The Debacle of Zola’s Vision of the Paris Commune

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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.

Caricature of Zola, suggesting he uses the most disgusting things to ‘cook up’ something.

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.

The wall at Pere Lachaise cemetary where at least 150 were shot in the last couple of days in May 1871 (an estimated total of 20,000 men, women and children died during the Bloody Week – or Fortnight – in May).

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.

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.