La Débâcle, by Émile Zola, translated by Elinor Dorday

La Debacle Well, here we are at the penultimate novel in Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle, and what a magnificent novel La Débâcle has turned out to be.  Often compared to Tolstoy’s War and Peace it tells the story of how, in Bismarck’s quest to unify a muddle of German states into a united country, he outmanoeuvred the French military and humiliated them in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.  Under his leadership, Germans overran Alsace and Lorraine, besieged Metz, captured Napoleon at Sedan and triggered the fall of the Empire, which led to the Paris Commune of March-May 1871.  It was indeed a debacle for the French, and Zola writes about it from the point-of-view of ordinary soldiers, depicting their courage and their suffering as pawns in a tragedy over which they have no control.

Although I usually skip the introduction in classic novels, I read this one (by scholar Robert Lethbridge) because my knowledge of 19th century wars is somewhat scanty.  I also scrutinised the maps, so usefully provided in this Oxford’s World’s Classics edition because (as with War and Peace) maps clarify events otherwise confusing to readers unfamiliar with the geography of the story.  The maps of La Débâcle show how cunningly the united German forces encircled crucial strategic positions, and how hopeless the French situation so rapidly became.  Far be it from me to advise anyone on military matters, but maybe La Débâcle should be required reading for the French military, at the very least…

According to Zola, who researched this novel thoroughly (including making field trips to the area), the arrogance of the French military was such that they had only maps of the southern German states, because they expected to trounce the enemy on its own soil.  It beggars belief that none of those in command actually had any maps of the French terrain in Alsace-Lorraine where most of the fighting took place.  It’s the locals, like Weiss at Sedan, who can see that orders to retreat to Mézières are sheer madness:

He began to despair, full of remorse that this was precisely the advice he’d given the day before to General Ducrot of all people, who was now in supreme command.  Yes, certainly, the day before that had been the only plan to follow: retreat, immediate retreat through the Saint-Albert gap.  But that route must be blocked by now, for that was where the entire black swarm of Prussians had gone, down below on the Donchery Plain.  And weighing up folly for folly, there was only one left, a brave and desperate measure, which meant chucking the Bavarians into the Meuse and marching over them to pick up the Carignan road.

Hitching his glasses back into place every second or so, Weiss explained the situation to the lieutenant, who was still sitting propped up against the door, both his legs blown off, extremely pale, bleeding to death. (p.187)

With his last breath the lieutenant tells his men to do as Weiss says, and before long

…from every lane, the enemy were being chased into the meadows with bayonets at their backs, causing a scattered flight into the river which would undoubtedly have turned into a rout had there only been fresh troops to back up the marines who were already exhausted and decimated. (p.187)

Not only was there no backup, the incompetence of the leadership meant that the troops were short of weapons and ammunition, horses, firewood to cook with, and worst of all, marching for days on empty bellies.  Seen through the eyes of class enemies who become friends, the peasant-soldier Jean Macquart (the central character in La Terre (Earth), see my review) and the lawyer Maurice Levasseur, hunger becomes visceral.  They share their last biscuits, until Maurice becomes so desperate that Jean gives him the last one, denying himself altogether.

And although the scenes of human suffering are ghastly, it’s not just the men who suffer:

…on the corner of the avenue, [Jean] caught sight of a trooper, a Chasseur, whom he thought he recognised.  Wasn’t that Prosper, the lad from Remilly he’d seen at Vouziers with Maurice?  He’d dismounted and his horse was haggard, wobbly on its feet, suffering from such hunger that it was reaching out to eat the planks of a wagon parked by the side of the road.  For two days now, the stores had issued no feed for the horses, and they were dying of exhaustion.  His large teeth made a rasping noise against the wood, while the Chasseur just stood and cried.  (p151-2)

The Emperor is treated with surprising compassion by Zola.  He appears in different scenes as a kind of wraith, obviously gravely ill, and although surrounded by his entourage, entirely alone.  In the moment of greatest humiliation when he realises that they have lost the war, and that means the end of the empire, he does not even have the authority to surrender to Bismarck.  His order to save his people from further suffering by raising the white flag is countermanded by his most intransigent general, who refuses to face reality.  Napoleon is a pitiful spectre, denied the right to see his brother King William of Prussia until his generals submit to humiliating terms, and made painfully aware of his change in status by the shabby accommodation he now gets.

For the people of Sedan after defeat, there is worse pain than humiliation.  Thousands of French troops are corralled on the peninsula with no provisions or medical help.  Many of them die of hunger or wounds as the Germans take their desultory time to make arrangements for them.  In the town, homes are occupied, and there are desperate attempts to negotiate over the impossible sums demanded in reparations.  When the local thugs take every opportunity to kill the Occupiers, there are brutal reprisals against the townspeople.  The sound of coarse German songs and their guttural language in the streets reinforces their misery every day.

