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La Débâcle (2000)

La Débâcle (2000)

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4.04 of 5 Votes: 4
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0192822896 (ISBN13: 9780192822895)
oxford university press, usa

About book La Débâcle (2000)

As you might expect with Zola, this is a masterpiece of a novel encompassing the personal and political, during the French defeat at Sedan and the Paris Commune. I picked this largely because I have read little about the Commune and even less about Sedan and this seemed like an oversight. The Commune attracts some attention as a proto-Communist revolution but Sedan is something that is largely ignored, despite it being the first of the 3 German assaults on France by essentially the same means. Perhaps because it is all over so quickly and other nations don't become embroiled, the Franco-Prussian War tends to be overlooked and yet it is all here, German efficiency, French military inefficiency, trenches, horrible casualties, street fighting, execution of prisoners, partisans etc.. Indeed, if anything, there is actually too much about Sedan here, as the battle is explored in minute detail, so much so that I was beginning to wonder if the Commune would be covered at all. I can see why this is regarded as lesser Zola, the quality of the writing is high but the subject is excessively drawn out. Probably why this was one of the favourite Zola novels for contemporaries. You quite literally feel like you were at the Battle of Sedan. In any one else's hands, this might be their best novel but it isn't as good as Zola could do in, for example, "Germinal". Nevertheless, it is worth a read if either you like Zola or are interested in this largely overlooked period of history. Indeed, this book deserves wider recognition as an anti-war book because the futility, waste, fatal mistakes etc., come through so clearly. I don't remember, for instance, "All Quiet on the Western Front" being this gruesome. Read this and you will learn what happens to bodies in the days, weeks and even months after a battle, which unless you are a pathologist is shocking stuff. Similarly, you'll learn what happens to cavalry horses after they have lost their riders, or are wounded. Meanwhile, the personal relationships feel real and the multiple perspective telling of the story really works. You genuinely don't know whom is going to survive from following the narration of the story. Indeed, several times key characters are killed and you realise it wasn't their path through the novel you were following, even though you seemed to know the characters from the richness with which their thoughts and actions, are portrayed.The only other small niggle with this version was the translation, which I think was for America. So you have "ax" rather than "axe" and oddities like "intrenchments" rather than "entrenchments" which I presume must be the American spelling. Similarly, there are a few French words like "quartier" which aren't translated and might be confusing if you have no French. Indeed, sometimes idioms are simply translated into English rather than converted. I know that as recently as five years ago I would have been confused by the expression "between dog and wolf" relating to a day. So, perhaps there is, or could be, a better translation out there but even accounting for a sometimes idiosyncratic translation into American English, this is still one monumental novel. Not Zola's best but you would still be justly proud of your accomplishment if you had written this. Perhpaps the Commune could have been a separate novel though.

Last year I read Germinal, which was about post-Second Empire coal miners struggling to survive the Industrial Revolution. This volume (#19 of 20) of the Rougon-Macquart universe is set a bit earlier, beginning in 1870 right before the fatal blow to Napoleon III's reign at the infamous Battle of Sedan and finishing at the climax of the Paris Commune. Most of the book is taken up by a sort of buddy movie starring two ordinary French soldiers suffering through the poor organization and even worse planning of the Emperor's ill-starred war with Prussia, following the nonsensical marches and countermarches as the leadership desperately tries to confront the devastating foreign invasion. Zola has a real gift for taking ragged peasant characters and placing them through all sorts of dramatic events without losing sight of their human qualities, and I really enjoyed the climactic ending with the two at the barricades of Paris. It's interesting to compare Zola to other French writers; I haven't read very many at all, but even though the book is part of Zola's grand cycle and filled with portentous philosophizing about all sorts of things, he almost never stoops to the level of using people as simple allegorical sock puppets the way that Victor Hugo does (though I also enjoyed Hugo). I've got two more of the series (#7 L'Assommoir and #14 L'Oeuvre) and maybe I will try to finish the whole icosology someday.

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J'accuse The Debacle of being another fine Zola novel. I've only been reading him for a couple of years now but really like him. The 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, 2010 ed. includes no fewer than 5 Zola novels, which must rank him near the top of authors in the book. I don't know if he's really the "French Dickens" as I tend to think of him, but I do know that his much vaunted realism is on full display in his account of the ill-fated Franco-Prussian War here. There is a 10 page stretch in which the word "pus" appears close to 10 times, with "putrefaction" and "stench" going right off the dial. (At the risk of letting slip a spoiler, this should make it clear that the war is not going well for the French). Anyway, read Zola. Great story teller. 20 books in his panoramic series, Rougon-Macquart and he's not afraid to show the underbelly of humanity, and how.

sadly, this was the only Zola i read in 2014. that leaves me with only 2 books left in the Rougon-Macquart series (which i should have finished this year, but got lazy). part of the problem was that the Debacle was just that: i have to say this was the most disappointing of the whole series so far. it's about the prussians and the Paris Commune and war and all the drama that should accompany that, but the first two thirds felt like a tedious history lesson and by the time it warmed up, i was just wanting it to be over with.sadly, i did not feel much attachment to the characters and i feel like Zola was more interested in Napoleon's movements outside of Paris than anything like telling an actual story. it doesn't help, either, that the connection to the Rougon-Macquart family feels tenuous at best. this feels like it barely qualifies as part of the series. goal for 2015 is to finish this series at long last. i just need to find translated copies of the last two books.

The penultimate novel in Zola's Les Rougon-Macquart is one of the rare ones I found uninteresting to a certain degree. More than any other of the twenty novels of the series, here Zola immerses himself in his meticulous attention to historical detail. This is arguably necessary from the point of view of his goal writ large: to portray the downfall and final, disastrous end of the Second Empire and Napoleon III. So, yes, yes, he has to cover the endless marches across northern France, Sedan and its horrors, with a rushed final act discussing both far-removed and in-thy-face the stupidity of the Commune and the government reaction to it.As a work of fiction of this kind, with a clear social and historical goal, one can expect a certain degree of this kind of thing, the detail and misplaced characterization which fixates on the 7th Corps as a whole while most of its individual foci are bland and soulless. Jean Macquart (of "La Terre") and his subordinate Maurice are the real soul of the book and Zola doesn't spend nearly enough time on them. When he does, the novel shines. Throw in Maurice's twin sister, Henriette, whose husband gets shot in the face by Prussians, and you've got the whole, holy triumvirate of Marianne, the peasant, and the mad-dog revolutionary with a heart of gold. Their story was what I liked the most and their ill-fated and ill-timed resolution at the end was outstanding.Don't misunderstand: much of the historical bits detailing the horror of the siege of Paris, the virtual garrison prison of Sedan, and the little terrible things here and there that occur in the heat and wake of battle, were just great. But as a literary whole, the book tends to peak and trough.
—J.M. Hushour

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