Kamis, 07 Agustus 2014

The Debacle

All these times I have been thinking that Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities would be my most favorite historical-war-novel ever. It’s just so memorable; with its famous opening “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times […]” and the pure love showed by Sidney Carton. In term of war, War and Peace was thicker in ‘war nature’ then A Tale, but Tolstoy emphasized too much on war idealism that it became partly too serious. But now I think I have found my new favorite historical-war-novel that exceeded those two: The Debacle.

The Debacle is the only historical novel by Émile Zola; it depicted the Franco-Prussian war (1870-1871), and became the penultimate novel of Rougon-Macquart series. The story began in the middle of the war; the main character is Jean Macquart—a farmer who had been in another war before—but now the Corporal of the 7th army corps. Another important character is Maurice Levasseur—a young man brought up well and educated—now a soldier under Jean’s command. At first they were indifferent of each other because of their different backgrounds; but in wars, status, education, wealth, everything that distinguishes someone dissolves and replaced by humanity. And so, having struggled together, Jean and Maurice became intimate friends, even closer than blood brother. They were willing to risk their own lives for the sake of the other.

In terms of the war, Zola has painstakingly written a very vivid picture of war as human-killing machine. It was compounded by French army’s bad coordination, incapability of the generals, and the indecision of the Emperor. France has been deluded itself by thinking of repeating the past grandeur of Napoleon. Many people could not realize that the Second Empire was corrupted, and that the Prussians was now much stronger than they have thought. Ironically, it was a civilian gentleman named Weiss (Maurice’s brother-in-law) who first predicted the great defeat of France, but at that time no one listened to him and even thought him a traitor. Moreover, Weiss—with no military background but his local knowledge of the land—could see what the Prussians would do; while none of the military general could read their strategy. It’s more than irony, it’s a stupidity. And what made the tragedy even tragic, was the stupidity of several people that finally destroyed many lives—the soldiers as well as civilians.

Zola explained to us his analysis of the root of the problems in chapter one – part one:

“The Empire grown old, still acclaimed in a plebiscite but basically rotten because it had weakened the idea of patriotism by destroying liberty, and then turning back to liberalism too late and thereby hastening its own undoing because it was ready to collapse as soon as it stopped satisfying the lust for pleasure it had let loose; the army certainly admirable as a brave lot of men, and still wearing the laurels of the Crimea and Italy, but adulterated by the system of paid substitutes, still in the old routine of the Africa school, too cocksure of victory to face the great effort of modern technique; and then the generals, most of them nonentities and eaten up with rivalries and some of them quite-stupefyingly ignorant, and at their head the Emperor, a sick man and vacillating, deceived and self-deceiving, and all facing this terrible adventure into which they were blindly hurling themselves, with no serious preparation, like a stampede of scared sheep being led to the slaughter.”

It was painful to read how the soldiers being maneuvered now here, then there, back and forth, and in poor conditions: fatigue, hungry, and distressed. And this was how I loved Zola’s The Debacle. Because it is not just a historical novel, it’s a living portrayal of a corrupted nation. Not only honest, but it was also painful; the ending especially. Actually it reminded me of Germinal, in the sense of a faint hope in future beneath the ruinous present. Like Etiènne Lantier, Jean Macquart was a simple man, and because of that, he never had the upper/middle class sentiment about French past grandeur. He was perhaps the least afflicted by the idea of beaten by the barbarians of Germany, and that was how he did not end like Maurice.

Zola proved himself as a great writer. The Debacle won’t be as it is if he had not done very thorough researches on the war and on how people reacted over it. And he (as usual) crafted the history and his naturalism theory on Rougon-Macquart in his beautiful, powerful, and intense narration. It instantly became my next favorite, along with Germinal, L’Assommoir, and La Bète Humaine.

Bravo Zola! Five stars for you!