Meanwhile, the enemy’s grip encircles Paris and the siege begins.  Again, the people can’t quite believe that it is happening.  Previous defeats were accidents of fate, they think, and the invincible French army will be resurrected in the provinces and save them.  But as the weeks go by, supplies diminish; the lights go out; there is no fuel for cooking;  rationing fails and hunger becomes the silent killer.  The enemy waits outside, as negotiations for peace begin.  Versailles recognises that surrender to the Prussians is inevitable but in the face of the reality that they have no options left, they haggle for reasonable terms.

In the pages of a history book, the rise of the Commune seems incomprehensible.  As Jean perceives it, it is madness for a country to be in civil war when the enemy is at the doorstep.  But in Zola’s novel, we see in the character of Maurice that the feverish madness which led to the Commune derives from love of country and a desire to rebuild a new nation after the excesses of Empire.  The rebels’ refusal to acquiesce to Versailles’ surrender was fuelled by irrational optimism, a hope that succour must come from somewhere – some provincial army, some helpful ally offering more than mere words, and a belief in the Commune as some kind of avenging angel for all the shames endured, as a liberating force bringing the severing iron, the purifying flame.

For the modern reader, Zola’s novel brings perspective to the 20th century hostilities between France and Germany.  And like War and Peace it reinforces the truth that it is the ordinary people who get caught up in great events who suffer heroically in war.

La Débâcle is a magnificent book.  I don’t see how Zola can possibly surpass it in the last book of the cycle, Doctor Pascal…

Author: Émile Zola
Title: La Débâcle  (The Debacle)
Translated by Elinor Dorday
Publisher: Oxford World’s Classics, 2000
ISBN: 9780192822895
Source: Interlibrary loan courtesy of the Melbourne Library Service via Kingston Library.

Availability:

This edition is out of print.  Hopefully OUP will issue a reprint before long.

Cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers

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‘La Débâcle’ Cover Images

La Débâcle was first published in 1892 and has been translated as The Debacle and The Downfall.

For images of other covers please look on the Images page.

The Conquest of Passans, by Emile Zola, translated by Helen Constantine

The Conquest of Plassans (Oxford World's Classics)
What a contrast between The Conquest of Plassans is with The Dream! The Conquest of Plassans (La Conquête de Plassans) was first published in 1874, the fourth novel completed in Zola’s great Rougon-Macquart cycle. But if you are reading in the recommended reading order as I am, it is No 6, and comes after The Dream (Le Rêve) which was not written until 1888 and was a complete departure in Zola’s style. (See my review). With The Conquest of Plassans, we are back in the seedy world of political intrigue, greed, opportunism and gullibility.

19th century French politics are as mystifying as ever in The Conquest of Plassans but all you really need to know is that the town of Plassans has returned the ‘wrong’ candidate. As we know in Australia, marginal seats swing to-and-fro, but there is Serious Dismay if a party loses a seat that is ‘theirs’ by long-standing tradition. You can bet that the Liberal Party has a major campaign already underway to retrieve the seat that Sophie Mirabella lost at the 2013 election, and you can bet that the Labor Party hasn’t given up on the seat that the Greens snaffled in inner city Melbourne either. Well, in Plassans the party of the Empire under Napoleon III wants its seat back, and they have a suitably Machiavellian plan to achieve that.

The two royalist opposition parties (the Legitimists and the Orleanists) have their champions, who live either side of François Mouret. When the story opens, Mouret lives in reasonable contentment with his wife Marthe and their three children, Octave, Serge, and Désirée. Mouret is an irascible, unstable fellow as befits his dubious Macquart heritage, and he enjoys himself bullying Marthe and baiting his mother-in-law Félicité (see my Sensational Snippet), , but it is not until the arrival of the Abbé Faujas that his propensity for malicious gossip arises. An opportunist who seizes a chance to make more money, Mouret has agreed to let the second floor of his large house to the Abbé, but he is not best pleased when the Abbé turns up early and reveals himself to be a secretive fellow who keeps himself to himself. Mouret’s attempts to find out the Abbé’s antecedents and purposes consist mainly of haranguing his wife and his servant Rose into interrogating the lodger and his mother Madame Faujas, while he, Mouret, makes phony declarations that he’s not interested in other people’s business.

The Abbé is shabby and poor, but he has an imposing frame, and his refusal to engage with the bourgeois of Plassans makes him an object of great interest. When the entire town has decided that he’s a dubious sort, Mouret, perversely, becomes his champion. He welcomes Faujas to the warmth of his hearth, playing cards after dinner with Madame Faujas, and telling all who will listen what a great fellow the Abbé is. Fatally, his card games leave Marthe to the mercy of the Abbé, and before long, this placid homebody startles her irreligious husband by attending church, making confession – and starting up a charitable child-care organisation for at-risk children while their parents are at work!

