Wednesday 14 January 2009

Germinal by Émile Zola

When I was at Waterstone’s Gower Street in December for an event with Tibor Fischer, I had an interesting conversation with Nicholas Crane, author of Great British Journeys. He asked me what my favourite book was, and my immediate reply was Germinal by Émile Zola.

I translated Germinal in 1996 for Frassinelli Editore (now part of Mondadori), having previously translated a collection of his short-stories for a small independent publisher. I was delighted when I was commissioned this translation, because Zola has always been one of my favourite writers since my university years in Rome, and Germinal one of the “important” books I still had not had the chance to read. So when I replaced the receiver I said to myself: “How lucky… at least an author I like.”

That same day I started reading the book, and was totally hooked from page one. The opening, with Étienne Lantier walking across the dark fields and the night-time description of the mine – the Voreux – is breathtaking.

What I liked about Germinal is the way Zola manages to conjure up an entire world in a coherent and realistic way, developing at the same time universal themes of love, death, solitude, betrayal and rebellion. Nobody is a winner in his world – neither the rich nor the poor – with the mine constantly devouring humans like a fiendish beast.

A real masterpiece and a very modern novel – a book I would recommend to anybody.


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