Selasa, 29 April 2014

[Review] Nana

Now 15 years old, Nana Coupeau, Gervaise and Coupeau’s daughter, first appeared in L’Assommoir as a child. Brought up on the street, Nana started her career as a tart, or courtesan, or whatever you might call for prostitutes. However that day, three years before Franco-Prussian War, Nana would began her new step as an actress in the Théâtre des Variétés. Her debut has created a big fuss all over Paris, although—as the manager stated—she had neither good voice nor good acting. The opera was very successful, and Nana suddenly became a famous tart in Paris. Many gentlemen fell for her; there was a count who came from very conservative family; another was a girlish young man; while the others ranged from Jewish banker to rich hedonist young men of all Paris. They were all bent under Nana’s sexual charm; risking everything—money, family, honor—to be with her. In three years Nana has been ruining these men’s lives, but the one who suffered most was Count Muffat.

In Nana, Zola criticized the moral corruption which infected France in the Second Empire. Actually, reading Nana right after The Kill was quite intriguing, because I felt a close similarity in both novels—the moral lose in the shape of excessive sexual and pleasure appetites. In Nana herself, we saw that her alcoholic parents and the slump environment affected her sexual behavior and gave her insatiable passion for pleasure.

We also learned from Nana how difficult for people who lived in the gutter of Paris to avoid their return to the same gutter, no matter what they do. In fact, Nana was once one of the richest tarts in Paris, while rich and influential men provided any luxury she asked for. However, no matter how much she possessed, she would spend much more. And although she longed to be regarded as a lady, she still could not resist of taking men from street to sleep with her, from time to time.

It is also interesting to see how women in the second half of 19th century struggled to have more influence in the midst of patriarchal world. At that era, women didn't have access to both education and career, but they learned that they had another power which only women had: sexual charm, and it was so powerful that they could overpower the men and rule the country or society. Here the moral loose was not only in the lower level of society (the workers), but also in the aristocracy, both courtesans and respectable ladies gripped their claws in the men’s lives and ruin them. 

There were a lot of other examples in Nana, that it is so difficult to break the habitual chain we inherited from our families and environment. Zola often made his characters to be helpless victims, as if they had neither any will power nor hope to change themselves. As if, we, human being, are merely product of nature, and our future always depends on evolution process. I have read seven books from Zola, and in most of them, I always thought, why they (the central characters) didn’t fight? Why did they surrender to their weaknesses? It is all because Zola is a naturalist, and in this Les Rougon-Macquart series he emphasized how hereditary weakness and corrupted society were powerful enough to drag a person, helplessly, down to the gutter. He did not intend to preach us on morality or religion; he just wanted to present how the corruption happened.

Out of his method and principle, Zola is no doubt great in story-telling, and he never fails to amaze me. Nana won’t perhaps be one of my favorites, but the story is entertaining and flows nicely with (as usual) a theatrical ending. Four stars for Nana!


I read the Oxford World Classics paperback edition

This book is counted as:

 2nd book for Zoladdiction 2014

Selasa, 22 April 2014

[Review] The Kill

If you think I am going to review a thriller/mystery book, you are mistaken! The Kill is a novel by Émile Zola; the second in his Les Rougon-Macquart series, and there is no murder act in this novel, whose original title is La Curée. From the Introduction (I read Brian Nelson’s translation from Oxford World’s Classics): “la curée denotes, literally, the part of an animal fed to the hounds that have run it to ground.” From the title, we immediately recognize the first naturalism trace on this novel.

The Kill depicted the vulgar political spoils and financial gain during the Second Empire of France. Aristide Rougon arrived in Paris with the hunger of a huntsman. Thanks to his brother who was a minister in the Second Empire, Aristide got his first job as a clerk in city planning office, and changed his name to Aristide Saccard. From the beginning Saccard was a scoundrel; and with his cunning eyes he saw how Paris was transforming itself into a modern city by building new boulevards over the existing houses. He began his ambition with property speculation—buying houses that would soon be demolished, and later on claimed a high compensation to the city. His loyal wife suddenly died in the right time; as the only way to get huge capital money for his ambition was by marrying a rich girl.

Renée was a dynamic woman, and living glamorously in her mansion bored her very much. So, when Maxime, Saccard’s son from his late wife, moved in the house, the mother and the stepson soon began their (half) incestuous love affair. And these two moral corruptions grew eagerly in the Saccards’, and in the end Renée became the victim; she had lost the battle, just like a quarry finished by its hunter.

