Monday, April 29, 2019

Some Notes on Émile Zola's La Débâcle

When you call your novel La Débâcle, there is really not much suspense regarding how the story of the war will unfold, even if you don't know much of the subject in question, namely the history of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71. In fact, Zola himself summarizes the story of the debacle very early in the novel, in fact in the first chapter itself when he gives the following words to one of his characters who is visiting the soldiers who are waiting for orders to maneuver to the battlefronts.

the ageing Empire, still cheered by the people but rotten at the core, having undermined the nation’s pride in itself by taking away liberty, returning to a liberal stance too late and to its own damnation, poised to crumble and fall the moment it failed to satisfy the appetite for worldly pleasures which it had itself unleashed; without doubt the army possessed an admirable pedigree for bravery, heaped with laurels from Italy and the Crimea, but it had been marred by the practice of buying one’s way out of national service, had got stuck in the old routine of the African school, and was too confident of victory to think of trying to develop new techniques; finally you had the generals, most of them mediocre, consumed by rivalries, some of them staggeringly ignorant, with the Emperor at their head, ailing and indecisive, deceived by others, deceiving himself, in the dreadful adventure which was now beginning, where everyone was leaping in blindly, with no serious preparation, stampeding in terror like a herd of cattle being led to the slaughterhouse.
If you have read Zola's earlier novels in the Rougon-Macquart cycle (La Débâcle is the 19th, the penultimate novel) you would know what he means by "taking away liberty" and "returning to the liberal stance too late" and also what means by unleashing the appetite for worldly pleasures. Zola documented all these in his novels like The Belly of Paris, The Kill and Nana. La Débâcle can only be read as a postscript to those earlier novels in the cycle, because otherwise this theme of the second empire facing its endgame and getting its just comeuppance, which is really a central concern for Zola, wouldn't make that much of an impression. In this sense, this is definitely not something you should read if you are new to Zola. Also worth noting is the phrase from the last line in the passage above, "like a herd of cattle being led to the slaughterhouse" because Zola will keep coming back to similar images and metaphors throughout his representation of the war in the novel.

Like all of Zola's novels, this is also very neatly structured. (Zola spent as much time, if not more, planning and researching his novels as he did in writing them.) La Débâcle is divided into three parts, each about 150-200 pages long. In the first part, which is set over a few days in the last week of August 1870, we follow a small army division as they try to follow confusing orders from the high command. They move forward only to retreat back to the position they already left, where again they wait agonizingly as they get new orders to move to a new position and all this while they are short of food rations and suffering from low morale. Like Zola alluded in the quoted passage above, it was all due to the senior military commanders' lack of preparation and poor understanding of military logistics. The French military commanders and leaders were in this sense no match to Bismarck and Helmuth von Moltke, the Prussian chief of military staff, both of whom are now actually considered the finest military and strategic minds of the nineteenth century Europe. The Prussians were able to move vast number of soldiers and huge army divisions much more quickly than the French which ultimately proved decisive in the end. Zola mentions at one point in the novel that the French military leaders didn't even have maps of their own terrain and had little understanding of the geography which would cause logistics problems, they only had maps of Prussia!

Zola as is always the case, is very good at intermingling micro and macro perspectives. Most of the time the narrative hews close to the perspective of two protagonists: Jean, a former soldier who fought in the battle of Solferino and who had a tragic experience when he decided to build his life as a peasant (Zola tells this story in "Earth") and Maurice, a young Parisian with a nervous and hysterical disposition (Zola repeatedly stresses his "effeminacy") who has lived a dissolute life in Paris supported by the sacrifices of his twin sister Henriette. Maurice sees war as his chance to redeem his life, in the eyes of himself and his sister. Maurice is also presented as an "intellectual" (somewhat similar to Lazare in Zola's The Bright Side of Life) who has some very interesting ideas on the nature of life and the justification of war. (More on this later.) The growing friendship and attachment between Jean and Maurice, and there are ample hints to suggest that it could be sexual attachment too, forms an important strand of the story here.

Even when we remain close to the perspective of Jean and Maurice, Zola makes sure that we know what else is going on in the battle. In this sense, it is very different from the representation of the war in Stendhal's "The Charterhouse of Parma", which is depicted purely from the individual perspective of Fabrizio and because of which we experience war as only chaos and confusion, sometimes even comic confusion. Zola here uses different kinds of narrative devices, some readers may even feel that these are clumsy devices, like a character randomly picking up a week old newspaper and reciting all the events that have happened on different battle fronts and in Paris, or a civilian character visiting the camp and telling them about what is happening outside and all the rumours circulating, both exaggerating the wins and also the defeats. At one point we are told that Maurice's grandfather fought in the Napoleonic campaigns, which gives Zola an excuse to give a long history of all those battles, basically depicting the French self-understanding of being the only superpower in Europe at the time, and bring to perspective the big shock that awaited them!

