Zola: ‘The Debacle’ Readalong (Part 1)

May was going to be dedicated to the Paris Commune this year. I have read a couple of history books about it (to be reviewed) and had arranged to read Zola’s massive volume ‘The Debacle’ at the same time as Emma from BookAroundtheCorner. However, although I am 60% of the way through the book, I have yet to reach any chapter that relates to the Commune. So far it is all about the ill-conceived and ill-fated Franco-Prussian War of 1870. I’m talking from the French perspective, of course, because for the Prussians it certainly marked their ascendancy on the world stage.

This is not to say that I am not fascinated by the story, which reads quite well as a standalone, even if you haven’t read previous novels in the Rougon-Macquart series. This long series of 20 novels was intended to be a family saga but also a chronicle of the Second Empire. Or rather, a portrayal of how historical and social events colour individual lives and affect families. The series itself was started in 1871, soon after the fall of the Second Empire, but this is the penultimate volume and wasn’t published until 1892, by which time the dust had settled after the defeat in the war, the fall of Napoleon III, the desperation of the siege of Paris and the failure of the Commune.

The Infantry Will Advance by Carl Rochling, said to depict the Battle of Sedan.

Jean Macquart had appeared in a previous Zola novel La Terre. He is now 39 years old, a resilient, practical farmer, who is still recovering from the loss of his wife and lands. He is now a corporal in the 7th division of the French army, on the Franco-German border at Mulhouse. He is initially derided as an illiterate ‘peasant’ by a soldier under his command, Maurice Levasseur, who is from a more middle-class family, descended from a Napoleonic war hero, qualified as a lawyer.

Maurice starts off as an idealist, who thinks war is not only inevitable, but entirely justified for France, and who underestimates the Prussian military machine, not heeding his brother-in-law’s warnings. Jean is an experienced soldier, who fought in previous wars, a veteran of the battle of Solferino against the Austrians. He is more sceptical about the causes and outcomes of this war, but even he is stunned by the incompetence of the French military leaders.

Over the course of the mismanaged campaign, retreating and advancing without any plan or explanation, trying to make sense of the conflicting orders and constantly changing chains of command, the two men start to respect and support each other. Zola paints a dire picture of the military march in the first part of the book: the lack of provisions and discipline, the mixed feelings of the civilian population in the villages the army are passing through, the profiteering, the gnawing hunger. In one particularly poignant scene close to the beginning of the book, the army is engaged in yet another pointless retreat on an empty stomach, their feet full of blisters in ill-fitting shoes, under the relentless August sun. The soldiers start throwing away their weapons and rucksacks. Maurice is about to follow suit, but Jean forces him to pick up his gun, provoking an outburst of anger and hatred. The worst thing is: nobody is punished after that act of insubordination. It’s almost as though the officers have given up already on this farcical campaign.

Sedan marked the start of a new kind of warfare: urban warfare, as show here in The Last Cartridges by Alphonse de Neuville.

The second part of the book deals with the decisive Battle of Sedan, where the Prussians managed to trick the French army into a kind of pincer grip around the town of Sedan on the Franco-Belgian border. The village of Bazeilles just outside Sedan, where Maurice’s sister and brother-in-law live, is retaken and abandoned no less than four times. Although the descriptions of war strategy and actual battle scenes have never been my favourite thing (I used to skim through them in War and Peace, for example), Zola does an excellent job of conveying the confusion and terrible waste of war, particularly when it leaves the battlefield and enters the villages, affecting the civilian population.

He personalises these scenes with fictional characters we can become attched to, like Maurice’s twin sister Henriette searching for her husband. But there are also very brief, distressing vignettes, which he must have absorbed from eyewitness accounts. For example, the mother who refuses to evacuate because her child is terribly ill and feverish. She is shot down on the street and the feeble cries of her child from within the house ‘Maman, maman, I’m thirsty!’ will haunt the soldiers who witnessed it. Readers who found War Horse upsetting may want to skip the part where Zephyr, the brave black horse belonging to the officer Prosper, is killed as the cavalry charges forward for the third time. Maurice and Jean conclude that being brave is simply not worth it.

A rare photograph of the period. After repeatedly trying (and failing) to die in battle, 2nd September was the day the Emperor surrendered and was deposed.

It’s an ambitious fresco of a book, the longest by far in the Rougon-Macquart saga, one where the panoramic view of history tends to overshadow the personal, but Zola does his best to weave in some individual stories. Very moving and very political. Can’t wait to see what happens when they reach Paris.

14 thoughts on “Zola: ‘The Debacle’ Readalong (Part 1)”

  1. One thing I really like about books like this, Marina Sofia, is that they bring larger events (like the war) down to the human level. I think that gives them an even greater impact. It sounds like an ambitious novel, too. I’m glad you’re enjoying it thus far.

  2. I remember it took me a little while to get into this one by Zola. He really builds up the details and shows how war turns from tedium to horror for both soldiers and civilians. The commune part seems a bit like an add-on to the novel really.

  3. Well, it sounds fascinating even if the Commune only comes in at the end. I wonder if there are other fiction books covering the Commune more fully? Still, I would really like to read this (and any Zola really….)

  4. I was really impressed by this one. (I’ve read the entire series).
    Just this week I went to hear Antony Beevor, the celebrity British military historian talking about his books, and I was reminded yet again of what Tolstoy said about war: no one ever really knows what’s going on. The strategists at HQ don’t know what’s happening on the battlefield, and the soldiers on the battlefield don’t have the big picture, they only know what’s happening where they are.
    So, as Margot says, books like The Debacle, written calmly in the wake of past events, have a role to play in humanising great events. They are a reminder in yet another century, when we still have not learned to avoid war, that there are real people, both military and civilian, suffering, often in a cause that is ill-fated anyway.

  5. I can’t say I’m hugely interested in the book despite your (as usual) fine presentation. However I am quite impressed by the photograph (including that fine house in the middle distance, though that’s a frivolous comment to make for a war document).

    1. Frivolity is my middle name when it comes to historical photographs… The book is looooong, but it captures some really moving moments which make it worthwhile, without descending into sentimentality like Hugo.

  6. Enjoyed this review and the photos. I don’t think I’ll be reading this as I try to avoid war as we have experienced too much of it in real time, although far from the countries under siege. I am interested in reading what Zola and you have to say about the Commune.

    1. It makes for pretty grim reading. I suppose war was more immediate and visceral in those days, rather than the on-screen bombing we do nowadays. (I use ‘we’ very loosely there).

  7. I never say “we” as I made no decisions to bomb or invade any country. I vote “no,” as do all of my friends. I say “Washington” or whatever. After the Vietnam war which was shown on TV and news media in print, there was a decision made not to televise any war moves or impact. So the world can’t see what is really going on anywhere, just little snippets of controlled news.

  8. You do the book a better justice than me. I was too bored to even bother writing so many details about the characters.

Do share your thoughts!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.