Two Books for Fall: Zola’s “Germinal” and Stanley Middleton’s “Valley of Decision”

I retire early to bed with books these days.  What do I recommend?  Zola’s Germinal and Stanley Middleton’s  Valley of Decision.

Zola’s Germinal is not for everybody.  I was perusing James Mustich’s new reference book, 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die, and surprised to find Germinal named as Zola’s masterpiece. IT IS the most over-the-top book ever written!   When I read it at 21, I found it so depressing I raced through it just to be done.  And I’m a Zola fan.

What do I think many, many years later?  Well, it is gloomy. Set in a coal-mining town in France, it details the harshness of the work and everyday life.  People  live like animals, they sleep in shifts in crowded houses, they beg, they starve, they fornicate practically in public.  The main character is Etienne, the son of the alcoholics in Zola’s L’Assommoir (The Drinking Den). He arrives at loose ends and takes a job in the mines.  The focus is largely on Etienne and the Maheu family.  All of the Maheus, except the wife and youngest children, work in the mine, and the conditions  are horrendous.  Etienne preaches radical ideas and organizes a strike.  And the strike is a disaster, because the miners have no power.

Everybody dies.   Almost everybody.

I kept exclaiming out loud, “Poor horse!”  “Poor Catherine!”  Did I weep?  I think so.

I prefer Nana, The Ladies’ Paradise, and The Conquest of PassansGerminal is brilliant, but I can’t survive it every day.

Stanley Middleton’s Valley of Decision is melancholy but upbeat after  Germinal Middleton won the Booker Prize in 1974 for Holiday.  Set in the Midlands, Valley of Decision is a beautifully-written novel about musical careers and a marriage on the rocks.  David and his wife Mary are happy.  They have a lot in common:  David teaches music and is an amateur cellist; Mary is a former opera singer.  When she  is offered a gig in the U.S. singing opera on a two-months’ university tour, David and Mary agree she should do it.  It is an opportunity for Mary, though she doesn’t want a professional career.

While she is away, David begins to perform with a prestigious quartet.  It takes up time, and he loves it. Middleton’s descriptions of the rehearsals, conversations about music,  and the concerts are fascinating.  I’m not even musical.

Mary is a hit in Handel’s  Semele.  But suddenly she stops writing to David and won’t answer his phone calls. She is not in touch with her parents or David’s parents, either.  David  is worried.  He continues with his music, and that is a saving grace, but he becomes depressed.

Where is Mary?  we wonder.

A brilliant little novel, the kind of thing that might get overlooked now.  Personally I wish there were more short, pitch-perfect (no pun intended) novels like this.


4 thoughts on “Two Books for Fall: Zola’s “Germinal” and Stanley Middleton’s “Valley of Decision””

  1. I have been meaning to read Zola for awhile now. Based upon your commentary I probably will not read Germinal first. I do believe that very dark novels are necessary even if they are difficult. Sometimes the world can be a very dark place and I think that fiction needs to reflect that.

    Valley of Decision sounds so good. It is nice to find an overlooked gem.

    1. Zola is great! And his books do seem modern in a way that 19th-century English books don’t. And in recent years new translations of some of the less-read books have published, though you can read the 19th-century translations, which aren’t bad, as free ebooks!

  2. Germinal is not my favorite Zola, but it is painful and powerful. The suffering and reactions are over the top, as you say, but mostly believable. Zola went to the area and did research when writing the novel. Also, it was interesting that there was one, well-intentioned mine owner who explains the financial realities of the market and how he will fail if he raises wages. Everybody is being destroyed by the system.

    1. I do love Zola! All the details belong here, but it was almost too much for me, because there is no little hope. And I do agree that he showed both sides. There is a balance to showing the good and bad qualities of both the miners and the management. It’s so frustrating, though. I hope Etienne comes back in another book! I’ve read a lot of Zola, but can’t remember if we see him again. Out of the drinking den into Germinal!

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