Lo! The town shifts its opinion. Marthe the dynamic fundraiser has got the good bourgeois ladies of Plassans onside and now they all think the Abbé is the bee’s knees. This puts him in a position to achieve his political goals, though of course he’s still stoutly declaring that he has no interest in politics. Mouret, of course, shifts his opinion back again too. There is a serpent in his little bit of Paradise, and he’s not happy. (His reaction to having a wife with interests outside the home reminded me of men I knew in the 1970s when women became working wives who were a threat to their husbands’ sense of identity as Master of the House.)

There’s a splendid cast of characters amongst the townsfolk, who are gossipy, gullible, greedy and corrupt. But it’s the unwelcome arrival of the Abbé’s unscrupulous sister Olympe and brother-in-law Trouche that’s the catalyst for the tragedy that unfolds. Consistent with Zola’s theories about heredity and temperament, Mouret succumbs to his fate, and his wife Marthe to hers.

And who’s behind all these machinations? Ah, you’ll have to read the book to find out!

As with others in the Oxford World’s Classics in this series, there is an excellent introduction. This one is by Patrick McGuinness, with a thoughtful note at the beginning that readers who wish to avoid spoilers should read it after finishing the book.

Next up will be No 7 in the recommended reading order, Pot-Bouille (1882), and I will be reading the OUP World’s Classics edition, Pot Luck, translated by Australian Brian Nelson.

Author: Émile Zola
Title: The Conquest of Plassans
Translated by Helen Constantine
Publisher: Oxford World Classics, 2014
ISBN: 9780199664788
Source: Review copy courtesy of Oxford University Press

Availability
Direct from Oxford University Press and good bookshops everywhere.

Cross-posted at Lisa Hill’s blog as part of the Zola Project at ANZ LitLovers.

Money (L’Argent), by Emile Zola, translated by Valerie Minogue

Money I was justifiably excited by this new translation of Emile Zola’s novel Money: there are scenes that were excised completely from the prudently self-censored Vizetelly translation which make the characterisation more complex and much more interesting…

Money (L’Argent) was first published in 1891, the eighteenth of Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle, but fourth in the recommended reading order because it follows logically on from The Kill (La Curée) published almost twenty years before in 1871-2. It follows the extraordinary career of Aristide Saccard, the youngest son of Pierre and Félicité Rougon, a financial wheeler-and-dealer to rival any of the rogues who engineered the recent Global Financial Crisis or the financial scandals of the 1980s. But this is no simplistic morality tale excoriating the greed of financiers: Saccard is a much more complicated character in Money than he was in The Kill, and speculation with money for all its drawbacks is shown to be essential to the growth and development of nations.

Most interesting of all in this novel is the characterisation of Caroline Hamelin, and this is the character to whom Vizetelly’s prunings do a disservice, because in Minogue’s translation Caroline’s knowledge of Saccard’s flaws is complete. It’s not just that he has drawn countless innocent vulnerable people into his web of shady dealings, it’s also that he is sexually depraved (by 19th century Parisian standards, that is) and yet she still finds it hard to condemn him. The man has a magnetism that is irresistible even to the woman who is the moral compass of the novel. She knows about his lack of restraint, and is compromised by it.

One thing I do like in the Vizetelly version in The Complete Works of Emile Zola on my Kindle is the illustrations. There is a beaut B&W drawing of the Bourse, the Parisian stock exchange in 1867, showing the room packed with investors shoulder to shoulder and the brokers frantically responding to the calls to buy or sell. There’s also a plan of the Bourse drawn by Zola as part of his research and a raunchy publicity poster for the novel. On the other hand, there aren’t any pictures in this new Oxford World Classics edition, but there is a very useful introduction by the translator, who is Emeritus Professor of French at the University of Wales and President of the London Emile Zola Society. (BTW I was very pleased to see the warning that there were spoilers in this introduction. That gives the reader the choice to risk them or not). It is the illustrations in the Vizetelly version, however, which convey the excitement of this novel much better.

