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.