Thursday, April 2, 2015

Captain Burle by Emile Zola

A brief gem masterfully crafted
Captain Burle is a short novella in four chapters by Emile Zola. The title character is an army quartermaster whose best days are long behind him. A widower, he lives in a squalid hovel with his mother and son. In the early days of his military career, he showed signs of heroic promise, but these days he’s content to contribute the bare minimum to his nation in exchange for an adequate paycheck. Much of his income is squandered on gambling and a woman of ill repute. His mother, the stern widow of a distinguished colonel, is ashamed of her son and laments his lost potential. One stormy night, her son’s commanding officer shows up on her doorstep. Major Laguitte has discovered that Burle is stealing funds from the army coffers. In order to save his old friend from a court-martial and hanging, as well as cover his own hide, Laguitte looks for a way to quickly and discreetly resolve the matter before any of the military higher-ups find out the money is missing.

Captain Burle was originally published in 1882. This was the same year Zola published Pot-Bouille, the tenth novel in the Rougon-Macquart series. At this point in his career he was at the top of his game, and it shows in this brief but satisfying tale. From page one, Zola masterfully pulls the reader into the lives of his vividly drawn characters, skillfully manipulating the emotional tone of the narrative in any direction he chooses. There’s an underlying sense of humor throughout the piece. You laugh at Burle’s naughty shenanigans and Laguitte’s frustrating efforts to force him back onto the straight and narrow path. Ultimately the work does examine serious themes like respect, honor, dignity, and friendship. Anytime the story threatens to become too uplifting, however, Zola makes sure to throw in some pessimistic detail to bring it back down to earth, as if reminding the reader to “get real”. Captain Burle is a great example of Zola’s mature naturalistic style, injected with some Balzacian cheekiness. There’s nothing monumentally impressive about this short work, but if you’re a fan of Zola’s Rougon-Macquart novels then you’ll enjoy Captain Burle as well.
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