A Month of French Authors/Un Mois d’Auteurs Français

Today for the letter Z, the last letter of the alphabet, I thought, “What the heck, I’ll do what I want!”

First, neither my partner nor myself could find any contemporary French female author. Then, even though I could have picked Florian Zeller, a young, brilliant, successful French author, I just couldn’t end such a challenge and not include the one and only Emile Zola.

 

There are many reasons why we become (or not) readers. Three years ago, I wrote about my childhood relationship with reading and ultimately with writing. It earned me the Freshly Pressed badge.

But if I could only list one author and one book that changed my world and hooked me for life to the world of words it would be Emile Zola and his novel Germinal. Which is the thirteenth volume in the series The Rougon-Macquard, his most renowned writing work.

In this fictional historical and sociological saga, Zola showcased a family living during the Second Empire. He gave flesh to the real historic and social events through authentic dialogues between characters that he chiseled from real people.

The French political activist, critic, and novelist is the founder of naturalism, a genre that grew in the late 19th century from realism. While realism focused on fact, logic, and impersonality over the imaginative, symbolic, and supernatural, Zola and his followers selected particular parts of reality: misery, corruption, vice, disease, poverty, prostitution, racism, and violence. They planted characters whose fates had been predetermined by forces of nature beyond human control.

Naturalism holds two conflicting views : Human behavior is the result of free will and yet also determined by natural laws.

Because naturalist writers don’t shy away from reality, as harsh as it can be, some scenes in Germinal are particularly graphic and frightened me when I read them under my blanket late at night, when my parents thought me asleep. However this raw depiction of the world matched my early understanding of the world, years before I could articulate my own thoughts. Kids and young teens perceive unfairness, inequality, and injustice even though they haven’t yet experienced their consequences.

I felt compassion for the characters who suffered most, anger against the ones who had everything, and jubilation when the poor won over the rich. My feelings are still so vivid so many years after I read Germinal and then each and every volume from the series. I will admit that a couple of books are not page turners and are even slightly boring. My husband who studied history, among other subjects, favors Balzac to Zola. But Nana, L’Assommoir or still La Bête Humaine kept me up for hours.

I couldn’t put down these books but I didn’t want them to end either. When I reach the end of a story that captivated me I will always feel the way I do on Sunday night or the day before back to school. I want these moments to last and last…

That’s what Zola gave me. The desire for more stories. Naturalist writers are often critized for their pessimistic views on the world. In fact, I would argue that their writing is a loud hopeful cry for a better world. For others. Some day.

Think of American writers John Steinbeck or Kate Chopin or still Jack London.

There is this game when someone asks you about the guests you would love to host around your table. My list changes over the years. But Zola has always been on it.

I would be so intimidated if I ever met him that I would not be able to say anything remotely smart. So I would more likely just thank him. For these unforgettable moments when I read his books. I was then only a girl, but these memories still give me the goosebumps when I evocate them, now that I’m living the autumn of my life.

My blogger friend Kimberly who lives in Italy wrote about her own experience as she read recently Germinal for the first time.

 

The Rougon-Macquard in the collection Bibliothèque de la Pléiade.

My husband surprised me with the series that he recently purchased from an American who didn’t read French.

 

J’aurais pu choisir le brillant Florian Zeller pour la lettre du jour, la dernière de notre alphabet.

Mais il m’était impossible de terminer ce challenge et d’omettre le grand Emile Zola.

Il y a trois ans maintenant j’ai écrit un billet sur mes premières expériences de lecture me donnant l’envie d’écrire aussi.

Mais si un écrivain et un roman m’ont à tout jamais rendue accro au monde des mots c’est Zola et son “Germinal.”

L’expérience de la lecture est personnelle puisqu’on lit le plus souvent seul. Comment expliquer alors que les sensations ressenties soient décrites si similairement par ceux et celles qui ne peuvent pas se passer de lire ?

Nous utilisons tous et toutes des descriptions identiques pour parler de ces moments où l’on oublie l’heure, le temps qu’il fait, y compris le boire et le manger.

Ce sont des heures de ma vie qui se sont écoulées alors que je dévorais les vingt volumes des Rougon-Macquard. Mon mari me rappelait l’autre jour que certains étaient moins passionnants que d’autres. Carrément ennuyeux, même a-t-il dit (en français plus explicite). Il a raison.

Mais qui, je vous le demande, a pu poser “Germinal” ou “Nana” ou encore “L’Assommoir” et “La Curée”?

Si vous lisez l’anglais je laisse un lien sur le billet d’une bloggeuse américaine qui vit en Italie avec sa famille. Elle a lu récemment “Germinal” et j’ai aimé retrouver à travers son expérience un peu de la mienne.

Quant à moi Zola restera le maitre du naturalisme, un genre parfois critiqué pour sa vision pessimiste du monde. En fait, je crois que les naturalistes (y compris John Steinbeck, Kate Chopin ou encore Jack London aux USA) ont écrit des livres empreints d’un espoir profond pour un monde meilleur.

Des années plus tard, j’adhère encore au credo de Zola.

Comme chaque jour pendant ce mois d’avril, j’ajoute des extraits de romans. Seulement de “Germinal” aujourd’hui ainsi que deux citations de l’auteur à propos de la création.

 

Extraits de “Germinal:”

“Des hommes poussaient, une armée noire, vengeresse, qui germait lentement dans les sillons, grandissant pour les récoltes du siècle futur, et dont la germination allait faire bientôt éclater la terre.”

“Devant le buffet ouvert, Catherine réfléchissait. Il ne restait qu’un bout de pain, du fromage blanc en suffisance, mais à peine une lichette de beurre ; et il s’agissait de faire les tartines pour eux quatre. Enfin, elle se décida, coupa les tranches, en prit une qu’elle couvrit de fromage, en frotta une autre de beurre, puis les colla ensemble : c’était « le briquet », la double tartine emportée chaque matin à la fosse. Bientôt, les quatre briquets furent en rang sur la table, répartis avec une sévère justice, depuis le gros du père jusqu’au petit de Jeanlin.”

“Les femmes avaient paru, près d’un millier de femmes, aux cheveux épars dépeignés par la course, aux guenilles montrant la peau nue, des nudités de femelles lasses d’enfanter des meurt-de-faim. Quelques-unes tenaient leur petit entre les bras, le soulevaient, l’agitaient, ainsi qu’un drapeau de deuil et de vengeance. D’autres, plus jeunes, avec des gorges gonflées de guerrières, brandissaient des bâtons ; tandis que les vieilles, affreuses, hurlaient si fort, que les cordes de leurs cous décharnés semblaient se rompre.”

“Était-ce possible qu’on se tua à une si dure besogne dans ces ténèbres mortelles, et qu’on y gagna même pas les quelques sous du pain quotidien?”

 

And two quotes from Zola himself :

“There are two men inside the artist, the poet and the craftsman. One is born a poet. One becomes a craftsman.”

“The artist is nothing without the gift, but the gift is nothing without work.”

 

Mexican Sage, as resilient as some of Zola’s characters

 

This post concludes the series of A Month of French Authors/Un Mois d’Auteurs Français from A to Z

Thank you so much for reading, for liking, and for commenting.

In a couple of days I will wrap up with a post-challenge post.

Meanwhile, bravo if you participated to the challenge and didn’t stop until the letter Z.

Again, thank you, everyone.

 

 

 

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