The second part of the novel chronicles the events of the battle of Sedan, when the army division that Jean and Maurice were part of reaches Sedan and joins others already waiting there. Zola narrates the events of a single day of the battle over almost 200 pages from multiple different perspective. We of course get the battle sequences, but we also see civilians participating in the war in many different ways. In fact this was probably my favourite part of the book. The sequence where Henriette makes a journey arcoss the battle zone to find out the fate of her husband Weiss is heartstopping and it shows Zola at the peak of his mastery. Battle of Sedan is pretty much presented as a slaughterhouse as he had alluded earlier in the novel, with long descriptions of unimaginable loss and destruction.

Zola further ups the ante in the third part of the novel when it comes to depicting the aftermath of the disaster. We get long descriptions of scenes set in the makeshift hospital with endless descriptions of battle wounds, amputations and deaths. The image of dead bodies being thrown on the "charnel heap" is not easily forgotten. We also see the appalling conditions of French soldiers in the prisoner of war camp as they struggle with hunger and starvation. There is a revolting scene of a starving horse being butchered for raw meat, Zola doesn't spare you any of the ugly details and you need a strong stomach and heart to read through these passages. In the middle of all these apocalyptic situations, the sordid human drama continues apace. We see the failed and disappointed hopes of innocents, we see people making use of the situation to make profit, we see betrayals, we see summary executions, we even see adultery!

In the last two chapters of the novel, the scene shifts back to Paris. Zola through a complicated and somewhat clumsy narrative maneuvering brings all three main characters Jean, Maurice and Henriette together for a final confrontation. After about 500 pages Zola seemed in a hurry to finish the novel so we get a short and rapid crash course in the history of the Paris commune. Some readers who think of Zola as a leftist revolutionary radical will be a little surprised to read these passages. He portrays the revolution as unleashing of violent and beastly passions, something irrational and destructive in its contempt for the rule of law and to sanctity of property and ultimately contrary to the true patriotic spirit of France, specially in its fratricidal struggle. He makes the fratricidal battle almost literal when he makes Jean stab Maurice (though unwittingly and without recognizing him) with his bayonet fatally during a struggle. There are unforgettable descriptions of fire engulfing the big government buildings, specially resonant given the recent event with Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris. Although harsh on the communards, Zola is no less critical of the other side who he openly calls butchers, for their summary executions in which they not only killed innocents but even women and children.

Before I end I wanted to touch on a rather troubling theme in the novel. This is also something that links this novel to Zola's aesthetic and philosophical doctrines, which were hugely controversial at the time and still provoke debate and passionate disagreements. This is his tendency to reduce history and politics, and indeed the whole of reality to biological or "naturalistic" imperatives. He gives some of these thoughts in the novel to Maurice, who is presented as an intellectual figure from Paris and contrasts it with more commonsensical optimist figure of the peasant Jean (although this itself is in contradiction to Zola's dark and pessimistic portrait of peasantry in "Earth"). Take the following thought for example:

But Maurice, back in the thrall of his learning, was thinking about the necessity of war, war which is life itself, war which is the law of the world. After all, wasn’t it man, full of pity, who had introduced the idea of peace and justice, while impassive nature is nothing but an endless massacre?
Even when he is dying at the end, he can't stop thinking:
War’s life, and life can’t exist without death.
Since this idea is presented in a "dialogic" form in the novel and is undercut by Jean's perspective, so this is really hard to argue that novel presents this as an argument but one can still see a connection with Zola's doctrines here. Although Zola of course couldn't have known it at that time but this kind of biological mysticism and the related philosophy of vitalism (or what the Germans call Lebensphilosophie) had an entirely deleterious impact on 20th century European history with its contribution to the doctrines of racial decline and race survival and of course to racism, fascism, genocide and the ideology of the perpetual war. Christopher Clark in his book "The Sleepwalkers," which is about the origins of the first world war, says that the fact that so many diplomats and intellectuals, specially in France and Germany, took the idea of war as a necessity for racial survival was one of the major factors in the breakdown of negotiations which could have prevented the war. Anyway, this is a big and complicated topic and certainly something that I am not fully intellectually qualified to comment on meaningfully. I hope to read and think more on it in due course.

