Great news! New editions of Zola titles

The Sin of Abbe Mouret

Readers who followed my Zola journey will know that there were some titles in the Rougon-Macquart cycle that were hard to find, and #BeingPolite there were others that needed a modern translation.

The standard, for me, was set by Brian Nelson’s translations for Oxford World’ Classics: not only were the translations very good, there were also excellent introductions which enhanced my reading of the series.

La Debacle (Oxford World's Classics)Well, I was delighted yesterday to find two new editions in my postbox: La Débâcle, translated by Elinor Dorday – a title which was out of print and very hard to find – has been reissued by Oxford World’s Classics, and *drumroll* they have also issued a new translation of The Sin of Abbé Mouret.  It’s by Valerie Pearson Minogue, who also translated the recent edition of Money in 2014.

As usual in this series, the cover art comes from French artists.  The image on the cover of La Débâcle is a detail from Artillery Skirmish in the Forest during the Siege of Paris by Édouard Detaille, and Cézanne is featured on The Sin of Abbé Mouret with a detail from Forest Interior, 1898-9.

Both titles are available now and you should be able to find them on any online site or in good bookshops.

As I’ve said before, I know that you can find free versions of Zola’s novels online, but if you can afford it, buy these OWC titles, they really will enhance the reading experience for you.

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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

La Debacle [The Downfall]

allegory-of-the-siege-of-paris-jean-louis-ernest-meissonier

Allegory of the Siege of Paris by Meissonier, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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.

Napoleon III, Deceased, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Napoleon III, Deceased, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons