The Debacle by Emile Zola (1892)

9 December 2012

Published in 1892, this is a long, harsh, gruelling novel, full of stomach-churning scenes of bloodshed and horror.

The Debacle’ (in French; in English) is the 19th in Zola’s sequence of 20 novels – the Rougon-Macquart sequence – about life in France’s Second Empire (the period between the coup which brought Louis-Napoleon to power in 1852 and his fall from power after the disastrous French defeat at the battle of Sedan in September 1870). It’s only roughly a sequence ie individual novels such as ‘Germinal’ or ‘Nana’ or ‘L’Assommoir’ pick up on characters established in earlier novels (eg Nana appears at the end of  L’Assommoir) so the books can still be read in order, out of order or singly.

‘The Debacle’ is long at 500 pages in the Penguin edition. It is in three parts. Part One plunges you right into the lives of a squadron of soldiers in the 106th foot of the 7th Army Corps as they arrive near the German border. Chaos and confusion reign. Already tired, with food and equipment not properly supplied, they are abruptly shunted back towards Rheims, then are sent back towards the enemy again, before being sent north towards Sedan on the Belgian border. The novel grimly portrays the confusion, the chaos and mismanagement of the French army, lack of food, fuel, ammunition or training, lack of direction or leadership, all the elements which conspire to create a terrible atmosphere of defeatism.

these early pages also introduce the two male leads, Jean Macquart, a sturdy sensible uneducated peasant and Maurice Levasseur, slight, metropolitan, well-educated but guiltily given to manic alternations between frenzied enthusiasm and hysterical collapse.  Each have friends or relations living in the east of France who they come across or discuss in their marches, a lawyer and his wife, an old miser and his son’s fiancee, a factory owner and his family. In between soldier episodes we get to know all these other characters better and slowly a web of characters is created in north-east France whose lives will be terribly shattered by the war.

Part Two concentrates in great detail on the 24 hours of the battle of Sedan, detailing how the French army is surrounded and crushed on the hills and woods to the north of the town, leading to panic stricken retreat into the overcrowded streets. The descriptions of specific engagements in hills and valleys leave no holds barred and there are as many bodies eviscerated, cut in two, with eyes, mouths, arms, fingers, tongues blown off as in any Great War memoir.

Part Three describes the aftermath of the battle in and around Sedan, once the French army has been forced to surrender, and describes in gut-wrenching detail the indignities and humiliations the defeated soldiers are subject to before being marched off to Germany.  For a nightmare week over 100,000 men are trapped in a spit of land formed by a bend in the river Meuse with no food or water. Again Zola’s realism depicts everything unsparingly, the starving men eating grass or bark or rotten meat and drinking water from a river clogged with rotting corpses.

Only in the last 50 pages does the scene switch to Paris, for the bloody, fiery nemesis which is the Commune. Zola engineers the plot so that Jean and Maurice, who have come through so many scrapes together, find themselves on opposite sides of the barricades – solid sensible peasant Jean symbolising the values of France, fighting for the Versailles army – febrile Maurice caught up in the hysteria which seizes Paris, symbolising the futile infatuation of all France’s failed revolutions, fighting from barricade to barricade for the Commune.

Realism Zola started life as a journalist and his research for this book was impeccable. He retraced the steps of the opposing armies, enabling him to describe every dip, slope and vista his characters pass over. He interviewed eyewitnesses, allowing him to fill the book with the kind of surreal or gruesome details and events which modern warfare so often throws up. All the different ways a human body can be damaged and violated by modern technology.

A cast of thousands Although Jean and Maurice emerge as the leading characters of the novel, the narrative often abandons them to follow the stories of the other characters:

  • Maurice’s sister, Henriette, is married to the factory overseer Weiss
  • Weiss is swept up in the Prussian advance and dies defending his house in the street fighting which engulfs his village of Bazeilles
  • later Henriette cares for Jean in an outhouse at old Uncle Fouchard’s farm as he recovers from a bullet wound
  • Old Fouchard is a miserly traveling butcher who is brother to Henriette and Maurice’s mother
  • Silvine the maid-of-all-work at Fouchard’s undertakes a nightmareish odyssey across the battlefield to find the corpse of her dashing fiance, Honore, an artillery sergeant
  • the kindly Delaherche, owner of one of the biggest cloth factories in Sedan, turns his factory into a massive open air hospital for the thousands of wounded
  • while his skittish young wife Gilberte carries on an affair with a handsome doomed soldier
  • and his aged mother cares for a mortally wounded colonel in a curtained room
  • the surgeon, major Bouroche, bases himself at the factory and for a week operates up to his elbows in blood and guts, trying to heal the horrifically shattered bodies of the French soldiers. Eventually amputated body parts – arms, legs, hands, fingers, tongues, jaws – clog every inch of the grounds.

The overall effect of this network of characters is to diminish the power or importance of any one individual so that the events themselves feel like the protagonists. History, or whatever we call the concatenation of incidents which sweeps all of us along, is the lead character, and all the other personae become like corks bobbing, swept, rushed along by the relentless cascade of mistakes and misfortunes. If Zola’s aim is to show how ‘laws’ of history, how heredity and environment, act on different individuals in challenging circumstances, ‘The Debacle’ does it in spades.

Translation I think this is the worst translation I’ve ever read. I supervise my son’s French schoolwork and his teachers advise a simple two-step technique: first, make a literal translation of the original French; second, come back reread those words in the cold light of day, and put them into colloquial or appropriate English. Unfortunately Leonard Tancock, in this 1972 translation, doesn’t appear to have done the latter, with the result that the prose is full of gallicisms, French turns of phrase, French word orders and, most tell-tale, the awkward squeezing in of all those little French filler phrases which have no comfortable equivalent in English – en effet, quand meme, enfin, deja.

