Ended up enjoying Germinal enough that I want to read some more Zola. There's one that's based on his and Cezanne's time in Paris that seemed interesting.
Followed the Zola up with Mario Levrero's The Luminous Novel which was a strange and ultimately unsatisfying novel. Four fifths of it (~400 pages) is a journal of a writer who has gotten a Guggenheim grant to finish a novel he started many years before. It covers about a year of time (some months have more entries than others) during which he does no actual work on his novel, instead spending a lot of time on his computer, writing his journal, reading detective novels, dealing with various ailments (in particular depression), and interacting with a variety of women. Some of it felt familiar to me, like the way he gets sucked into playing computer games and time passes quickly, or how he starts coding little programs and the time passes. I totally understand that happening (I should follow up from last entry to say I still haven't turned the Playstation back on, 11 days later now). The novelist (who is clearly an author stand-in, the translator even mentions having met some of the "characters") on the whole though seems pretty annoying. A complaining old man who seems very wrapped up in his own world. The last 100 pages or so of the book contains the 5 or so chapters of the novel he was supposed to be working on. I kind of kept at the novel to get to that part, wondering how it would shed some light perhaps on the journal part, but instead it's basically the same character (a second level author stand-in) who starts getting into all these paranormal experiences he's had that just... bored the crap out of me. It didn't really... make me see the first section in a new light. Disappointing as a whole.
Neither of those were really the very long novels I've been endeavoring to read, but both were over 500 pages. Ended up picking up some really short novels to read before the next big one. "The Unknown Masterpiece" and "Gambara", two Balzac stories (packaged together by NYRB), that I mostly wanted to read because the former is what Rivette based La Belle Noiseuse on. You can see the kernel of the movie in the story, the aging painter trying to finish a work, the young woman, lover of another, who is kind of roped into modeling for him. Rivette's version ups the drama by having the aging painter's wife still alive and still with him, and of course has all those great artist in the studio scenes. Balzac's version makes the painter kind of crazy, making a painting that his two painter friends see as mostly garbage except for one amazing foot. "Gambara" was about a musician/composer who is also obsessive. I found it's ending a little unclear. Looking into reading more Balzac though.