“His little treat, when he was nice and clean…was to leave his chest bare for a while. His pale skin, as white as that of an anaemic girl, was covered in tattoo marks scraped and scored by the coal, “cuttings,” as the miners call them; and he displayed them proudly, flexing his strong arms and broad chest, which gleamed like blue-veined marble. In summer, all the miners sat out on their doorsteps like this. Despite the day’s wet weather, he even went outside for a moment, to exchange ribald remarks with another bare-chested neighbor, on the other side of the gardens. Other men came out too. And the children, who had been playing on the pavements, looked up, and laughed with pleasure at the sight of all this tired flesh released from work and at last allowed to breathe in some fresh air.”
I’ve been reading Germinal by Emile Zola. I’ve never read anything by him before, and I’m so happy to have discovered him. It’s like Dickens with more sweat and pee and nakedness. Germinal is the tale of French miners in the late 19th century. They work more than five hundred meters below the earth, in cramped, dangerous, miserably hot, miserably cold, horribly dark and dangerously coal-dusty conditions for less than a living wage. They live crowded together into a cramped two-room house where they have no privacy and little peace. Their cupboards are literally bare, and their breakfast is hot water poured over yesterday’s coffee grounds. They’re all tired and anaemic and tubercular. And yet they’re very much alive, and full of humor and affection and desire. The story of their day-to-day life, the work the men and children do in the mines, the work the women do in their homes, is told in detail so rich and gripping you’ll find yourself hanging on every word, waiting impatiently to see what happens next. All of the characters are described with such warmth and generosity that I feel I’d like to know them, though I’d have trouble justifying the comfort in which I live, in which I expect to live.When La Maheuse finally manages to beg and plead for some supplies, she makes a soup of potatoes, leeks and sorrel. We just got some leeks and potatoes from the farm! So, of course, I had to try to make a French coal miner’s stew. I added herbs and butterbeans and wine and red peppers tomatoes. I don’t have sorrel, so I used lemon juice to attain that lemony flavor. I thought it turned out very tasty! I made a big round loaf of bread to go with it, but you could always just buy a baguette.
Here’s Driver 8 by REM, because the passage I quoted above reminds me of the line, “The children look up all they see are sky blue bells ringing.”