Home > 19th Century, Classics, French Literature, History of France, Novel, State of the Nation, TBR20, Zola Emile > The Débâcle by Emile Zola – A reading debacle for me

The Débâcle by Emile Zola – A reading debacle for me

The Débâcle by Emile Zola (1892) Original French title: La Débâcle.

I read La Débâcle by Zola along with Marina Sofia and I have to confess that I’ve been a terrible reading companion. We agreed to post our billets on May 31st and I only finished reading it today. I must say that I have the Kindle version and I realized too late that the book was more than 600 pages long.

La Débâcle is the 19th opus of the Rougon-Macquart series and it is about the 1870 Franco-Prussian war. It results in the fall of Napoléon III and the Second Empire, the beginning of the Third Republic and the formation of the German Empire. It is a catastrophic war for France as the country lost the Alsace-Moselle territories and nursed Revanchism. It sowed the seeds of hatred that fed WWI. As mentioned in my billet about Leurs enfants après eux by Nicolas Mathieu, I come from Alsace-Moselle, where most of the battles occurred and that was annexed to Germany until 1919. This piece of history resonates in me and I was interested in reading about this war which, to this day, in never taught in school.

In La Débâcle, we follow Jean Macquart and Maurice Levasseur during the whole war. They belong to the same regiment, become friends and will support each other. There is not much character development in La Débâcle, the war is the main character, a bloodthirsty ogress that devours her children. The novel is an implacable condemnation of war.

Zola depicts the stupidity of the generals who led the war and commanded the soldiers. He shows an inefficient commandment, unable to make decisions, useless when it comes to military strategy and losing ground because of its sheer incompetence. Zola’s novel is very graphic: he describes the exhaustion of the soldiers who move around aimlessly, the massacre on the battle field, the deaths, the agony of horses, the killing of civilians, the hunger of prisoners, the ambulance and care of wounded soldiers. In a very cinematographic way, he is like a war reporter, writing about the theatre of operations and in the heart of the action. He draws a precise picture of the consequences of war on civilians, the carelessness of the commandment with the life of their soldiers. 139 000 French soldiers and 41 000 German soldiers died between July 19th 1870 and January 28th, 1871. A bloodshed, there’s no other word for it.

Zola has a purpose with the Rougon-Macquart series, he wants to tell the story of the Second Empire. It’s not surprising that Jean and Maurice are part of a regiment that followed the Emperor and fought in Sedan, where Napoléon III capitulated, fled to Belgium and ended the Second Empire. We hear about the battles in Alsace and Moselle through the papers but the characters do not participate to this part of the campaign.

Zola’s aim is commendable but I think he said in 600 pages what Joseph Roth would have said in 300. The descriptions are too long. In the first part, the soldiers walk, walk, walk and look for food, and cook and eat. Sure, it shows pretty well the state of the army and its mismanagement. The generals don’t get along, can’t agree on a strategy, have feel of the land, have inefficient intelligence and don’t know where the enemy is. They make the troops walk around aimlessly, they wear them out, physically and mentally. Did we need so many pages to get the picture? Certainly not.

I know the region; I could follow the soldiers’ journey but I wonder how foreigners manage to read this and not get lost. Maybe they get the same feeling as the soldiers: they feel rushed around from one place to the other.

The second part in Sedan is awful. The descriptions of the massacres and the deaths are very graphic and again, way too long. We follow the artillery, the cavalry, the infantry, the civilians. Thank God Sedan is not beside the sea and there were no planes yet or we would have had to go through the description of the battle on the water and in the air as well.

The third part is easier to read, it shows the aftermath of the rendition of Sedan, the presence of Germans in the country, gives news about the Alsace-Moselle front, the war progresses, the loss is inevitable. There are a few pages about La Commune de Paris but while the events were probably known to Zola’s contemporaries, it’s not so obvious for today’s reader and I didn’t get much out of it.

So, La Débâcle is a painful read because it’s too long, too descriptive but what Zola writes is accurate despite the pomposity and the prejudice against the Second Empire. I know that because this weekend I visited the Museum of the 1870 War and the Alsace-Moselle Annexation in Gravelotte. It’s a bilingual museum (French and German) that retraces the 1870 war in Moselle. Gravelotte was one of the battle sites, a place where the combats were so fierce that there is a popular expression that says “Ca tombe comme à Gravelotte:” (It’s dropping like in Gravelotte), to say that it’s pouring. It is a fascinating museum, well stocked and very educational. Historians confirmed what Zola describes. There’s even a painting by Lucien Marchet, based upon a chapter in La Débâcle, the battle of Bazeilles:

Zola’s novel helped me realize that the 1870 war was the last one with cavalry battles and the first industrial one, where soldiers were sent to a sure death. They were killed by shells, the French had bullet cannons and Zola writes about trenches. I thought that the French army had learnt nothing about this war if we consider the beginning of WWI: the soldiers were still wearing red pants, noticeable from afar and turning them into easy targets. The whole army was ill-prepared for modern war. I also wondered what Zola would have written about WWI if he had been alive to see it.

