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The Débâcle by Emile Zola – A reading debacle for me

June 10, 2019 9 comments

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.

An Open Wound by Patrick Pécherot – About the Paris Commune of 1871

December 30, 2018 25 comments

An Open Wound by Patrick Pécherot (2015) Original French title: Une plaie ouverte.

*Sigh* A missed opportunity, that’s what An Open Wound is. Patrick Pécherot supposedly wrote historical crime fiction here. The setting is Paris, back and forth between the Paris Commune of 1871 and 1905. Here’s what Wikipedia sums up about the Paris Commune:

The Paris Commune was a radical socialist and revolutionary government that ruled Paris from 18 March to 28 May 1871. The Franco-Prussian War had led to the capture of Emperor Napoleon III in September 1870, the collapse of the Second French Empire, and the beginning of the Third Republic. Because Paris was under siege for four months, the Third Republic moved its capital to Tours. A hotbed of working-class radicalism, Paris was primarily defended during this time by the often politicised and radical troops of the National Guard rather than regular Army troops. Paris surrendered to the Prussians on 28 January 1871, and in February Adolphe Thiers, the new chief executive of the French national government, signed an armistice with Prussia that disarmed the Army but not the National Guard.

On 18 March, soldiers of the Commune’s National Guard killed two French army generals, and the Commune refused to accept the authority of the French government. The Commune governed Paris for two months, until it was suppressed by the regular French Army during “La semaine sanglante” (“The Bloody Week”) beginning on 21 May 1871.

Debates over the policies and outcome of the Commune had significant influence on the ideas of Karl Marx, who described it as an example of the “dictatorship of the proletariat”.

The pretext of the plot is that Dana, a participant in the Commune of Paris has been sentenced to death in absentia for a murder on the Haxo street during the Paris Commune. In 1905, Dana is still missing and no one knows where he is or if he’s still alive. Rumors say he might be in America.

Dana was part of a group of activists during the Paris Commune, a group of historical figures (Courbet, Verlaine, Louise Michel, Vallès) and fictional characters like Marceau, the man who wonders what has become of Dana.

So far, so good. Good blurb, excellent idea for a book. Its execution was a death sentence for this reader. There are so many things that went wrong for me that I abandoned it, despite a genuine interest in reading about the Paris Commune.

The layout of the book:

Different typos to help the reader know where they are: normal for relating the Paris Commune in 1871, italic for the quest in 1905 and normal with another font to write about the murder. Tedious. I wonder how it turns out in audio book. I hate this device: the writing should be good enough to make the reader understand they’re back in time or moving forward or changing of point of view. It’s a lazy way to overcome the difficulty of changing of time, place and narrator.

Losing the plot line

The investigation to discover what has become of Dana should be our main thread except that we have a hard time figuring out it’s supposed to be the plot line. Thank God for the blurb. It’s not a real and methodical investigation so, right after I finally got it was the purpose of the book, I lost sight of it.

Missing key elements on the historical events. 

The Paris Commune events are told in short paragraphs with their date, to give the reader a chronology of the movement and its fall. Fine. But, as a reader who knows next to nothing about the Paris Commune (and I’m sure I’m not the only one) I didn’t understand how it happened, who were Communards, the ones fighting against the Thiers government. Thank God for Wikipedia.

Mixing historical characters with fictional ones. 

Except for the obvious ones, I couldn’t figure out who were real participants and who were literary characters. I don’t know how much Verlaine was involved in the Paris Commune or if it’s true that his wife was one of Louise Michel’s pupil. I suppose it’s true.

The style

The last straw that broke my reader’s back was the style. At times some sort of lyrical prose overflowing with words and at other times, half sentences, almost bullet points. Add to the mix, embedded verses by Verlaine when a paragraph features the poet, like here:

Il faudrait questionner Courbet, savoir ce qu’il peint d’un modèle. Ou Verlaine. Son rêve étrange et pénétrant n’est jamais tout à fait le même ni tout à fait un autre.

