I’ve read conflicting information on Balzac’s attitude to Napoleon and the monarchy. André Maurois states that as a “child of Austerlitz,” Balzac “never lost that early ardour.” There seems little point in arguing on the subject of whether Balzac was a monarchist or a Republican as Balzac is a complicated man, and I expect his opinions and views to be equally complex and difficult to pigeon-hole. But as I read La Comédie Humaine, I occasionally hone in on criticism of Napoleon–at least that’s how I take it. The story Adieu is one of the stories in which Napoleon’s military choices comes under scrutiny. Not direct scrutiny and not direct analysis, but it’s impossible to read the story and the disaster that takes place at the Berezina River in Belarus without coming to the conclusion that Napoleon rode France to disaster.
In La Comédie Humaine, Balzac’s aim was to recreate a panoramic view of France and French society, and perhaps he selected events that seemed to him emblematic of the age. The Battle of Berezina in 1812 cost around 45,000 lives (about half military and half civilian, yes there were that many along for the ride). Come to think of it, Napoleon and Hitler had the same game plan–conquer Russia, and both of those plans were gutted at a heavy cost. I found it impossible to read Adieu without coming to the conclusion that ego maniacs rule with a heavy price, and even though Napoleon doesn’t appear in these pages, the criticism is apparent nonetheless.
In September 1812, Napoleon’s Grand Armée made it to Moscow only to find the city abandoned and in flames, and all this just in time for the Russian winter. Russian weather, as always, betrayed its would-be conquerors. Then began the Great Retreat. By November, the army was on the banks of the Berezina River. Napoleon, who’d planned to flee Russia into Poland across the frozen Berezina River, found that it had thawed. His hide was saved only by General Jean Baptiste Elbé and a host of engineers who built a bridge across the Berezina.
Adieu is a love story but the history of that love story is grounded in the Battle of Berezina. The battle, however, is in the not-so-distant past. It’s 1819, and the story begins with two men in the forest of Ile-Adam. The two men are friends: Colonel Philippe de Sucy, and d’Albon. Philippe is thirty and d’Albon is 42, but the face of the younger man shows signs of hardship:
One was tall, gallant, high-strung, and the lines of his pallid face showed terrible passions or frightful griefs. The other had a face that was brilliant with health, and jovially worth of an epicurean. Both were deeply sun-burned, and their high gaiters of tanned leather showed signs of the bogs and the thickets they had just come through.
Hungry and far from home, they stumble onto a dwelling in the woods–a desolate and neglected structure which appears to once have been a priory:
The house stood on the slope of the mountain, at the summit of which is the village of Nerville. The great centennial oaks of the forest which encircled the dwelling made the place an absolute solitude. The main building, formerly occupied by the monks, faced south. The park seemed to have about forty acres. Near the house lay a succession of green meadows, charmingly crossed by several clear rivulets, with here and there a piece of water naturally placed without the least apparent artifice. Trees of elegant shape and varied foliage were distributed about. Grottos, cleverly managed, and massive terraces with dilapidated steps and rusty railings, gave a peculiar character to this lone retreat. Art had harmonized her constructions with the picturesque effects of nature. Human passions seemed to die at the feet of those great trees, which guarded this asylum from the tumult of the world as they shaded it from the fires of the sun.
“How desolate!” thought Monsieur d’Albon, observing the sombre expression which the ancient building gave to the landscape, gloomy as though a curse were on it. It seemed a fatal spot deserted by man. Ivy had stretched its tortuous muscles, covered by its rich green mantle, everywhere. Brown or green, red or yellow mosses and lichen spread their romantic tints on trees and seats and roofs and stones. The crumbling window-casings were hollowed by rain, defaced by time; the balconies were broken, the terraces demolished. Some of the outside shutters hung from a single hinge. The rotten doors seemed quite unable to resist an assailant. Covered with shining tufts of mistletoe, the branches of the neglected fruit-trees gave no sign of fruit. Grass grew in the paths. Such ruin and desolation cast a weird poesy on the scene, filling the souls of the spectators with dreamy thoughts.
The Marquis likens this neglected dwelling to “the palace of the Sleeping Beauty,” and if you want to discover the secret of the house, then you’ll have to read this story yourself. It’s free on project Gutenberg and it’s free on Amazon for the kindle. I will hint that fate has brought the tragic past back to the Marquis once again.
While Adieu is part love story, it’s also part French history, and for this reader, by far the most passionate scenes of the book occur along the Berezina River. It’s November 28, 1812. Napoleon has crossed the river on one of the two bridges constructed, but what of his vast army?
The stragglers who flocked in masses to the banks of the Beresina found there, unhappily, an immense number of carriages, caissons, and articles of all kinds which the army had been forced to abandon when effecting its passage of the river on the 27th and the 28th of November. Heirs to such unlooked-for riches, the unfortunate men, stupid with cold, took up their abode in the deserted bivouacs, broke up the material which they found there to build themselves cabins, made fuel of everything that came to hand, cut up the frozen carcasses of the horses for food, tore the cloth and the curtains from the carriages for coverlets, and went to sleep, instead of continuing their way and crossing quietly during the night that cruel Beresina, which an incredible fatality had already made so destructive to the army.
A moving description continues of the ad-hoc shelters built from the abandoned wealth of those who had been able to flee. Balzac describes the metal state of these exhausted, freezing and starving soldiers who stopped, fought for a place near the fire, struggled for a bit of roasted horse flesh and then collapsed to sleep. The prospect of a moment’s respite outweighed the fear of the approaching Russian army.
At one point a live horse is slaughtered in front of its owner–even though he pleads with the men to take the dead, frozen horses instead. But the frozen carcasses will take more energy to carve up, and the live horse is killed.
Immumerable fires, which, amid that trackless waste of snow, burned pale and scarcely sent out any gleams, illumined here and there by sudden flashes forms and faces that were barely human. Thirty thousand poor wretches, belonging to all nations, from whom Napoleon had recruited his Russian army, were trifling away their lives with brutish indifference.
The Crossing of the Berezina by Peter von Hess:
Reading the passages of the Battle of Berezina, brought back memories of Zola’s Debacle. Horses in battle seem to end up as meat for the starving troops. And here, finally is an excerpt from Napoleon’s memoirs regarding his return to France. The memoirs written by Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourriene are in some dispute:
I must go back to Paris; my presence there is indispensable to reanimate public opinion. I must have men and money. Great successes and great victories will repair all. I must set off.”
Translated by Katharine Prescott Wormeley and produced by John Bickers and Dagny