I finished Zola’s novel The Debacle, and I feel as if I barely survived. The book is absolutely harrowing in its depiction of the horror, gore, and sheer terror of war. The graphic detail – heads blown off, entrails flying, hideous and ghoulish atrocities – are the sort of thing we expect in movies and books about war today, but in the 1890s? I wonder if this marked a first.
Zola, of course, was known for doing his research, and he visited locations, interviewed scores of participants, and reviewed the literature. In many ways, the book reads as an historical chronicle as much as a novel. But it soars, or descends, into great, infernal poetry in scenes such as the days immediately after the disastrous defeats, when Jean and Maurice, solid peasant and educated bourgeois, fight for life in the great charnel house and prison that the countryside has become inside the Prussian encriclement. The apocalypse seems to have arrived – corpses exploding and stinking, the river choked with dead men and animals, and wild herds of lost and starving cavalry horses charging madly about, destroying everything in their path in a frenzy of hunger and madness.
The deadly bitterness of occupation and civil strife are depicted as well. The murderous fury of the French against the collaborators recalls scenes I dimly remember from Marcel Ophul’s film, The Sorrow and the Pity. (I went to see that with my parents as a kid – hardly understood any of it – but boy, did it make an impression!) The bloodlust rises to epic stature as one woman conspires to murder the father of her child, watching as the guerillas truss him up, slit his throat, and bleed him dead like a great pig.
At the end, Maurice, now a crazed and fanatical communard, and Jean, fighting with the forces of reaction, simply because he wants everything to be gotten back in order so he can return to the land, meet again in a Paris that is recapitulating the Fall of Babylon. An orgy of destruction, madness, and atrocious murderous rage is burning itself out. Zola was a liberal who detested left-wing revolutionaries. He tries to fathom in Maurice how an educated man could throw his lot in with such people as a result of the deep humiliation of the war, the frantic desire to destroy everything in the hope that something better will replace it, and the end-game of months of war, besiegement, hunger, and isolation:
Just previous to the 31st of October Maurice was more than usually a victim to this malady of distrust and barren speculation. He listened now approvingly to crude fancies that would formerly have brought a smile of contempt to his lips. Why should he not? Were not imbecility and crime abroad in the land? Was it unreasonable to look for the miraculous when his world was falling in ruins about him?
And so Maurice went on leading an idle, vagabondish sort of life, in a state of constant feverish agitation. He had ceased to be tormented by hunger; he devoured the first white bread he got with infinite gusto; but the city was a prison still: German guards were posted at the gates, and no one was allowed to pass them until he had been made to give an account of himself. There had been no resumption of social life as yet; industry and trade were at a standstill; the people lived from day to day, watching to see what would happen next, doing nothing, simply vegetating in the bright sunshine of the spring that was now coming on apace. During the siege there had been the military service to occupy men’s minds and tire their limbs, while now the entire population, isolated from all the world, had suddenly been reduced to a state of utter stagnation, mental as well as physical. He did as others did, loitering his time away from morning till night, living in an atmosphere that for months had been vitiated by the germs arising from the half-crazed mob. He read the newspapers and was an assiduous frequenter of public meetings, where he would often smile and shrug his shoulders at the rant and fustian of the speakers, but nevertheless would go away with the most ultra notions teeming in his brain, ready to engage in any desperate undertaking in the defense of what he considered truth and justice. And sitting by the window in his little bedroom, and looking out over the city, he would still beguile himself with dreams of victory; would tell himself that France and the Republic might yet be saved, so long as the treaty of peace remained unsigned.
from the Project Gutenberg text: The Downfall
Karl Marx, and revolutionaries everywhere, revered the Commune, but the picture that Zola paints of it is of a disorganized, opportunistic, delusional, and fanatical group of die-hards who reduced the city of Paris to ashes. Not that he thinks well of the forces of reaction either. Ultimately, they serve the masters who brought on the entire debacle, by starting the war with Prussia.
In the end, France will have to be rebuilt, born anew, as in his great novel Germinal, through the simple and unstoppable drive to live and flourish in peace that Jean, the simple peasant, represents.