Zola’s book ends on a hopeful note, the idea that this debacle is also the beginning of a new order, the Third Republic. The hopeful note in the Gravelotte museum is that Robert Schuman who was born in Luxembourg as a German citizen in 1886, went to school and university in Germany, became French in 1919, lived through WWI and WWII and became one of the founders of the European Coal and Steel Community, the starting base of the EU. We, Europeans, needed two more devastating wars to stop fighting against each other. Slow learners, that’s what we are. Let’s hope we are not forgetful too.

Please read Marina Sofia’s reviews Zola: The Débacle Readalong and The Debacle of Zola’s Vision of the Paris Commune.

  1. June 11, 2019 at 1:46 am

    It has always stuck with me that a Belgian cavalry regimented charged Nazi tanks, on horses! at the beginning of WWII. (I’ve never googled it to see if it is actually true).

    I wonder if your experience of Zola here is affected by descriptions of WWI. War is now routinely described from the point of view of the ordinary soldier, but I suspect that was fresh and original when Zola did it.


    • June 11, 2019 at 2:04 am

      Bill, there’s a film called 9.April on SBS On Demand about Danish soldiers who met the Nazi invasion on bicycles. I thought it was artistic licence but Wikipedia says it’s true.
      Emma, I’m so sorry you didn’t care for the Zola, I think that La Débâcle is one of Zola’s finest. Mind you, I think a Kindle is a horrible way to read a long book, you never feel as if you’re getting anywhere because you can’t feel the heft of the pages moving along!

      Liked by 1 person

      • June 11, 2019 at 7:47 pm

        I don’t think this one is one of Zola’s finest because it is too long.
        I like reading big books on the kindle because it’s lighter to carry around and even when you’re reading, it’s more comfortable. I just forgot to check the length of the book early enough to be on time.

        Liked by 1 person

    • June 11, 2019 at 7:44 pm

      I think you’re right: it’s probably a new way to describe war, one that we’ll get used to with books about WWI.
      Zola was ahead of his time with this angle. I just wish the book were shorter.


  2. June 11, 2019 at 5:32 pm

    I’ve read a few of the more obvious Zola novels like Nana and La Bête Humaine, but have been put off by the reports like Marina’s – and now yours – about its longueurs. Interested to hear you’re from Alsace Lorraine; I lived and studied in Metz for a couple of months, many years ago. Didn’t even know there was this museum at Gravelotte – was it there in 1991? A fascinating part of the country. And of course Metz is where Frieda Lawrence (née von Richthofen) came from. It’s a lovely city.


    • June 11, 2019 at 7:52 pm

      I highly recommend Money and The Kill. Both are excellent.

      I love Metz, it’s a beautiful city.
      I’m surprised to hear you lived there for a couple of moths. What are the odds?
      Yes. The museum was already there. (it opened in 1958, I think) It was renovated a few years ago and it’s a fascinating museum, very educational and with the right amount of details.


  3. June 13, 2019 at 8:56 am

    I don’t think this is for me, I would find the long, graphic descriptions very hard to take. I would like to read Zola though, so I’ve noted your recommendations to Tredynas Days.


    • June 13, 2019 at 12:42 pm

      The best way to start with Zola is Ladies’ Paradise.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Vishy
    July 1, 2019 at 7:36 pm

    Beautiful review, Emma! One of our book club members mentioned this book during one of our conversations and when I read your post, I remembered that. This looks like a long and tough book to read, but also very historical and closer to reality. I don’t know whether I’ll read this, and so I am glad you wrote about this. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    Liked by 1 person

    • July 1, 2019 at 10:05 pm

      It’s interesting from an historical standpoint but it lacks of a real story. It’s a realistic painting of the French society during the war and of the incompetence of the military.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Vishy
        July 1, 2019 at 11:32 pm

        It looks more like a history book than a novel, from what you are saying. Maybe it is easier to read, if we treat it like nonfiction?

        Liked by 1 person

        • July 3, 2019 at 6:22 am

          Yes, maybe. But you need to remember that Zola was prejudiced against Napoléon III and the Second Empire. Even if what he tells is true, it’s not written in a factual way.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Vishy
            July 3, 2019 at 1:16 pm

            Very interesting to know that, Emma.

            Liked by 2 people

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