Be that as it may, I still consider it to be a major work not just in Zola's own oeuvre but the whole of 19th century European novel and the literature of war. That said, you shouldn't read this if you are new to Zola. Read L'Assommoir, Germinal and Earth first.

Friday, April 5, 2019

An excerpt from The Radetzky March

An excerpt from The Radetzky March, which clarifies some of its central themes


It was very still. The final glint of twilight had long since vanished. Through the narrow gaps of the green blinds they could have seen a few stars in the sky. The broad and blaring chant of the frogs had been replaced by the quiet metallic chant of the nightly field crickets. From time to time they heard the harsh cry of the cuckoo.

The district captain, put in an unfamiliar, almost enchanted state by the alcohol, the bizarre surroundings, and the count’s unusual words, stole a glance at his son, merely to see a close and familiar person. But Carl Joseph too seemed neither close nor familiar to him. Perhaps Chojnicki was correct and they all really no longer existed: not the Fatherland nor the district captain nor his son! Straining greatly, Herr von Trotta managed to ask, “I don’t understand. How can you say the monarchy no longer exists?”

“Naturally!” replied Chojnicki. “In literal terms, it still exists. We still have an army”—the count pointed at the lieutenant—“and officials”—the count pointed at the district captain—“but the monarchy is disintegrating while still alive; it is doomed! An old man, with one foot in the grave, endangered whenever his nose runs, keeps the old throne through the sheer miracle that he can still sit on it. How much longer, how much longer? This era no longer wants us! This era wants to create independent nation-states! People no longer believe in God. The new religion is nationalism. Nations no longer go to church. They go to national associations. Monarchy, our monarchy, is founded on piety, on the faith that God chose the Hapsburgs to rule over so and so many Christian nations. Our Kaiser is a secular brother of the Pope, he is His Imperial and Royal Apostolic Majesty; no other is as apostolic, no other majesty in Europe is as dependent on the grace of God and on the faith of the nations in the grace of God. The German Kaiser still rules even when God abandons him; perhaps by the grace of the nation. The Emperor of Austria-Hungary must not be abandoned by God. But God has abandoned him!”

The district captain rose to his feet. He would never have believed there could exist a person in this world who could say that God had abandoned the Kaiser. All his life he had left matters of heaven to the theologians and regarded the church, the mass, the Corpus Christi ceremony, the clergy, and the Good Lord as institutions of the monarchy; but now all at once, the count’s statement seemed to explain all the confusion he had been feeling for the past few weeks, especially since old Jacques’s death. That was it: God had abandoned the old Kaiser! The district captain took a few steps, the old boards creaking under his feet. He went over to the window, and through the gaps in the blinds he saw the narrow stripes of the dark-blue night. All processes in nature and all events of everyday life suddenly achieved an ominous and incomprehensible meaning. Incomprehensible was the whispering chorus of crickets, incomprehensible the twinkling of the stars, incomprehensible the velvety blue of the night, incomprehensible the district captain’s trip to the border and his visit with this count. He returned to the table and ran his hand over one sideburn, as he would do whenever he felt a bit perplexed. A bit perplexed? Never had he been as perplexed as he was now!

In front of him stood a full glass. He swiftly drained it. “So,” he said, “you believe, you believe that we—”

“Are doomed,” Chojnicki completed. “We are doomed, you and your son and I. We are, I tell you, the last members of a world in which God sheds his grace on majesties, and lunatics like myself make gold. Listen! Look!” And Chojnicki stood up, went to the door, turned a switch, and the lights on the large chandelier shone. “Look!” said Chojnicki again. “This is the age of electricity, not alchemy. Chemistry too, you know! Do you know what this thing is called? Nitroglycerine.” The count articulated each syllable. “Nitroglycerine!” he repeated. “No more gold! In Franz Joseph’s palace they still often burn candles. Do you understand? Nitroglycerine and electricity will be the death of us! It won’t last much longer, not much longer!”

Thursday, April 4, 2019

The Radetzky March read along - notes on part 1

{ This is a good excuse to revive this dead blog. }

Thanks to Lizzy for emailing the questions for the readalong and the discussion in advance. It certainly made the task of writing this blog much easier.

Ok so here we go:

Welcome to the #germanlitmonth spring readalong of Joseph Roth’s most famous novel, The Radetzky March.  What enticed you to readalong with us?