This novel appeared to not containing enough conflict to make it enjoyable. After the background story of Saccard and Renée, the plot becomes rather flat. Yes, like all other Zola’s novel, the character(s) would have their downfall, but in The Kill, the process is rather too tedious. Zola went describing the interior of buildings in long and detailed passages, that at the end you cannot imagine anything at all. The only comfort comes from the detailed description of Renée and Maxime’s excursion to Bois de Boulogne. As always, Zola’s painter-side could brush his words beautifully onto the pages, as if you are watching lines of paintings on Bois de Boulogne in a gallery. When comes to nature description, Zola is great.

In relation to the Rougon-Macquart series, The Kill pointed out the greediness in gold and women (lust for money and for pleasure); moral corruption which Zola found on the Second Empire of France.

Three and a half stars for La Curée, it’s not my favorite Zola, but the naturalism theme—and his writing style, as always—is still beautiful.

Kamis, 17 April 2014

Bois de Boulogne in The Kill

This second novel of Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series turns out to be very picturesque; as if Zola wants to explore his painter-side by describing in micro-details almost every landscape and building interior. As Bois de Boulogne becomes one important aspect of the story—and he ‘paints’ them a lot—I dedicated this post to stretch my imagination about Bois de Boulogne, especially in 19th century. Of course, most of them might not express the exact details from the book, but at least they help our imagination.

After comparing the pictures and the passages, you might agree with me, that Zola’s description is much more beautiful than the pictures. He might not be a successful painter, but Zola is one of the greatest novelists who could ‘paint’ such beautiful, powerful, and touching prose.

The sun was setting in a grey October sky, streaked on the horizon with thin clouds. 

On the right, copses and low-cut trees with russet leaves and slender branches passed slowly by; at intervals, on the track reserved for riders, slim-waisted gentlemen galloped past, their steeds raising little clouds of fine dust behind them.” 

 “…in the avenue leading to the lake, the roads had been watered, the carriages rolled over the brown surface as over a carpet, amid a freshness, a rising fragrance of moist earth. 
[p. 257]

And as the lake came closer, the chairs on the side paths became more numerous, families sat with quiet, silent faces, watching the endless procession of wheels.”

Then, on reaching the open space in front of the lake, there was an effulgence; the slanting sun transformed the round sheet of water into a great mirror of polished silver.”


On approaching the waterfall, while the dimness of the copses was renewed on one side, the islands of the far end of the lake rose up against the blue sky, with their sunlit banks, the bold shadows of their pine trees, and the Chalêt at their feet, which looked like a child’s toy lost in a virgin forest. The whole park laughed and quivered in the sun.” 

“…in the presence of this broad daylight, of these sheets of sunshine, she thought of a fine dust of twilight she had seen falling one evening upon the yellow leaves.” 

She remained frozen when she evoked the image of that winter landscape, that congealed and dimmed lake on which they had skated; the sky was the colour of soot, and the snow had stitched white bands of lace on the trees, the wind blew fine sands into their faces.” 

She saw again the lawns soaked by the evening air, the darkened copses, the deserted pathways. The line of carriages drove then with a mournful sound past the empty chairs, while today the rumble of the wheels, the trot of the horses, sounded with the joyousness of a fanfare of trumpets.” 


It was almost night; twilight was spreading slowly like fine ash. The lake, seen from the front, in the pale light that still hovered over the water, became rounder, like a huge tin fish; on either sides, the plantations of evergreens, whose slim, straight stems seemed to rise up from its still surface, looked at this hour like purple colonnades, delineating with their even shapes the studied curves of the shore; and shrubs rose in the background, confused masses of foliage forming large black patches that closed off the horizon.” 


Behind these patches was the glow of the dying sunset, which set fire to only a small portion of the grey immensity. Above the still lake, the low copses, the strangely flat perspective, stretched the vast sky, infinite, deepened and widened. The great slice of sky hanging over this small piece of nature caused a thrill, an indefinable sadness...”


“…And from these palling heights fell so deep an autumnal melancholy, so sweet and heart-breaking a darkness, that the Bois, wound little by little in a shadowy shroud, lost its worldly graces, and widened out, full of the powerful charm that forests have. The wheels of the carriages, whose bright colours were fading in the twilight, sounded like the distant voices of leaves and running water. Everything was slowly dying away.”