Debacle by Zola

Debacle is the 19th novel in Zola’s 20 volume Rougon-Macquart series. The novels are a history of France’s Second Empire told through two branches of a family and set against the  backdrop of historical events. The Rougons are the wealthier, legitimate and supposedly the more respectable branch of the family. That leaves the Macquarts as the more disreputable bunch. The Rougons are the power brokers & the wealth seekers while the Macquarts are in much humbler positions in life. The family is plagued with alcoholism and madness–although the madness can take various forms, and in some cases is even masked by religious fanaticism.

Debacle takes place in 1870-71, and the novel concerns the collapse of France’s Second Empire (1852-1870). In 1870, France declared war on Prussia, and by the summer of 1870 the French army suffered a succession of defeats at the hands of the Prussians culminating with the catastrophic Battle of Sedan. While the Emperor Napoleon III was captured and subsequently went into exile, France’s provisional government continued to fight to hold Paris for the next five months. This led to the Siege of Paris and the Paris Commune.

 Debacle which follows Money was published in 1892 and initially appeared in serial form. To place Jean, the main character of Debacle in the Rougon-Macquart family tree, he is the brother of Gervaise (L’Assommoir) and Lisa (The Belly of Paris). Jean also appeared in The Earth, and in that book, he married a peasant girl and worked as a farmer. At the end of The Earth, he’s lost his wife and decides to return to the army life. Can’t say I blame him as Zola’s book hardly presents a bucolic view of the vicious farming community.

I’ve been slowly reading my way through this series since 2007. Debacle was a novel which I dreaded reading as I knew it focused on the Franco-Prussian war, and I expected the novel to be dour heavy going. To my surprise, I enjoyed the novel far more than I expected to. Yes, there are horrible scenes of bloody mangled men and starving horses, and there are times that Zola seems to dwell on the minutia with an almost sadistic delight, but nonetheless, this really is a marvellous book, one of the best in the series, thanks to its incredibly strong characterizations. This is the Franco-Prussian war complete with details of battles, fuck-ups, routs and slaughter, but Zola never loses sight of his characters or their humanity.

The novel (I have the Penguin Classics edition translated by Leonard Tancock) is more or less spilt into three sections. The excellent introduction (also by Tancock) explains that Act I–the Trap (as he calls it) is the build-up to the war. Act II-The Disaster concerns the Battle of Sedan, and Act III-The Aftermath covers 3 Sept 1870 until May 1871. My copy even has a map of the countryside surrounding Sedan and a map of central Paris.

The novel’s first section builds with incredible, gruesome tension as Jean, a Corporal in the 7th army corps accompanies the soon-to-be defeated army to its doom. The soldiers are basically a disconnected lot–not happy to be there and not exactly brimming with patriotism. From the start, everything is a total muddle. The army is ordered one place then another. Divisions don’t arrive as expected while others go missing. There are rumours that the enemy is defeated or conversely that the Prussians have crushed the French army. Meanwhile the men are marched in the rain on empty stomachs and then marched back over the same territory a couple of days later. This is a logistics nightmare: fodder for horses is sent where there are no horses, weapons and ammunition are separated. Basically the army is starved and worn down until at its lowest point, it is driven into a trap where the slaughter takes place. Perhaps the most telling screw-up of all is that the French army officers do not have maps of France; they never anticipated they’d need them.

In one very early scene, Jean listens to a civilian named Weiss express uneasiness about a quick French victory against the Prussians. Weiss sees Prussia as a formidable enemy compared to the French Empire which he describes as “rotten” and “weakened.” The rational points Weiss raises are ignored or diminished by his audience but send an ominous chill of warning through the reader.

Debacle follows the fates of Jean & his fellow soldier Maurice as they march to and then are trapped in Sedan. It’s fascinating to see the civilians morph from cheering the troops on to realising that the battle isn’t going to take place in some far off land but may very well take place outside their front door. Some of the civilians join in the battle (and enter the story); others take enormous risks to smuggle a crust of bread to the captured French prisoners while the opportunitistic, declaring this is their contribution to the war effort, sell rotten food at inflated prices to the victorious Prussians.

War seems to naturally bring out the best and the worst in people, and in this novel Zola creates the spectrum of human behaviour.  Human nature at its best is compassionate and at its worst it’s self-serving. In Jean’s case, he strikes up a relationship with Maurice and tenderly watches out for the younger man, sharing his starvation rations and nursing him through illness. On the flip side, soldiers are prepared to murder each other for a crust of bread and in one particularly revolting scene, they slaughter a starving horse, eating chunks of grey meat until they collapse with stomach pains. Zola shows human nature in its duality–he’s unsparing in his depiction of callous brutality.

