Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Zola, La Débâcle (1892)

Premise: I shall read Zola’s Rougon-Macquart books in reverse order. Obstacle: But I don’t have Le Docteur Pascal to hand. Glorious overcoming of obstacle: I instead read La Débâcle (1892), starting with a Leonard Tancock/Penguin Classics edition which I’ve had for what the French call yonques and yonques. I enjoyed it so much I stopped by the library to pick up the newer, better OUP translation, plus a copy of the French original, to check to see whether there's any basis for the way Tancock works charmingly archaic 1930s-public-school idiom in with odd moments of the Deadwood style: 'hooray, there's a nice smash-up!' 'It's too dangerous lad,and I'll never let you do anything so barmy. ... Look here, we're in on this together. It's a grand idea to fuck off.' 384). I don’t believe it's really like that, tonally, in the French, though it's hard for me to say.

It would be mere fatuity for me to say this is a very good novel. Of course it is. Colour me fatuous, then: I was very impressed. But by gum it’s not a realist novel. Enormous quantities of raw fact are assembled by Zola only to be pressed, like blocks of tofu, into a tripartite quasi-trinitarian harmonic schema. I don’t say this to be negative, exactly; but the latter does sometimes rub painfully up against the former—making the facts seem, often, prolixly redundant and over-detailed; whilst at the same time making the artistic pattern (sin, fall, atonement; separation and reunion; the sickness of individual bodies as pattern for the sickness of a nation, and vice versa) seem creaky and overegged, too reliant on coincidental meetings-up-again and hamstrung by a structure that gives over pretty much nine-tenths of the novel to the build-up and fighting at Sedan, and maybe one-tenth to the Paris commune.

The main fictional thrust of the novel is the love that develops between conservative, working-class corporal, Jean Macquart, and emotionally volatile Romantic gentleman Maurice Levasseur, who has enlisted as a squaddie (le ésquaddie) as France marches off to fight the Prussians in 1870. I was throughout reminded—but reminded in a technical sense, the same way watching Battleship Potemkin ‘reminds’ me of dozens of later films—of 20th-century cinematic widescreen battle-stories: Zulu for instance; or A Bridge Too Far. That is to say, Zola can claim enormous credit for effectively innovating a method of conveying the larger-scale sweep of history by subordinating to its narration the embedded narratives of a number of localised caught-up-in-the-middle-of-things individual storylines against which we can locate, affectively speaking, the bigger picture. That’s fine: there’s a reason why precisely this strategy became the default approach for big screen epic history; the reason is that it works. You both learn a lot about the historical period, and you care about the particular characters and therefore commit to the story emotionally.

Nevertheless I was struck, I suppose, that where Zola’s technical control of the big crowd scenes, and in particular his eye for the telling or haunting detail or image, was extraordinarily impressive, his individual storylines were all, to one degree or another, cheesy and melodramatic. Even the burgeoning love between Jean and Maurice, touching for a while, grows very cloying very quickly. I appreciate that men in wartime can develop very close love-bonds with one another; but even in that context Zola’s slightly stare-eyed emphasis, towards the end of the novel, on the transcendent heroic-altruistic love the two men shared stuck in my craw. The repeated insistence on its purity seemed to me one step away from naked homosexual panic. More, did I not like the (by gum, completely unrealist, this is precisely the sort of thing Tolstoy would revise his novels in order to cut out) contrived ending, where Jean and Maurice end up on different sides in the 1871 fighting in Paris and, sob, Jean kills Maurice with his bayonet. Also Zola’s step-downs or step-ups, his transitions from big picture to small picture, were often a little jolting. But when it’s good, this novel is tremendously good.

Given that it is so densely researched and that Zola took such pride in his accuracy (going to great lengths to refute contemporary critics who doubted this detail or that; in the whole book apparently only one thing--the killing of a German spy--was invented) one thing puzzled me. Zola seems to assume (in a sort of anti-Gravity's Rainbow way) that in war it's possible to see shells coming towards you, having been fired from cannons, and even to dodge them provided you keep your eyes on them. ['Henriette went on again, with eyes fixed on the horizon, looking for shells so that she could dodge them', p.239]. That's not right, though, is it? Surely not.

On the other hand, the scenes of confusion during the marching to-and-fro prior to the battle are just marvellous; and there are some genuinely haunting moments. For example, here's Maurice's experience of the opening of the battle, lying with his whole battalion prone amongst cabbages:
The frightful din was what upset Maurice the most. The battery near-by was firing incessantly with a continual roar that shook the very ground. Were they going to stay like that a long time, lying in the middle of the cabbages? ... Above the bare line of the fields the only thing Maurice recognised was the round wooded top of Le Hattoy, a long way away and still unoccupied. Not that a single Prussian could be seen anywhere on the horizon, just puffs of smoke going up and floating for a moment in the sunshine. As he looked round he was 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? The corn wouldn't stop growing or people living just because there was fighting going on. [210]

Terrence Malick quotes that moment, I think. Also, to repeat myself, the book simply stands up and implores the reader to put it through the paces of a queer-reading. I don't doubt French Literature specialists have done just that, if I knew the secondary literature a little better. So, there's something fascinating in the novel's representation of Napoleon III (one of the main reasons I want to read Zola's books in the first place), wearing rouge and other make-up; desperate to get himself slain on the battlefield but impotent to achieve that aim. Impotent, indeed, in every sense, not least the sexual one. On the other hand, posh Maurice and peasant Jean get very friendly with one another indeed:
They hugged each other in a passionate embrace, made brothers by all they had gone through together, and the kiss they exchanged seemed the gentlest yet the strongest in their lives, a kiss the like of which they would never have from a woman ... absolute certainty that their two hearts were henceforth one for ever. [388]
Is it hot in here, or is it just me? At the end Jean comes up on Maurice from behind, pins him to the barricades and 'thrusts' with his hard pointy rifle prong 'between two sandbags' and into M.'s body. It's a climactic moment, rather gnashingly rendered: 'Maurice had not had time to turn around. He screamed and looked up. The fires lit both of them with blinding light' [481]. Sexxy.


Rich Puchalsky said...

"'Henriette went on again, with eyes fixed on the horizon, looking for shells so that she could dodge them', p.239]. That's not right, though, is it? Surely not."

As long as Zola doesn't depict this as actually working, then it seems like a quite realistic folk-belief that lets people have a feeling of control when they are unavoidably risking their lives. Or, in other words -- paraphrasing from a guide on how to avoid writing Mary Sues -- as long as your Romani character can't actually predict the future, it's fine for her to believe that she can predict the future.

Adam Roberts said...

Zola has some of his soldiers act the same way. Of course you could be right, maybe he's suggesting this as an indication of the lack of experience and foolishness of the French army. I kind-of got the impression that Zola himself, never having seen a shell fired, rather thought they sail through the sky relatively slowly ...

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