Patrick Pécherot, Une plaie ouverte, p141

Je fais souvent ce rêve étrange et pénétrant

D’une femme inconnue, et que j’aime, et qui m’aime,

Et qui n’est, chaque fois, ni tout à fait la même

Ni tout à fait une autre, et m’aime et me comprend.

Paul Verlaine, Mon rêve familier.

And the language is uneven, moving from one register to the other, often using argot from I don’t know what time. 1871?

I tried to soldier on but I was at the end of my rope page 166, out of 318. I say I gave it a good shot. Like the one Dana gave to Amédée Floquin, the man he murdered? I guess I’ll never know whether he actually killed him or if he’s still alive in 1905. The style is really what made be abandon the book, it grated too much. I was still learning things about the Paris Commune (with Wikipedia on the side) but the style was too unbearable for me to finish the book.

That’s a pity. Maybe I wasn’t in the right mood, maybe I’m too demanding, I don’t know. An Open Wound won a literary prize for crime fiction, Le Prix Transfuge of the best Polar. I fail to see how this book is a polar at all but I’m not proficient in putting books in literary boxes.

The good thing about aborted read is that I got to browse through the list of books that are based upon the Paris Commune. I need to read La Débâcle by Zola, at least I know the style will be outstanding. There are poems by Victor Hugo, L’Année terrible. There’s L’Insurgé by Jules Vallès and Le Cri du peuple by Jean Vautrin, that was also made into a BD by Jacques Tardi. And Tardi is a reference in the BD world.

Zola’s take on stock exchanges

May 5, 2013 30 comments

L’Argent by Emile Zola. 1891 The English translation I used for the quotes is by Vizetelly.

L’Argent was our Book Club choice for April (I know, I’m late) and we all loved it.

Et la Bourse, grise et morne, se détachait, dans la mélancolie de la catastrophe, qui, depuis un mois, la laissait déserte, ouverte aux quatre vents du ciel, pareille à une halle qu’une disette a vidée. C’était l’épidémie fatale, périodique, dont les ravages balayent le marché tous les dix à quinze ans, les vendredis noirs, ainsi qu’on les nomme, semant le sol de décombres. Il faut des années pour que la confiance renaisse, pour que les grandes maisons de banque se reconstruisent, jusqu’au jour où, la passion du jeu ravivée peu à peu, flambant et recommençant l’aventure, amène une nouvelle crise, effondre tout, dans un nouveau désastre. And against this cloud the Bourse stood out grey and gloomy in the melancholiness born of the catastrophe which, for a month past, had left it deserted, open to the four winds of heaven, like some market which famine has emptied. Once again had the inevitable, periodical epidemic come—the epidemic which sweeps through it every ten or fifteen years—the Black Fridays, as the speculators say, which strew the soil with ruins. Years are needed for confidence to be restored, for the great financial houses to be built up anew, and time goes slowly by until the passion for gambling, gradually reviving, flames up once more and repeats the adventure, when there comes another crisis, and the downfall of everything in a fresh disaster.

I promise Zola wrote this and not a contemporary journalist. It’s a quote from Money, one of the last books of the Rougon-Macquart series. It was published in 1891, just before La Débâcle.

In this volume, we are in 1864 and we find Aristide Saccard again, one of the main characters of La Curée (The Kill). My post about The Kill was entitled Hunting high and low for money, pleasure or power. Well, Aristide Saccard hasn’t changed much. At the beginning of the novel, he is defeated, living rather poorly in an apartment in the hotel of the Princess D’Orviedo. She inherited a colossal fortune from her dead husband who didn’t earn it honestly. She’s expiating his faults by using his money for charities. Saccard works for one of her charity, the Institute of Work and runs it rather well. In the same hotel live a brother and a sister, M. Hamelin and Madame Caroline. They are also impoverished and try to make ends meet. Hamelin is an engineer and when he describes to Saccard all the great projects he could be starting in Asia Minor, Saccard sees an opportunity to start a new business, a bank. The three friends discuss the projects and Saccard relies on Hamelin’s ideas to promote his new company and new way of earning money.

Basically, the book relates the rise and fall of the Banque Universelle, created by Saccard with financial partners. It shows the madness of the stock exchange, the way people are corrupted by money easily earned on betting on the right stock and selling them at the right time.

