Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Debacle by Emile Zola (1891)

The Debacle is the 19th of 20 novels in Emile Zola's grand Rougon Macquart Cycle.  Composed from 1871 to 1893 they present French society in the Second Empire from 1852 to the fall of the empire in 1870.  They center on two intermarried families.  Once I complete the cycle, hopefully next week, I will attempt an over all post on The Rougon Macquart Cycle.  

The Debacle is the best, most exciting and longest work  in the cycle ( assuming the last work Dr. Pascal does not surpass it.) You can see the great development in the narrative skills of Zola over the long course of writing the cycle.   I think it is not commonly seen as the best of Zola because the vast majority will first read his consensus best work Germinal then maybe Nana and then  move on.  Few people who do lists of best novels have read the full cycle and that is why The Debacle is not on any/many best novels must reading lists.  

Set in 1870, it deals with the Franco-Prussian War, the fall of Napolean III and the rise of the Paris commune.  The Debacle is the best literary treatment I have read of the consequences of war for the foot soldiers and for the people whose towns, homes and fields serve as battle grounds.  Zola lets us see how an army of 250,000 marching through an area brings famine, death and disease to the residents of the territory.  His accounts of battle wounds and death are the best I have ever read.  His treatment of the terrible impact of the battles on horses were hard to read.  Napolean III and his minions are the worse kind of fools.  As the war drags on and France is more and more savaged by the Germans we see him go from much admired figure to a despised man most of the French hate.  The search for food dominates everyone's existence.  Soldiers did not have many food supplies, German or French, and were supposed to live off the people whose areas they fought. There are numerous brilliant set pieces in The Debacle.  Battle wounds are very graphically described and the scenes in the military hospital are overwhelmingly powerful in their sheer horror.

Of course the Germans are depicted mostly as monsters, killing children, raping women and burning everything they can while stealing anything of value.  Some French officers, even Generals, are depicted as heroic and self-sacrificing carrying more for their men than their own lives.  Some run at the first sight of Germans.  Many French army leaders are just buffoons who got their rank through connections. There was an old farmer who was accused of being a collaborator for selling butchered animals to the Germans, I admit I loved it when he explained he only sold the Germans meat from animals found dead from disease.  We also see the terrible revenge the Germans take on local people.

The plot is driven by the friendship of a man of aristocratic background and Jean Marquart, who lost his farm in The Earth and joined the army for a paycheck.  We follow them through the war.  We see the war's impact on friends and families and we see how military service forms bonds across society. 

There are romantic aspects to the novel but they don't get in the way.  As the novel and the war winds down the biggest fear becomes whether or not the Germans will burn Paris to the ground.  

The Debacle is a very exciting work.  It is very hard to predict what will happen next. OK this is Zola so you can sort of figure it won't be real pleasant.

A new society will emerge from the destruction of the Second Empire in the Franco-Prussian War.

The Debacle is near compulsive reading you want so badly to see what will happen next.

19 down, one to go!


Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Mel, I don't think I have read much by Emile Zola and this particular books definitely sounds interesting because of a theme that I'm very fond of reading, namely historical war, fictional or otherwise. Thanks for the review.

Mel u said...

Prashhant I will be doing a guide to getting started in Zola Soon

Heidi’sbooks said...

I'm totally impressed! I just finished The Greater Journey and was astonished by the Franco-Prussian War, Napoleon III and The Paris Commune. How little I know about French History. I've never read Zola. This one sounds interesting--and my interest is already piqued on the Franco-Prussian War. Do you need to start at the beginning of the series?