So I finally finished Zola’s The Debacle and, while it was a fascinating, at times gruesome depiction of the Franco-Prussian War, it lacked substance when it came to the presentation of the Paris Commune. While it’s not fair to criticise the book for something that it’s not, I had picked it up in the expectation it might give me some new insight into the Commune, however brief its treatment of it.
Sadly, it does not.
The reason for that is probably because Zola himself (and his contemporaries) were not entirely sure what to make of the Commune. It had been brutally vanquished by the government, after all. There was no attempt at reconciliation, forgiveness or negotiation. Thousands were killed, many more sent into exile in a penitentiary colony. Its most visible supporters (like the painter Courbet) were imprisoned and then had to flee France to avoid having to pay off horrendous debts to the state for the destruction of property.
Those months of self-governance were presented in the newspapers and popular culture of the time as destructive, indiscriminate, incoherent, rudderless. Now, Zola is not one to shy away from controversy (remember the Dreyfus Affair?), but he was clearly influenced by the flood of published literature in the 1870s condemning the whole movement. While similar, on the whole, to the critical stance of most of his liberal republican contemporaries (disenchanted with the Second Empire and the Franco-Prussian War and attributing the outbreak of the rebellion to the poor handling of that), Zola’s views on the uprising were slightly more compassionate than most, calling on the National Assembly to listen to the ‘legitimate grievances’ of the Commune. Following the suppression of the rebellion, however, Zola is conspicuously silent about the government-sanctioned blood-bath. Perhaps he felt that the French were a little too prone to be swept away by revolutionary fervour, without thinking about the consequences.
His ambivalence about the Commune has been noted by historians: he wrote some negative chronicles in the newspapers of the time, and there is one letter dated 22nd May, 1871, addressed to the newspaper La Semaphore in Marseille, in which he makes fun of the Communard desire to recognise all children born out of wedlock and to do away with titles of nobility:
The farce is now over and the clowns will be arrested. Rochefort is already in chains and surely the others will follow shortly. The cannon is booming, these are the last horrors and last remnants of the civil war.
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that in The Debacle, Maurice, the idealist who had been so keen to fight against the Prussians at the start of the novel, is the one who is indoctrinated with revolutionary ideals, while practical, down-to-earth Jean remains in the army. Of course, Jean is horrified by the disproportionate revenge he sees the army exacting upon the Communards and, in a fine piece of melodrama (spoilers ahead), he is the one who pierces Maurice with a bayonet before realising just whom he is killing. Maurice is ravaged by fever and keeps repeating that Paris is burning, that the only way to purify the city is by having it burn to the ground. But the purification does not come from the rebels themselves. What Maurice says in his delirium (but which probably reflects the author’s views) is:
This is the sane and reasonable part of France, the measured, sensible peasant part of France, which has stayed closer to the land, defeating the mad, exasperated side, spoilt by the Empire, irredeemably broken by dreams and pleasures. It had to be done: cutting into the very flesh… The bloodbath was necessary, the loss of French blood, this abominable holocaust, this living sacrifice, to be purified by fire.
This is repeated in the final chapter of the book, Zola’s belief that the birth of a new nation and an improved form of republic can come out of all that suffering. The novel ends on a tiny note of hope, with Jean and Henriette looking forward to the reconstruction of the city and, indeed, all of France ‘… like a tree bringing forth a new, powerful shoot, after cutting off the putrid branch whose poisoned sap had turned the leaves yellow.’
The Siege of Paris and the Commune are despatched hurriedly in a few short chapters (comprising only about the last 10% of the book) and is perhaps less interesting (and more ambivalent) than what we encounter on our journey there. The chapters following the fall of Sedan, when Jean and Maurice are made prisoners of war by the Prussians, are particularly grim. The appalling conditions in the prison camps, the dead bodies (of both men and horses) floating in the Meuse river, the desperate attempts to slaughter and eat horses are images that were almost unbearable to read and will stay with me forever. Not a trace of sugarcoating from Zola, pure condemnation of violence and war at its nastiest and messiest.
Almost at the opposite end of the spectrum, there are some lighter moments, almost comic relief with the self-centred and vain Gilberte, wife of the local merchant and Henriette’s friend. But this is a far cry from the comedy of manners or social critique that Zola incorporated in his other novels (and in his literary ideal of realism). This is almost photographic realism, forcing the reader to look at the terrible consequences of nationalism, pride, revenge and the futile hunt for glory.
I am glad that I read this novel, it is certainly unforgettable, but I do wish I had spent more time on the Vautrin book for a fuller (and more sympathetic) Commune experience.