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Places of Cycling: the novel under the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix

Beneath the earth, beneath the cobbles, lies a labyrinth of still shafts.

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Paris-Roubaix is a grim celebration of two northern industries, one still thriving (agriculture), and one dead (coal mining). The relics of Arenberg, standing sentinel at the entrance to the darkly dangerous trench of Arenberg, may be the preeminent symbols of the region’s industrial past, but across the region, there are dozens of closed mines. Beneath the earth, beneath the cobbles, lies a labyrinth of still shafts. Just before the critical sectors of Wallers and Arenberg, the modern race passes through the town of Denain. It was here, in 1884, that celebrated French novelist Emile Zola came to research his book Germinal. The novel was part of Zola’s twenty-volume series Les Rougon – Macquart, which follows an extended French family through the middle of the nineteenth century, and is considered by many to be his masterpiece.

Emile Zola headshot illustration.
19th Century illustration of Emile Zola. (Illustration: Image: Cru/Getty Images.)

When Harper’s Magazine asked Tom Wolfe in 1989 to write about the relative relevance of fiction and non-fiction to modern American literature, the author of The Bonfire of the Vanities extolled Zola’s research work ethic: ‘Posing as a secretary for a member of the French Chamber of Deputies, he descended into the pits wearing his city clothes, his frock coat, high stiff collar, and high stiff hat (this appeals to me for reasons I won’t delay you with), and carrying a notebook and pen. One day Zola and the miners who were serving as his guides were 150 feet below the ground when Zola noticed an enormous workhorse, a Percheron, pulling a sled piled with coal through a tunnel. Zola asked, “How do you get that animal in and out of the mine every day?” At first, the miners thought he was joking. Then they realized he was serious, and one of them said, “Mr. Zola, don’t you understand? That horse comes down here once, when he’s a colt, barely more than a foal, and still able to fit into the buckets that bring us down here. That horse grows up down here. He grows blind down here after a year or two, from the lack of light. He hauls coal down here until he can’t haul it anymore, and then he dies down here, and his bones are buried down here.” When Zola transfers this revelation from the pages of his documentation notebook to the pages of Germinal, it makes the hair on your arms stand on end. You realize, without the need for amplification, that the horse is the miners themselves, who descend below the face of the earth as children and dig coal down in the pit until they can dig no more and then are buried, often literally, down there.’

Arenberg mines.
Arenberg mines. (Photo: Tim De Waele/Getty Images.)

Germinal tells the story of Etienne, an idealistic young man who moves to France’s bleak mining region to look for work. An older miner, Maheu, helps him find a job and takes Etienne under his wing. Over the following years, Etienne becomes enamored with socialistic politics and enamored too with Maheu’s beautiful daughter, Catherine. While Etienne and Catherine’s love unfurls, complicated by her relationship with another miner, Zola shows us the oppressive poverty and brutal working conditions he observed on his scrupulous research trips to Denain and neighboring Anzin. Etienne grows into his role as a representative of the workers, and when discontent tips over into a violent riot, he is at the center of the storm, with tragic consequences.

Zola compared his naturalist fiction to a scientific experiment. For him, fiction should be based upon meticulous documentation of observed phenomena – as demonstrated by the horse in Germinal. A century after he was working, Zola’s methods were admired by the proponents of New Journalism – Wolfe, Gay Talese, and Joan Didion. In the 1970s and 80s, the distinction between fiction and non-fiction blurred. At the time it must have seemed like innovation, but, as Wolfe knew, in literature there is nothing new.