Emile Zola, “La Debacle/The Downfall”

Another long silence, but I’ve been helping Emile Zola fight the Franco-Prussian war, and it’s taken a long time. Didn’t turn out too well, either: after all, Zola called his book La Débâcle for a reason. Just to get you up to speed: in July of 1870, Prussia more or less manoeuvered France into declaring war. The French, banking on a tradition of military triumph, marched eastward in confidence, carrying only maps of Germany because it was assumed they would invade the neighboring country. But the Prussian army was better organized, better provisioned, and better commanded. Defeat followed defeat, and on September 4,  a large segment of the French army surrendered after a crushing battle in a village called Sedan. Nearly 90,000 men — including the Emperor of France — were taken prisoner. The Prussians swept west to surround Paris, besieging it for more than four months. In the political instability that followed its surrender (you still with me?) the city itself seceded from France and was governed briefly by the Commune. Civil war ensued, with street-to-street fighting and the torching of many familiar monuments. You’ve heard the phrase, “Paris is burning?” In May of 1871, it really was.

Meissonier's "Allegory of the Siege of Paris"

You think that’s a lot of explanation? I’ve just saved you 582 pages. But when Zola wrote La Débâcle in 1892, this was recent history, fresh in everyone’s mind. His goal in reiterating the horrors was to demonstrate how France had been humbled, and why.

There’s way too much here to sort through so I’m taking the lazy way out with bullet points. Truth to tell, I’m still somewhat stunned. As I’ve said elsewhere, Zola’s not a subtle writer and when you get him on, say inadequate wound care, he’s relentless. This is hardly an enjoyable book but it packs a punch.

–Unlike La Curée, this is a polemic rather than a novel. Sure, there are characters and it’s through them that that we perceive what Zola’s so het up about (corruption, laziness, disorganization, mistrust, neurosis, selfishness, cowardice, etc.) But the characters are pretty schematic. Types rather than individuals.

–The research is prodigious. Zola began as a newspaperman, and he reported the heck out of this book. My copy had some scholarly apparatus that tracked our intrepid author’s sources and they were very impressive.

–Back in 1870, when you wanted to make a case — or beat an audience over the head, perhaps? — the way to do it was with a big, heavy piece of fiction. No longer true. I don’t know much about Zola’s role in the Dreyfus affair but I wonder if his famous “J’accuse” letter  of 1898 isn’t a precursor of modern journalistic rhetoric. Which would have Zola using both old and new tools within his career.

–Seems to me there are two fictional things to do with a battle. One is Stendhal’s Chartreuse de Parme technique in which your protagonist gets mighty confused about all the noise and people running around, and loses track of Waterloo. The other is Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels method, where you provide maps and let the reader follow the action hour by hour. Zola switches back and forth between them.

–One forgets how much the basics matter in wartime, both before and after the battle. The French fought hungry and tired — we’re talking days of fasting because of disorganized supply lines, and sleepless nights because of wet tents and dawn marches. What’s more, once the gunfire stops, the problems really begin, not only for the soldiers but also for the civilian population.

–This book is too long. There’s a lot of repetition and the pacing is slow. But the length forces the reader to feel a tiny bit of the tedium and, imaginatively, a measure of the discomfort, dislocation, terror, pain, humiliation and grief endured by the soldiers and victims of the Franco-Prussian war. And by that measure, it’s a success.

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
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9 Responses to Emile Zola, “La Debacle/The Downfall”

  1. You probably really did save me 582 pages, although the subject matter is so inherently interesting that I will someday find myself tempted again.

  2. Cricket says:

    Lost me.

    • carolwallace says:

      Yeah, that’s OK. This was real heavy lifting & I am a little obsessed with it. Want a special tour of battle sites some day?

  3. Lisa says:

    I’ve just been reading the letters between Queen Victoria and the Crown Princess of Prussia – so seeing the war from the other side (and not liking the view much).

    • carolwallace says:

      Yes, Lisa, I was very much aware of poor Vicky in the background as I read; Fritz (didn’t they call him that?) commanded one of the Prussian armies. Very competently, btw. I’ve always found those two — Prince & Princess Frederick — a hardworking, sympathetic pair.

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