Saturday, October 24, 2015

Emile Zola - 'The Debacle'

The Battle of Sedan
In the second to last book of his Rougon-Macquart Cycle, Zola continues the story of Jean Macquart. Very little time has elapsed between The Earth and The Debacle, in which we find Jean has joined the army to fight in the Franco-Prussian war (the titular 'debacle').

In a brief span of time - and without hitting us over the head - Zola illustrates for the reader the incompetence of the French army's leadership. This incompetence ends in a series of truly humiliating defeats for the French, in which thousands of soldiers are massacred. As the plot takes us through the inevitable disaster, Zola does an amazing job painting the horrors of the battlefield, prison camps, and an insurrection in Paris which leads to the city being set on fire. In the midst of these historic events, Zola creates a touching friendship between his two main characters: Jean and the somewhat aristocratic Maurice. Initially at odds, the relationship between them slowly develops until they are like brothers. They bring humanity to this historical novel and render the tragedy much more affecting as a result, as Zola weaves his plot and historical elements together brilliantly. He creates a panorama of characters, including the Emperor himself, that allows us to be in the middle of the action at all times. The Debacle is a powerful novel about the folly of war.

At the same time, The Debacle works brilliantly as a product of Zola's Naturalistic school of writing. On the one hand, it is yet another portal back into time allowing us to view an aspect of Second Empire France in tremendous detail: the military and war. The Debacle also figuratively and very literally closes the curtain on Second Empire France, as the French defeat cascades into a sort of anarchist civil war within the confines of Paris. While the section between the end of the war and the beginning of the insurrection of the Communards is way too heavy on exposition and starved of plot details, the novel does return to full power for the burning of Paris. Part of the reason this part of the novel is so impactful is that - throughout his Cycle - Zola has made us so well acquainted with the Second Empire Paris of which he pens the destruction.

I remember watching an featurette about the making of Brian De Palma's movie Carrie. In it, De Palma (or someone talking about his direction of the movie, I can't remember which), discusses the power of the prom scene. The person speaking pointed out that De Palma starts the prom scene with a long pan showing us the entire gym and all the characters in it, the stage, the rock band, the decorations...everything. The comment was - and I'm paraphrasing - that the scene worked so well because De Palma spent that pan (and in truth the entirely of the movie leading up to that moment) displaying the world he was about to destroy. By making us aware of the people and the setting, it was much more dramatic when Carrie unleashes her rage.

The same thing is true about Zola and the burning of Paris. Throughout the Cycle, Zola has illustrated every nuance and shade of Paris: the mansions of the rich in The Kill, the middle class neighborhoods of Pot-Bouille, and the hovels of the poor in L'Assommoir. The retail paradise of The Ladies' Paradise, the food markets of Les Halles, and the squalid 'store' operated by Sidonie Rougon. The artistic circles, theaters, massive gentrification projects, the Bourse, the railroads, the Salon, and the streets of the city itself. Through all of this, we have walked with Zola's characters in Paris, lived with them, watched them work, build their fortunes, face defeat, and/or sink into oblivion. After experiencing all of this, it is truly and monumentally disastrous to read about Paris burning...especially in the hellish way Zola writes about it.

Zola uses the burning of Paris to once more extol his theme about the need for destruction to occur in order for new life or growth to take place. The only odd thing about Zola's treatment of this theme in The Debacle is that he positions the peasant Jean as the sort of honest stock that can be trusted to rebuild France from the ruins. This sentiment is a little hard to swallow after Zola spent 500+ pages depicting peasants as depraved, grasping bottom feeders in The Earth.

Along this theme - and as I hinted in my entry about The Earth - I noticed that Jean is one of the few Rougon-Macquart family members to be a principle character in two novels. After thinking about the structure of the entire Cycle, this fact led me to some interesting analysis because while Nana Coupeau and Claude Lantier have notable roles in books beyond the on in which they 'star' (L'Assommoir and The Belly of Paris, respectively), there are actually only three characters who are truly the focus of more than one novel. Interestingly, these three characters each come from one of the three families in the Cycle. Jean Macquart (The EarthThe Debacle) is from the lower class Macquart family, Octave Mouret (Pot-BouilleThe Ladies' Paradise) is from the middle class Mouret family, and Aristide Saccard (The KillMoney) is a member of the wealthy/privileged Rougon family. What these three characters have in common and what their two novel vehicles share is very interesting.

Aristide, Octave, and Jean are each introduced in novels that present them within a panorama of characters used to dissect their class. In The Kill, Aristide takes a backseat to his second wife Renee amid the decadence and out of control acquisitiveness of the upper class who graft and spend their way through millions. Octave is introduced in Pot-Bouille among a vast cast of characters representing the hypocritical and social climbing middle class. In The Earth, Jean is presented as part of the peasant class, who are replete with animalistic vice and depravity. All three of these Rougon-Macquart characters are assertive and lack the laziness, inertia, or mental instabilities that undermine most other members of the family.

The second book each character appears in uses the character to speak to Zola's theme of the need for destruction and death to allow progress. For example, in Money Aristide takes center stage and his predatory nature - well-established in The Kill - achieves its fullest expression as he foments a ponzi scheme that leads to a financial meltdown. People's lives are destroyed and the economy is harmed on a large scale. Octave's lusting ambition is clearly delineated in Pot-Bouille. In The Ladies' Paradise, we see the apotheosis of this trait in his creation of a voracious department store that destroys all his competitors.

Jean's story is a bit more sympathetically presented in that he is never really part of the morass of slime Zola paints in The Earth. He comes off as a decent, hard-working man who leaves the farming community partially out of disgust. In The Debacle, this steadfastness serves him well as he survives the events of the war. Unlike the other two characters, Jean does not create the predatory or destructive forces the unfold around him. This makes sense given his low social position; he simply doesn't have the power, money, or influence to wield such force. Instead, after everything collapses, Zola presents him and his honesty and diligence as part of the growth and progress that will come after destruction has burned away corruption.

I have to believe this two-novel device was intentional, as it is far too structurally sound to have occurred by chance. These sorts of pan-Cycle analyses - of which I've laid out several examples in my posts about the Cycle - are one of the reasons Zola's magnum opus is so impressive as a work of literary genius. The Cycle is not just a set of twenty loosely connected novels; they form a whole of which different parts resonate with others and hold together to create a structure that has emergent qualities in theme and social commentary that are not as powerfully or comprehensively spoken to within a single novel. The point of Zola's Cycle, therefore, is in the cross-referencing of characters, classes, heredity, and social institutions in understanding human society as a whole.

On a final note, another recurring characteristic of the Cycle novels is how often they speak to modern society. This is something I've noted in posts on several of the novels. The overall theme of destruction leading to progress can be applied to today's world in some disturbing ways. The culture of the United States today is in pretty bad shape: political dysfunction, yawning gaps between haves and have-nots, willful ignorance waved as a patriotic banner, and arrogant corruption flagrantly oozing out of businesses and institutions all around us. One wonders what form of destruction lies ahead for the United States in order to make room for the inevitable progress of a renewed path forward.

Zola would suggest we should not only expect such upheaval, but that we should not shed too many tears over the lives trampled as human society evolves and pushes for progress. It's not at all an idealistic or compassionate way to view human beings, but then Zola wasn't much interested in ideals. He preferred reality, uncompromised by sentiment.

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