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For an hour he went on thus, when on the left, two kilometres from Montsou, he saw red flames, three fires burning in the open air and apparently suspended. Then he could not resist the painful need to warm his hands for a moment.
No tree could be seen against the sky, and the road unrolled as straight as a pier in the midst of the blinding spray of darkness.The workman employed at the tipping-cradle, a red-haired lean fellow, did not hurry himself; he pressed on the lever with a sleepy hand. The man, who felt that he was being looked at suspiciously, at once told his name. He had nothing, not a penny, not even a crust; what should he do, wandering along the roads without aim, not knowing where to shelter himself from the wind?And above, the wind grew stronger — an icy north wind — and its great, regular breaths passed by like the strokes of a scythe. Yes, it was certainly a pit; the occasional lanterns lighted up the square; a door, suddenly opened, had enabled him to catch sight of the furnaces in a clear light.The man saw on his right a paling, a wall of coarse planks shutting in a line of rails, while a grassy slope rose on the left surmounted by confused gables, a vision of a village with low uniform roofs. Suddenly, at a bend in the road, the fires reappeared close to him, though he could not understand how they burnt so high in the dead sky, like smoky moons. The labourers in the cutting must have been working late; they were still throwing out the useless rubbish. ” The old man this time could not reply: he was strangled by a violent cough. But the six trams were empty, and he followed them without cracking his whip, his legs stiffened by rheumatism; while the great yellow horse went on of itself, pulling heavily between the rails beneath a new gust which bristled its coat. Étienne, who forgot himself before the stove, warming his poor bleeding hands, looked round and could see each part of the pit: the shed tarred with siftings, the pit-frame, the vast chamber of the winding machine, the square turret of the exhaustion pump.But on the level soil another sight had struck him. Now he heard the landers push the wagons on the stages. At last he expectorated, and his expectoration left a black patch on the purple soil. This pit, piled up in the bottom of a hollow, with its squat brick buildings, raising its chimney like a threatening horn, seemed to him to have the evil air of a gluttonous beast crouching there to devour the earth.That joint task has remained an abidingly pleasant memory.
It is, moreover, a satisfaction to me to know that I have been responsible, however inadequately, for the only complete English version of this wonderful book, ‘a great fresco,’ as Zola himself called it, a great prose epic, as it has seemed to some, worthy to compare with the great verse epics of old. OVER the open plain, beneath a starless sky as dark and thick as ink, a man walked alone along the highway from Marchiennes to Montsou, a straight paved road ten kilometres in length, intersecting the beetroot-fields.
Even at that time, however, there were critics who inclined to view more favourably.
Thus Faguet, who was the recognized academic critic of the end of the last century, while he held that posterity would be unable to understand how Zola could ever have been popular, yet recognized him as in the heroic representative of democracy, incomparable in his power of describing crowds, and he realized how marvellous is the conclusion of this book.
The book was produced when Zola had at length achieved the full mastery of his art and before his hand had, as in his latest novels, begun to lose its firm grasp.
The subject lent itself, moreover, to his special aptitude for presenting in vivid outline great human groups, and to his special sympathy with the collective emotions and social aspirations of such groups.
In his own time, as we know, the accredited critics of the day could find no condemnation severe enough for Zola.