"The Radetzky March" is one of my European novels of all time. I first read it in 2007 and I was immediately struck by, more than anything else, its vision of History (note the capital 'H'). It is a Historical novel not just in the sense of being set in a specific period in the past but also in the sense of having a specific vision and a specific attitude towards the process of Historical change and the meanings it may or may not have. The great Hungarian literary critic and philosopher Georg Lukacs said that only the novels which do the latter can be called Historical novels and the novels which treat the past as just a background setting for the story and characters are merely "antiquarian" novels, and he naturally was quite dismissive of the latter. The Radetzky March is a true historical novel as per this definition even though it seems to invert the conception of Histoical process Lukacs and other Marxist philosophers believed in. In this sense it is probably much closer to the philosophy of History that Lukacs's contemporary Walter Benjamin believed in namely a "catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble."

Reading the novel at the time also made me think and question certain ideas and beliefs which I had always thought to be too obvious, too common-sensical to question or think about. When you think about standard oppositional concepts like democracy and monarchy or Nationalistic self-determination and Empire, or History as a story of progress and History as a Disaster, it is obvious for most of us to choose the former in each case. Roth made me rethink all these assumptions. Even outside of these lofty intellectual excursions, I was very deeply and very personally moved by the melancholy and the despair and the vision of the decline that Roth brings to the story. It is not just the despair of a specific set of characters or specific events described in the story but an all consuming despair which colours and touches everything Roth describes and gives everything a flavour of the apocalyptic and an aura of mourning. For a lot of Europeans of Roth's generation, specially the Jews, the end of the Austro-Hungarian felt as an apocalyptic event in their personal lives. This novel is an expression of that feeling.

Long story short, I love this novel and I jumped on the idea of revisiting this after such a long time.

Which edition/translation are you using and how is it reading?

I am reading the Joachim Neugroschel translation published by Penguin Modern Classics, which is the same as I read earlier. This edition comes with a substantive introduction by South African writer and Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer. I will try to write a separate post or post some excerpts from her introduction later. Incidentally this is also a favourite novel of another Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa, who calls it the greatest historical novel ever written.

I wanted to read the Michael Hoffman translation but I found it was a little too expensive here and since I already had this book I just decided to read this one. The translation appears fine to my non-expert ears.

Is the novel living up to your expectations?

Yes, it is. The first part is mostly setting up the background context. The story really kicks up only with the tragic duel scene towards the end of part one when it takes on dark and menacing undertones. The narrative never really lets up then on, specially as it moves to the fringes of the Austro-Hungarian empire where Roth is really in his elements. He himself came from Galicia which is in modern day Ukraine but at the time was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire just on the border with another Empire, the Russian empire.

How would you comment on the first few sentences? Is this an effective opening? “The Trottas were not an old family.  Their founder had been enobled following the battle of Solferino.  He was a Slovene.  The name of his village - Sipolje - was taken into his title.  Fate had singled him out for a particular deed.  He subsequently did everything he could to return himself to obscurity.” (Translation: Michael Hofmann)

It is definitely intriguing. I am always intrigued about the regions which lie on outskirts of Europe, specially Central and Eastern Europe. So the mention of a Slovenian village immediately intrigues me.

Roth subscribed to Chekhov’s view that a writer “should not be a judge of his characters or what they say, but an impartial witness”.  That doesn’t mean that we as readers need to be the same!  How do you feel about the hero of Solferino’s crusade to return to obscurity? What are the ramifications of this for his descendants?

I do not like making moral judgments about characters in a novel as if they were real people. I am more interested in thinking and learning about the representation of the character itself. What are the different techniques the author uses to represent the specific character's thoughts, feelings and actions and their interrelations and what all these together say about the personality of the character and in turn what all these may mean for the author's overall aims in telling this specific story.

Carl Josef von Trotta follows his grandfather into the military.  Is his life there honourable and meaningful? Is his fateful relationship with Dr Demant’s wife innocent?

Carl Josef von Trotta to me feels like a figure representing the decadent and dissipated spirit of the times he belonged to. He symbolizes the decline and death of an entire culture in the specific character of his own persona.

Strauss’s Radetzky March is heard almost as a refrain throughout this section.  What is the significance of that?

I need to read a little more about Strauss and the titular musical piece before I can comment but from what I understood my reading is that it provides a unifying character to the diversity of the empire much like secular emblems like a flag or a national song provide to modern nation states. No matter which part of the empire you belonged to, The Radetzky March always made people of the empire feel as if they belonged to a common whole.