It is an exciting novel. I wasn’t expecting that, after all, banking and finance has to be one of the most boring aspects of our everyday lives if you’re an ordinary person for whom banking means electronic payment of salary, payment of bills, a mortgage, a credit card and the occasional miserly payment of some interest. But Saccard is an inveterate salesman and when we find him bankrupt and outcast at the beginning of the novel, we can’t help but be lured in by his grand ambitions. He seizes on and fascinates us with the vision of Georges Hamelin to mount a new crusade in the Middle East, a crusade to restore Christianity to its birthplace with majestic transportation systems of roads, rail and steamships. For Georges, the vision is religious – he wants to develop the ‘wasted’ lands of the Middle East so that the Pope (under siege in the Papal States from the unification of Italy under Victor Emmanuel) can move to Jerusalem. Saccard thinks this is absurd, but he is captivated by the idea of French capital developing ‘idle’ land and bringing ‘civilisation’ to the inhabitants. He loves to see money moving around, doing something, and achieving great things…

With nothing more than his powers of persuasion, his few remaining contacts and his ability to do a shady deal when he needs to, Saccard sets up his new bank, the Universal. Along the way he captures the imagination of Paris, attracting investors large and small. By the time of the Universal Exhibition in 1867 when all the world flocked to Paris, Saccard’s bank has moved to lavish new premises and the share price has reached astronomical proportions. The reader knows it is doomed to fail, and as the novel moves towards its climax there are portents which illuminate the lives of those destined to be ruined. There is pathos and schadenfreude in equal measure in Money, and of course there are also those who profit, those who lose but don’t pay their debts, and those who get off scot-free without any apparent sense of guilt as well.

As the rain fell in torrents on Saccard at the beginning of the novel when he was broke and friendless, it falls too in cascades as the denouement at the stock exchange looms. Zola writes this compelling chapter with all the verve of a battle, because that’s what it is, a battle between the bear market and the bull market, with Saccard fighting for financial survival against compelling odds. Among the crowd are the strategists and tacticians, prophets of doom and barrackers, loyal supporters and betrayers, and the tension is maintained as the share price goes up and down. Saccard’s composure almost never falters, and when it does, it is not because of his own fortunes – it is because he sees in the crowd the faces of the humble investors who trusted his word and are depending on him now.

It is this Saccard who challenges the image of the decadent greedy speculator that was dominant in The Kill. This Saccard gives his expertise to help underprivileged children in Princess Orviedo’s foundling homes and hospitals – even though he thinks she’s mad to be deliberately divesting herself of a fortune ill-gotten in speculation by her now dead husband. This Saccard confronts the rapacious Busch to force him to cancel an egregious debt against the hapless author Jordan; this Saccard weeps when he realises the enormity of the wrong he has done to his natural son and the terrible consequences of that. It is this combination of good intentions, wild reckless ambition and addiction to making money grow no matter the risk to others, that troubles Caroline – because she finds herself unable to resist him. Intelligent, sensible, prudent and scrupulously honest, she feels herself complicit in his shady dealings because she can see the benefits too. Zola shows us that it is indeed Saccard’s bank that has realised Georges’ dream of a thriving transport industry in the Middle East, and the beginnings of development such as the Carmel Silver Mine. (Today of course, we interpret this development differently, as part of European colonisation and exploitation, with few benefits filtering through to the locals. But that’s not how anybody looked at it in the 19th century, not even the people in the Middle East who agreed to let them to do it.)

One aspect of this novel will bother modern readers, quite a bit. Saccard’s rival for pre-eminence is the Jewish banker Gundermann, and there are anti-Semitic references to him in some of Saccard’s tirades. This is countered a little by Caroline’s mild remonstrance that Jews are no different to anybody else and of course Zola is famous for risking his career in his defence of the Jewish officer Dreyfus, but still, anti-Semitism is always uncomfortable reading.

The translation is generally very good. I detected a couple of glitches which might have been picked up by an assiduous editor: a tautologous died ingloriously in Rome without any glory (p. 341) and an incongruous ticked all the right boxes p. 102) but these are easy enough to rectify in future editions. Overall the text is fluid and reads as if it were not translation at all. Helpful notes at the back of the book explain references which might otherwise elude readers unfamiliar with events in European history, but as I’ve said above, this translation is the first unabridged edition for more than a century and that is why any reader of Zola in English will be delighted by it.

Perhaps as you find yourself chuckling over the adventures of the Baroness with Sabatini, you too will be tempted to read some parts of Money in both versions to see what else is missing. For as I know from reading The Censor’s Library by Nicole Moore, it wasn’t just salacious material that was censored, though that is bad enough as you can see if you read the Vizetelly version and try to make sense of Victor’s crime. Zola’s compassionate understanding of the impact on the victim is missing too and I am quite sure that if I look it up I’ll find that his rather endearing concern for other exploited women will be obscured or omitted altogether as well.

Next up in my Zola project is The Dream (La Rêve) but alas there is no modern translation of that one. If only my French were good enough to read it in the original! I’m working on it, I’ve translated a short story by Zola but it would take me forever to read a whole novel in French and I’d probably misunderstand parts of it anyway. I’m hoping that there are other translations of the remaining novels on the way!

Author: Emile Zola
Title: Money
Publisher: Oxford World Classics, 2014
ISBN: 9780199608379
Source: Review copy courtesy of Oxford University Press

Cross-posted at Lisa Hill’s blog as part of the Zola Project at ANZ LitLovers.