The book is full of not-quite-English sentences. After the first page you have the unnerving sense of reading a new, familiar but disconcertingly undermined language. For example, French uses ‘y’ to mean ‘there’, much more liberally than English, which tends to be more precise about locations. Upstairs, in the fields, in the other room, on the other side of the river or valley – all of these are easily said in English but tend to be covered by the blanket ‘y’ in French, a habit Tancock slavishly translates so that the text is sprinkled with the maddeningly vague word ‘there’. This quote exemplifies some of these issues:

“Henriette hurried back home to the rue des Voyards. She was certain she would find her husband back, and she even thought that if he didn’t find her at home he would be very worried, and that made her quicken her step still more. As she approached the house she looked up, thinking she could see him up there leaning out of  the window, watching for her return. But the window was still wide open and empty. When she got up there and had glanced around the three rooms she was sick at heart at finding nothing but the icy fog and the continual rumbling of cannon. The firing out there never stopped. She went back to the window for a moment. Now that she knew what was happening, even though the wall of morning mist was still impenetrable, she could follow out the battle going on at Bazeilles, with the crackling of machine-guns and shattering volleys of the French batteries replying to the distant volleys of the German ones. One had the impression that the detonations were getting closer together and that the battle was getting fiercer every minute.”  (Page 221, Part Two, Chapter 3)

Swearing The novel is about soldiers in war. They swear all the time. What makes Frederick Manning’s novel about the Great War, Her Privates We, so fabulous is its unashamed and accurate portrayal of the continual swearing of the soldiers. Manning served as a private and, unlike all the other English Great War writers – public schoolboys to a man – he was in a position to describe the real life and speech of the infantry, miles from the censored, prim speech of the jolly public school officers. And the privates, English working men, swore all the time. And similarly, the soldiers in Zola’s novel swear all the time.

Translating the swearing of one culture and language into the swearing of another culture and language may be the hardest challenge for any translator. It has to take into account not only the literal meaning, but the class context in which it occurs (especially in class-ridden English), the historical moment (as swearwords gained or lost potency) and dialect and regional variations. Sadly, Tancock fails this demanding test. On the one hand he is bold enough to use piss and fuck and, occasionally, cunt in what sound like the appropriate settings. But, public schoolboy that he is himself, he mixes them alongside the  much tamer phraseology from boys own adventure stories. You get the impression the original French is a no-holds-barred swearfest, designed to convey the sweaty, filthy, terrified atmosphere of war and rough men in extremis, but this effect is ruined by Tancock’s uneven tone:

“Some whispering behind their backs just then made them look around. It was Choubert and Loubet, who had got away from Iges that morning at the same time as themselves, and whom they had so far avoided. Now these two gentry were treading on their heels. Chouteau must have overheard Maurice’s words, with his plan to escape through the wood, for he took it up himself and murmured in their ears:

“‘Look here, we’re in on this. It’s a grand idea to fuck off. Some of the blokes have got away already, and we’re certainly not going to let ourselves be dragged like a lot of dogs to the country of those bastards… So what about it for the four of us – O.K. to go for a stroll and take some air?’

“Maurice was getting excited again, and Jean had to turn around and say to the tempter:

“‘If you’re in a hurry, run along… What hopes do you think you’ve got?’

“Chouteau was a bit put out by the straight look Jean gave him. He let out the real reason for his insistence.

“‘Well, if there were four of us it would be easier… Then one or two would be sure to get away.”

One minute Reservoir Dogs, the next Five Go Mad In Dorset – “It’s a grand idea to fuck off“. Prissy turns of phrase – “whom they had so far avoided”; of all the words in English why on earth choose “gentry” – presumably this is some sarcasm about the two soldiers in question who we’ve seen to be complete brutes; but “gentry”? Add in the continual uncertainty created by sentences with French word order, or a French cluttering of subordinate clauses, and you have a real mare’s nest of a style which becomes very hard going over a long, detailed 500 pages. I’m planning to read Germinal, L’Assommoir and Nana by Zola. I will go out of my way to avoid Tancock’s translations of any of them.

Horror Horses are blown to pieces, men have their guts torn out, eyes, faces, fingers are blown off, this is an astonishingly graphic book. Many chapters describe nothing but the bodily mutilation of war – as when Jean and Maurice’s company are pinned down by enemy fire on an exposed hilltop and watch comrades being mown down by rifle fire and an entire artillery company wiped out, blown to pieces; or create an atmosphere of horrified awe as when Silvine and the peasant Prosper roam over the abandoned battlefield the day after the battle searching for her fiance Honore, an infernoesque pilgrimage across the nightmare ground strewn with dismembered corpses and dying horses. Throw in scenes like the three coarsest squaddies in Jean’s unit chasing down and murdering one of their own comrades for the sake of the bread he’s hoarded; or the franc-tireur guerillas ambushing, tying up, and then deliberately bleeding to death the Prussian spy Goliath – this novel compares with Quentin Tarantino at his most sadistic, with the horrible proviso that so much of it is true, based on eyewitness accounts. Quelle horreur!

And of course, much of the educated class must have read it and registered its atmosphere of degradation, defeat, misery, mutilation and despair – and yet 20 years later thronged the streets and thrown their hats in the air as their brave boys marched off for another, earth-shatteringly catastrophic encounter with the same enemy. Zola, who died in 1902, was spared the sight.

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