The strength of the novel is the large net of secondary characters who serve one purpose: to show all kinds of unhealthy relationships with money and prove how it can turn honest people into despicable beings. All the characters in Money are involved with money at a level or another.

The main one is Saccard who appears like a megalomaniac, enjoys money for itself, for the power it gives him. He’s addicted to money. He’s full of energy, is afraid of nothing, is busy inventing scheme after scheme to reach his goal. At some point, he seems crazy. At the same time, you can’t despise him totally because he is hard working, full of enthusiasm but his ideas of grandeur are totally disproportionate. He has an appetite for life, for power and for all kinds of pleasures. Zola compared him to Napoleon: a man with lethal ideas or projects beyond imagination, someone who is a real leader, adored by people and at the same time leading his troops to death and desolation.  Saccard is shown as a Napoleonic businessman. Zola describes his fall with lots of military comparisons and they enforce the image of Saccard as a Napoleon of finance.

Les cours, de chute en chute, tombèrent à 1 500, à 1 200, à 900. Il n’y avait plus d’acheteurs, la plaine restait rase, jonchée de cadavres.  The quotations, from fall to fall, dropped to one thousand five hundred, one thousand two hundred, nine hundred francs. There were no more buyers ; none were left standing ; the ground was strewn with corpses.

When I read the French original, I cannot help thinking about Hugo’s poem L’Expiation about the battle of Waterloo. (Waterloo ! Waterloo ! Waterloo ! morne plaine !

Along with Saccard’s business, Zola portrays the business circles in Paris and especially the ones gravitating around the stock exchange, la Bourse. He describes the development of a new type of capitalism around banks and Sociétés Anonymes (Plc or AG). He depicts the workings of the Bourse, the behavior of investors, the optimists, the pessimists, the ones for who silence is gold. Zola shows the reader how enriched bourgeois, using impoverished nobility for their name are the new masters of the Bourse. He details rotten business practices, the manipulation of stock value and how people make money out of speculation. He always compares it to gambling.

The side characters are vivid too and Zola uses them to show how the madness of speculation, of easy money that corrupts people. It’s Dejoie, who buys stocks of the Banque Universelle to earn the 6000 francs he needs to pay for his daughter’s dowry. When the stock exchange price rises, he could sell and get his 6000 francs but he wants more. It’s the Maugendres who disowned their daughter because she married a poor writer and who’d rather play on the stock market than help her financially. It’s women who use prostitution to earn more.

Aside from the Bourse, Zola portrays the dirty market of bad debts and of devaluated stocks. Busch is our man and here is his business:

Mais, outre l’usure et tout un commerce caché sur les bijoux et les pierres précieuses, il s’occupait particulièrement de l’achat des créances. C’était là ce qui emplissait son cabinet à en faire craquer les murs, ce qui le lançait dans Paris, aux quatre coins, flairant, guettant, avec des intelligences dans tous les mondes. Dès qu’il apprenait une faillite, il accourait, rôdait autour du syndic, finissait par acheter tout ce dont on ne pouvait rien tirer de bon immédiatement. Il surveillait les études de notaire, attendait les ouvertures de successions difficiles, assistait aux adjudications des créances désespérées. Lui-même publiait des annonces, attirait les créanciers impatients qui aimaient mieux toucher quelques sous tout de suite que de courir le risque de poursuivre leurs débiteurs. Et, de ces sources multiples, du papier arrivait, de véritables hottées, le tas sans cesse accru d’un chiffonnier de la dette : billets impayés, traités inexécutés, reconnaissances restées vaines, engagements non tenus. Puis, là-dedans, commençait le triage, le coup de fourchette dans cet arlequin gâté, ce qui demandait un flair spécial, très délicat. Dans cette mer de créanciers disparus ou insolvables, il fallait faire un choix, pour ne pas trop éparpiller son effort. En principe, il professait que toute créance, même la plus compromise, peut redevenir bonne, et il avait une série de dossiers admirablement classés, auxquels correspondait un répertoire des noms, qu’il relisait de temps à autre, pour s’entretenir la mémoire. In addition also to usury and a secret traffic in jewels and precious stones, he particularly occupied himself with the purchase of ‘bad debts.’ This it was that filled his office with old paper to overflowing, this it was that sent him forth to the four corners of Paris, sniffing and watching, with connections in all circles of society. As soon as he heard of a failure, he hurried off, prowled around the liquidator, and ended by buying up everything which could not immediately be realised. He kept a watch on the notaries’ offices, looked out for inheritances difficult of settlement, and attended the ; sales of hopeless claims. He himself published advertisements, in this wise attracting impatient creditors who preferred to get a few coppers down rather than run the risk of prosecuting their debtors. And from all these manifold sources this chiffonnier of bad debts derived supply upon supply of paper, huge basketfuls, an ever-increasing pile of unpaid notes of hand, unfulfilled agreements, unredeemed acknowledgments !of liability, unkept engagements of every kind. Then a sorting-out became necessary, a fork had to be thrust into this mess of broken victuals, a special and very delicate scent being required in the operation. To avoid waste of effort, it was necessary to make a choice in this ocean of debtors, who were either insolvent or had disappeared. In principle, Busch asserted that every claim, even the most seemingly hopeless, may some day become valuable again ; and he had a series of portfolios, admirably classified, to which corresponded an index of names, which he read over from time to time to refresh his memory.

