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.
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.
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.
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.