The third and final section of the book concerns the Paris Commune. Tancock states that Zola wasn’t much of a fan of the Commune. He makes the point that Zola, who was a journalist at the time and was therefore, an eyewitness to events in Paris ‘disapproved’ of the Commune as he “saw it as a degrading exhibition of human bestiality, with unspeakable atrocities committed by both sides, but his protest is against violence, cruelty, and destruction in whatever form and from whatever side.”  The air of mutiny, apparent in the novel’s very first pages, spills over to the aftermath of the war, so by the time we get to the novel’s third section, it’s easy to understand the rage of the Communards and their desire to initiate radical change. Jean and Maurice’s relationship assumes a symbolic meaning by the novel’s conclusion–a severing of the two sides of France–with the revolutionary elements, at least for now, squashed and discarded.

One of the egregious outrages in the story has to be in the huge difference between the  type of war fought by the foot soldier vs. the experience of the officers. From the very beginning some of the soldiers think they’ve been “sold-out.” They are premature in that declaration but yes they are sold out later on. In yet another instance of the discrepancy between the classes, the defeated French officers are freed by the Prussians while the French soldiers, the plebs, are imprisoned, kept under the most appalling circumstances and hauled out of France to an uncertain fate. On the other hand, here’s the Emperor (he appears as a self-defeated, largely confused hen-pecked husband) who travels to ‘war’ in style :

“And the wretched Emperor, this poor man who no longer had a job in his own empire, was to be carried round like some useless clutter in the baggage of his troops, condemned to drag after him the irony of his imperial establishment, his lifeguards, coaches, horses, cooks, vanloads of silver utensils and champagne, all the pomp of his robe of state, embroidered with imperial bees, trailing the roads of defeat in the blood and mire.”

 Zola still manages to find sympathy (he’s more generous than I am) for the spineless architect of this catastrophe. On the other hand, Zola creates Chouteau, a rather unpleasant character, who according to Zola is “a typical agitator,” a lazy trouble-maker who urges his fellow soldiers to desert the ranks. And yet even while Zola portrays Chouteau unappealingly, nonetheless Chouteau is also right, the soldiers will be herded to their doom and any who survive will be abandoned.

In Money, Zola brought the vast financial machinery of Paris to life. The Earth was an amazing tale of a close-knit, violent and hypocritical farming community, and now in Debacle, it’s war–the mounds of bodies sweltering & bloating in the sun while thousands of starving horses charge at night desperately looking for food:

“Over the top of a near-by slope some hundred  horses, riderless, some still carrying a full pack, were bearing down on them at breakneck speed. These were the stray animals left on the field of battle, who had instinctively gathered in a herd. They had had no hay or oats for two days, and had eaten the scanty grass, cropped hedges and even gnawed the bark of trees. whenever hunger caught them in the belly like a prick of the spurs, they all set off together in a mad stampede, charging straight through the empty, silent country, trampling on the dead and finishing off the wounded.”

And then again:

“As Maurice had foreseen, the thousands of horses interned with the army and which had not been fed were a menace that increased in seriousness each day. They had begun by eating the bark of trees, then they attacked trellises and fences, any sort of planks they could find, and now they were devouring each other. They could be seen hurling themselves on each other to tear the hair from their tails, which they chewed madly, foaming at the mouth, But it was above all at night that they became terrible, as though darkness brought them nightmares. They would gather together and charge at the few tents standing, looking for straw. It was useless for the men to light big fires to keep them off; the fires seemed to excite them still more. Their whinnyings were so pitiful and unnerving that they seemed like the roaring of wild beasts. If you drove them away they came back fiercer and more numerous than ever. And every minute during the hours of darkness you could hear a long cry of agony from some stray soldier trampled to death in this mad stampede.”

If Eugene Rougon is the greatest of the Rougons, then Jean is the best of the Macquarts. And this leaves me with just one more book left in the series…



Filed under Rougon-Macquart, Zola

20 responses to “Debacle by Zola

  1. I haven’t read this one and I should, for the historical background. I know nothing of this war and I’m interested as I come from that part of France which became German because of this debacle.

    For some mysterious reason, the history program of the common French student jumps from Waterloo to WWI. What happened in between seems unimportant whereas it had tremendous impacts on the 20th century.

    Anyway, I’m impressed you’ve almost read all the Rougon-Macquart. When you turn the last page of the last volume, I guess you’ll have the feeling to say good-bye to a sort of friend.

  2. Thanks BATC. I started the series back in 2007. I’d read a couple of the titles before that without realising that they were part of something bigger. Since then several new translations have appeared and the wikipedia pages have grown.

    And yes you are right–when I turn the last page there will be conflicting feelings of happiness for a goal completed and also some sadness mingled in there too.

    I will plan another big reading goal–I’m playing with several possibilities.

