My translation of Emile Zola’s French novel, La Debacle, translates the title as The Downfall. Downfall is an inadequate equivalent in English for Debacle, a word which suggests a general disaster. The 1870 Franco Prussian War was certainly the downfall of Napoleon III and his imperial pretensions; it was a debacle for France and all the French.
I have been reading through Zola’s Rougon-Macquart novels in no particular order. In the series, he tells the story of Napoleon III’ s France and what happened to it and the people who, for a time, believed in it. His characters exemplify certain theories about inherited characteristics as seen in the members of legitimate and illegitimate branches of the same family. Ignore the theories, unless you really like that kind of thing, and revel in as full a picture as you will ever find of a particular society.
LaDebacle is almost the end of the line. Set during the war and its immediate aftermath, it is – like many war novels – a buddy story. Jean, the peasant who has left the land, has become a non com in the French army. He looks after Maurice, a dissolute scholar. Maurice is patriotic, sensitive, and idealistic. Jean is patriotic and knows how to survive. They save each other’s lives. They appear against a journalistic background of the maneuvers, the battles, and the great fire in Paris at the time of the commune.
The journalism becomes tedious at times, but not Jean and his men who scrounge to feed themselves in an army that is too disorganized to provide food for the soldiers.
“Ah! upon my word, a fine bird! it must weigh twenty pounds.” “We were out walking and met the bird,” Loubet explained in an unctuously sanctimonious voice, “and it insisted on making our acquaintance.” Jean made no reply, but his manner showed that he wished to hear nothing more of the matter. Men must live, and then why in the name of common sense should not those poor fellows, who had almost forgotten how poultry tasted, have a treat once in a way!
The maneuvers before the decisive battle of Sedan remind us of the Grand Old Duke of York who marched his men to the top of the hill and marched them down again. All is movement and waiting and movement back to the first position. The food and the guns and other support march the other way. Generals are replaced. The Emperor is a sick shell, unable to eat, while his staff live very well indeed.
Zola’s judgment on the French leadership is severe:
They reviled their leaders and loaded them with insult: ah! famous leaders, they; brainless boobies, undoing at night what they had done in the morning, idling and loafing when there was no enemy in sight, and taking to their heels as soon as he showed his face! Each minute added to the demoralization that was already rife, making of that army a rabble, without faith or hope, without discipline, a herd that their chiefs were conducting to the shambles by ways of which they themselves were ignorant.
The war took place in 1870; Zola wrote his interpretation of it in 1892. By 1898 he was writing J’Accuse attacking the military command’s connivance in the trial and punishment of Alfred Dreyfus. They used evidence they knew was false. They prosecuted those who defended Dreyfus as criminals. They covered up. They blustered. No wonder they hated Zola. No wonder he distrusted them from the start. It’s all there in LaDebacle.