Roth may not judge his characters, but his sights are aimed at other targets: the social order and the military code of honour, for instance.  How does Roth critique these?

Roth is generally written as a nostalgist for the old order. There is certainly some truth in that but it is not the whole truth. Roth is also unsparing in the depiction of the rigid strictures of social code and military honour which people lived with and which stifled genuine human aspirations and noble pursuits and often led to senseless tragedies, like the duel scene whose aftermath and the scenes that precede it Roth describes at such length and with so much feeling.

Set in what was very much a man’s world, what do you think of the way Roth portrays the female characters?

Both Frau Slama and Frau Demant in part one are presented in heavily sexualised terms, almost like seductresses. This is quite par for the course for the Austrian literature of the period. The Austrian society as a whole was extremely repressive of its women and of sexuality in general. At the same time, the character of a woman was highly sexualised. Prostitution and brothel culture was also very mainstream. In this sense it was as hypocritical as any other cultural historically, may be only a little extreme when it came to its representation in the arts. You can see this in this novel too with the casual ease with which the male characters visit the brothels! For more on sexuality in fin-de-siecle Austria also see: Otto Weininger's Sex and Character, Freud's "A Case of Hysteria", many of Arthur Schnitzler's stories specially "Fraulein Else", Robert Musil's The Confusions of Young Törless, and his short fiction collected in "Five Women" (specially Tonka). Some of these are most definitely misogynistic but they are also extremely provocative and provide a unique window into the culture of the period. There is also this view of sexuality as a form of dissipation and decadence that is of great interest to Roth as he develops these themes later in the novel

Do you have any further comments on this section?

I will raise two points here:

First the way Roth prefigures and presages death and decay in the narrative. Notice the repetitive scenes of characters visiting the cemeteries and imagining worms eating up the flesh of the dead and buried.

Here is Carl Josef von Trotta thinking about Frau Slama after her death:
The traces of the dead woman’s caressing hands still lay upon his skin, and his own warm hands still contained the memory of her cool breasts, and with closed eyes he saw the blissful weariness in her love-sated face, the parted red lips and the white shimmer of the teeth, the indolently bent arm, in every line of the body the flowing reflection of contented dreams and happy sleep. Now the worms were crawling over her breasts and thighs, and decay was thoroughly devouring her face. The more intense the dreadful images of rot before the young man’s eyes, the more vehemently they kindled his passion. It seemed to be reaching out into the incomprehensible boundlessness of those regions where the dead woman had vanished. I probably would never have visited her again, the lieutenant mused.
 A little later again musing about his grandfather's and father's (impending) death
The Hero of Solferino had grown old and died. Now the worms were devouring him. And his son, the district captain, Carl Joseph’s father, was also growing old. Soon the worms would be devouring him too.
The idea of death and decay is there in text almost like a musical refrain and as I remember it gets even more intense and prominent as the narrative progresses further.

The second point is Roth's repeated invocation of the portrait of the Emperor Franz Joseph and comparing its omnipresence with that of the God himself.

Here is just one example (you can find many such examples in the text and again, it gets intensified later in the story)
Carl Joseph’s gaze focused on the portrait of the Kaiser on the opposite wall. There was Franz Joseph in a sparkling-white general’s uniform, the wide blood-red sash veering across his chest and the Order of the Golden Fleece at his throat. The big black field marshal’s helmet with its lavish peacock-green aigrette lay next to the Emperor on a small, wobbly-looking table. The painting seemed to be hanging very far away, farther than the wall. Carl Joseph remembered that during his first few days in the regiment that portrait had offered him a certain proud comfort. He had felt that the Kaiser might step out of the narrow black frame at any moment. But gradually the Supreme Commander in Chief developed the indifferent, habitual, and unheeded countenance shown on his stamps and coins. His picture hung on the wall of the club, a strange kind of sacrifice that a god makes to himself. His eyes—earlier they had recalled a summer vacation sky—were now a hard blue china. And it was still the same Kaiser! This painting also hung at home, in the district captain’s study. It hung in the vast assembly hall at military school. It hung in the colonel’s office at the barracks. And Emperor Franz Joseph was scattered a hundred thousand times throughout his vast empire, omnipresent among his subjects as God is omnipresent in the world.
This is very important to the thematic development of one of the strands of the story. We modern readers, citizens of secular republics and nation states, may find it ridiculous to think of a time when people thought of their Monarchs as God-like figures but the power of this novel is that by the time you are finished reading it, the idea will not feel as ridiculous as it did originally.