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 Passans. Germinal 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.
AND NOW WHAT WILL I READ NEXT?