Monday, January 18, 2016

Émile Zola: La Débâcle (1892)

Battle of Sedan, 1st September 1870
[Image source:]

Here the omniscient narrator shades into being a historian, and is then not omniscient, because he hasn't invented what he tells us about. However, we rarely dissent from him; he does not choose to put the principal political or military decision-makers on stage and does not claim an understanding of the motives of Macmahon or Thiers, only reports what was said about them. The battle of Sedan is seen from the perspective of troops and civilians who are generally bewildered by the apparent decisions of their leaders. On the other hand the brutal realities of war on the ground are exposed as perhaps in no previous novel. Since no individual can see much of the whole canvas there is quite a lot of the narrator, and even in the character's accounts and conversations he is often secretly present, this is certainly not naturalism in the sense of people only talking about what they could have seen in their own words. Consider e.g. Silvine's second-hand account of the Prussians passing through Beaumont. The characters are devices, sometimes viewpoints, sometimes broadly symbolic, coincidental meetings abound, and these fairly overt manoeuvres need not cause unease since all that really matters is that figures are ready to hand in order to build the terrifying pictures by which the book proceeds, the shambles of a hospital in Sedan, the starvation on the Iges peninsula, the boat-trip through a burning Paris. Ultimately what drives the narrative is not the characters but our desire to be shown exactly what happened, shown this admittedly in a Zola manner, but the emotive colouring does not seem exaggerated in view of the enormity of the events. A more subtle artistry does not seem required here, Zola had anyway sufficiently proved himself at that, and he is quite fluidly willing to employ devices of popular fiction to advance his story.

A little fall of plaster made him look up. It was a bullet that had chipped a bit off his house, one side of which he could see over the party wall. This annoyed him very much, and he fumed:    'Are those bastards going to demolish it for me?' Then he was startled by another little thud behind him. He looked round and saw a soldier, who had been shot through the heart, falling on his back. The legs made a few convulsive movements, the face stayed young and calm, suddenly still. This was the first man killed, and Weiss was particularly upset by the crash of his rifle as it fell on the cobbles of the yard.

The experience of the real beginning of the battle of Sedan is fascinating to Zola. Having built up to it so slowly all through Part 1, he replays the beginning three times in the first three chapters of Part 2. First we have Weiss and Delaherche at Bazeilles, as above. Then we have Jean Macquart's company on the plateau of Floing. Then in the third chapter we go right back to the middle of the night with Henriette inside the town of Sedan, and move forward again. There is a desperate poignancy in this last flashback, knowing as we already do what is so soon to come; Conrad learnt from this technique. The three sequences can all be synchronized with each other through the sudden outburst of sustained gunfire that takes place at exactly four in the morning.

The curious matter-of-factness with which, for each observer, the sundry events of existence, however uncomfortable or foreboding, suddenly transform into the full-on horror of a battle: that's what Zola is after. The misery and exhaustion of the campaign up to that point has been emphasized to the full, but only to point up that this, after all, is as nothing compared to the brutal frenzy of killing that is to follow. Brief, paradoxical lapses still interrupt the widening conflict. It is still strangely local. Delaherche, at serious risk of being killed on the way from Bazeilles, suddenly "made up his mind and ran all the way to Balan, whence he regained Sedan at last without too much trouble." Suddenly the fighting in Bazeilles seems unreal, something the mind finds hard to accept. Or  Maurice, just after witnessing this: "Just then a piece of shell smashed in the head of a soldier in the front rank. Not even a cry - a jet of blood and brains, that was all." - Just after witnessing this, "As he looked round he was very surprised to see down in a lonely valley, isolated by steep slopes, a peasant unhurriedly ploughing, guiding his plough behind a big white horse. Why lose a day's work?"

These chapters ought to make interesting reading for a new soldier. It's a paradox of La Débâcle that while it seems to provide all the material anyone would require for an utter repudiation of war in any shape, it also allowed its nation of readers a strong surge of indignant patriotism and the message that France ought to be better armed and better led, more ready for modern conflict.



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