    Have you read La Curée?

  3. I’ve read quite a few Balzac novels, so I’m thinking of just applying myself towards the entire lot. Then there’s Thomas Hardy’s works (he’s another great favourite of mine). Trollope is also under consideration. And then yesterday, I added Casanova’s memoirs to the list.

    I’m leaning towards Balzac at this point. I always ask myself the question: who is my favourite Balzac or Zola? Sometimes I think I may even have an answer.

  4. What can I say? I haven’t read Zola. In fact, I am woeful when it comes to the French. I have read pretty much all of Camus but other that that I’ve read very little. One Dumas, no Balzac, Hugo, Flaubert etc. Hopeless!

  5. Gummie: we can’t read everything, and we can’t even read everything that catches our interest. Perhaps one of these years you’ll catch the bug and there will be no stopping you.

  6. I too was impressed by the near apocalyptic imagery of the rampaging horses. Must say, I’m surprised you didn’t mention the scene where the woman watches her trussed-up husband bleed to death like a slaughtered pig. The material in the book about spies, collaborators, and the like in the border regions of France made me think of Marcel Ophul’s The Sorrow and the Pity.

  7. BTW, Casanova’s memoirs, I read them off and on almost at random, are absolutely marevellously entertaining.

  8. I thought I’d rambled on enough (re: leaving out the murder scene).

  9. Your review is very thorough as always and gives me a very useful overview of the book. When I read of the gruesome descriptions of wartime, I was reminded of Goya’s paintings – who although he lived rather earlier than Zola saw no problem with artistic depictions of the horrors of war – see for example. The only problem with this sort of book for me, is that I tend to get rather bogged down with 19th century European history which I find very confusing because the nations of the time have either ceased to exist or have been redefined. Happy we island folk who have a fairly straight-line through our history

  10. That’s not exactly a painting I’d want hanging on my wall.

    Debacle wasn’t confusing re: nations as it stays concentrated on the characters and the map helps a great deal. Early in the novel there’s a mention of the men marching to Verdun. I found myself saying ‘bloody hell, not again.’ And then readjusted my thought–this was 1870 so another 40 plus years to another debacle.

  11. I found myself saying ‘bloody hell, not again.

    One motivation for the hapless involvement of France in WWI was the 40 years of agitation for La revanche!, revenge. I forget, did they get back Alsace?

  12. Guy, I’m going to answer to Lichanos.

    Yes, we did get back Alsace and the part of Lorraine called Moselle which were German from 1870 to 1918 and then again during WWII. I come from there. We still have marks from these years of being part of Germany, in our food, our language, our laws. For example, we have two additional public holidays that date back to that period and that the rest of France don’t have.

    Verdun is not in Alsace/Moselle but it’s not far.
    It’s very moving to visit the premices of the fights of WWI. The landside has unnatural hills which come from the bombings. Despite the trees and grass covering them, you can still guess the holes and imagine the fights and the suffering of these poor soldiers. (from both sides)

  13. Thanks for answering BATC. You know more about it than I do. One web source said it was about 40 miles from Verdun to Sedan. Is that correct?

  14. I learned French in high school from a little old wrinkled lady, Madame Schmidt, from Alsace.

  15. Hi Guy. There are 80km from Verdun to Sedan so roughly 55 miles, if I get the math right.

    Bonjour Lichanos : Schmidt is a very common name in Alsace-Moselle. Just as Meyer, Muller, Weber and so on.

  16. Guy: My belated thanks for this review (and for your Zola project). I was reading a new Canadian novel, A Man in Uniform by Kate Taylor (and I won’t be recommending it), centred around the Dreyfus affair with many references back to the debacle, a period of history that I don’t know much about. I was not up to actually learning about it — your review of this book (which I must admit I found intrigued me) served those short term needs.

    I might contemplate a Zola project — how long are each of the volumes?

  17. They range in length and quality. Some around 200 pages and some over 500. The more ‘popular’ titles are available in several translations while the others are still only available in the Vizetelly translations.

    The books were not written following chronological order so some people recommend jumping around in order to get a chronological approach. I read them (well 19 of them) as Zola wrote them. Started in 2007, and I’ll finish up this year.

    There’s a really good film about the Dreyfus affair called Prisoner of Honor. It’s told from the point of view of Colonel Picquart (played by Richard Dreyfuss. It’s reviewed over at my film blog if you are interested.

  18. It does sound very good.

    Just one to go! How marvellous. I rather envy you this project. I’m planning to get to my second Proust shortly, but my own projects for this year overall are progressing very slowly it’s fair to say.

    On another note, I second the recommendation for Casanova’s memoirs. Simply brilliant.

  19. I have paper copies of the memoirs as well as Kindle versions.

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