Monday, November 26, 2012

The Debacle by Emile Zola

One of the greatest war novels of all time
In The Debacle, as in all of his greatest works, Emile Zola achieves the wide-ranging scope of a sweeping, romantic epic without romanticizing the details of his settings or the emotions of his characters. As a result, we get an in-depth examination of the effects of war, on both national and personal levels. Zola thoroughly outlines the movements of troops and supplies, the political intrigue happening within the French government, and the diplomatic relations between nations, yet he never loses sight of the individual.

The narrative focuses on the friendship between Jean Macquart and Maurice Levasseur, two French soldiers from contrasting backgrounds who are brought together by the war. Jean Macquart, who previously starred in Zola’s novel The Earth (La Terre), is an experienced soldier and a sturdy, dependable, salt-of-the-earth kind of guy. Maurice is a novice in the military, was raised in a privileged background, and has an emotional, introspective, and fragile nature. In addition to these two players, Zola presents myriad perspectives on the war. The multitudinous cast includes an emperor and a king; generals, grunts, and officers in between; farmers, shopkeepers, industrialists, doctors, and their wives. The combatants in this war range from highly-skilled military men to peasants with guns thrust into their hands, from the privileged elite to penniless beggars. The chaos of war ensnares them all in a series of events beyond their control or understanding, pushing them to the climactic tragedy of the Battle of Sedan.

Throughout the book, Zola condemns the futility of war in general, and the ineptitude of the French commanders in particular. The book is not totally pessimistic, however, as he does include some romantic concessions to the glory of patriotism, the strength of friendship, and the heroism that can arise when ordinary men are thrust into extraordinary circumstances. This is one of Zola’s greatest works, and I would recommend it to anyone, especially those who enjoy classic literature or historical fiction. It is both intellectually challenging and emotionally moving. I would caution the reader that it does help to have some knowledge of French geography and happenings in French history around the time of the Franco-Prussian War.

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