be
made of stone; he had no appearance of feeling either the cold or the
gusts that whistled at his ears. When he coughed his throat was torn
by a deep rasping; he spat at the foot of the basket and the earth was

Étienne looked at him and at the ground which he had thus stained.

"Have you been working long at the mine?"

Bonnemort flung open both arms.

"Long? I should think so. I was not eight when I went down into the
Voreux and I am now fifty-eight. Reckon that up! I have been everything
down there; at first trammer, then putter, when I had the strength to
wheel, then pikeman for eighteen years. Then, because of my cursed
legs, they put me into the earth cutting, to bank up and patch, until
they had to bring me up, because the doctor said I should stay there
for good. Then, after five years of that, they made me carman. Eh?
that's fine - fifty years at the mine, forty-five down below."

While he was speaking, fragments of burning coal, which now and then
fell from the basket, lit up his pale face with their red reflection.

"They tell me to rest," he went on, "but I'm not going to; I'm not such
a fool. I can get on for two years longer, to my sixtieth, so as to get
the pension of one hundred and eighty francs. If I wished them good
evening to-day they would give me a hundred and fifty at once. They are
cunning, the beggars. Besides, I am sound, except my legs. You see,
it's the water which has got under my skin through being always wet in
the cuttings. There are days when I can't move a paw without screaming."

A spasm of coughing interrupted him again.

"And that makes you cough so?" said Étienne.

But he vigorously shook his head. Then, when he could speak:

"No, no! I caught cold a month ago. I never used to cough; now I can't
get rid of it. And the queer thing is that I spit, that I spit - - "

The rasping was again heard in his throat, followed by the black

"Is it blood?" asked Étienne, at last venturing to question him.

Bonnemort slowly wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

"It's coal. I've got enough in my carcass to warm me till I die. And
it's five years since I put a foot down below. I stored it up, it
seems, without knowing it; it keeps you alive!"

There was silence. The distant hammer struck regular blows in the
pit, and the wind passed by with its moan, like a cry of hunger and
weariness coming out of the depths of the night. Before the flames
which grew low, the old man went on in lower tones, chewing over again
his old recollections. Ah, certainly: it was not yesterday that he and
his began hammering at the seam. The family had worked for the Montsou
Mining Company since it started, and that was long ago, a hundred and
six years already. His grandfather, Guillaume Maheu, an urchin of
fifteen then, had found the rich coal at Réquillart, the Company's
first pit, an old abandoned pit to-day down below near the Fauvelle
sugar works. All the country knew it, and as a proof, the discovered
seam was called the Guillaume, after his grandfather. He had not known
him - a big fellow, it was said, very strong, who died of old age at
sixty. Then his father, Nicolas Maheu, called Le Rouge, when hardly
forty years of age had died in the pit, which was being excavated at
that time: a landslip, a complete slide, and the rock drank his blood
and swallowed his bones. Two of his uncles and his three brothers,
later on, also left their skins there. He, Vincent Maheu, who had come
out almost whole, except that his legs were rather shaky, was looked
upon as a knowing fellow. But what could one do? One must work; one
worked here from father to son, as one would work at anything else.
His son, Toussaint Maheu, was being worked to death there now, and his
grandsons, and all his people, who lived opposite in the settlement.
A hundred and six years of mining, the youngsters after the old ones,
for the same master. Eh? there were many bourgeois that could not give
their history so well!

"Anyhow, when one has got enough to eat!" murmured Étienne again.

"That is what I say. As long as one has bread to eat one can live."

Bonnemort was silent; and his eyes turned towards the settlement, where
lights were appearing one by one. Four o'clock struck in the Montsou
tower and the cold became keener.

"And is your company rich?" asked Étienne.

The old man shrugged his shoulders, and then let them fall as if
overwhelmed beneath an avalanche of gold.

"Ah, yes! Ah, yes! Not perhaps so rich as its neighbour, the Anzin
Company. But millions and millions all the same. They can't count it.
Nineteen pits, thirteen at work, the Voreux, the Victoire, Crévecoeur,
Mirou, St. Thomas, Madeleine, Feutry-Cantel, and still more, and six
for pumping or ventilation, like Réquillart. Ten thousand workers,
concessions reaching over sixty-seven communes, an output of five
thousand tons a day, a railway joining all the pits, and workshops, and
factories! Ah, yes! ah, yes! there's money there!"

The rolling of trams on the stages made the big yellow horse prick his
ears. The cage was evidently repaired below, and the landers had got to
work again. While he was harnessing his beast to re-descend, the carman
added gently, addressing himself to the horse:

"Won't do to chatter, lazy good-for-nothing! If Monsieur Hennebeau knew
how you waste your time!"

Étienne looked thoughtfully into the night. He asked:

"Then Monsieur Hennebeau owns the mine?"

"No," explained the old man, "Monsieur Hennebeau is only the general
manager; he is paid just the same as us."

With a gesture the young man pointed into the darkness.

"Who does it all belong to, then?"

But Bonnemort was for a moment so suffocated by a new and violent spasm
that he could not get his breath. Then, when he had expectorated and
wiped the black froth from his lips, he replied in the rising wind:

"Eh? all that belong to? Nobody knows. To people."

And with his hand he pointed in the darkness to a vague spot, an
unknown and remote place, inhabited by those people for whom the Maheus
had been hammering at the seam for more than a century. His voice
assumed a tone of religious awe; it was as if he were speaking of an
inaccessible tabernacle containing a sated and crouching god to whom
they had given all their flesh and whom they had never seen.

"At all events, if one can get enough bread to eat," repeated Étienne,
for the third time, without any apparent transition.

"Indeed, yes; if we could always get bread, it would be too good."

The horse had started; the carman, in his turn, disappeared, with the
trailing step of an invalid. Near the tipping-cradle the workman had
not stirred, gathered up in a ball, burying his chin between his knees,
with his great dim eyes fixed on emptiness.

When he had picked up his bundle, Étienne still remained at the same
spot. He felt the gusts freezing his back, while his chest was burning
before the large fire. Perhaps, all the same, it would be as well
to inquire at the pit, the old man might not know. Then he resigned
himself; he would accept any work. Where should he go, and what was to
become of him in this country famished for lack of work? Must he leave
his carcass behind a wall, like a strayed dog? But one doubt troubled

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