A charming profession, isn’t it? This man is merciless when he tracks down old debts and the additional expenses reach incredible amounts. I haven’t checked, but I bet these professionals really existed. This questions the access to credit: these debts were a way to have credit somewhere, when we basically rely on banks for this now.

Zola tries to balance his judgment. On the one hand, even evil characters have a good side. Busch is also a very kind brother attending to his ill relative like a mother hen. Saccard was perfectly honest when he ran the Institute of Work. On the other hand, the generous characters aren’t as good as it seems.  The Princess d’Orviedo gives her fortune away but the useless luxury she puts in her charities is to be criticized too. She gives her money away more for herself, because this money is dirty, than to really improve the beneficiaries’ life. She could do more if the investments were more efficient.

Madame Caroline is the only character who seems to keep her moral compass but she is also momentarily blinded by Saccard. He’s hard to resist. She’s seduced but can keep to her promises when she has decided something. She’s the only one who’s interested in life for itself and who has a healthy relationship with money. She enjoys it when she has some but wouldn’t give up her principles for more. If her income decreases, she adjusts her way of living.

Lots of elements in this novel were depressing because things haven’t changed that much since Zola. The behaviours he describes still exist. Crashes like Enron look a lot like the crash of the Banque Universelle and their outcome is alike with major consequences for shareholders and the whole market. Small people lose their fortune, but aren’t they responsible for stupidly believing that making so much money without doing anything was sustainable? If Money rings true, it’s because the foundation of all this is greed. The alternative is represented in the book by Busch’s brother Sigismond. He’s a thinker and an idealist who dreams of a Marxist society. Zola depicts him as a idealist. The society he dreams of cannot be implemented because it is based on the absence of greed and greed is part of the human nature. It’s doomed to failure.

Money also prepares the reader to La Débâcle. The political events mentioned here and there remind the reader that a war is in the air. The crash at the Bourse (a real one occurred in 1867, probably resulting in the new Corporate Law of July 24th, 1867) is described as a battle field and prefigures the agony of the regime.

Money is an excellent novel. I was really interested in the business and legal elements it includes and will come back to them in another entry. Highly recommended.

Discover Guy’s excellent take on this novel here.

La Belle Epoque by Michel Winock Part II

October 22, 2011 7 comments

La Belle Epoque. La France de 1900 à 1914 by Michel Winock. 2002. Not translated into English

This is the second post about La Belle Epoque by Michel Winock. The first one is here. In that one, I wanted to share elements that either surprised me or seemed important to explain France in that time.

Social classes.

The aristocracy defines propriety, good taste and remains a model for the bourgeois. Michel Winock explains that the aristocracy remains important but loses its power in favour of rich bourgeois, a turn Proust describes well in the rise of Madame Verdurin. They played an important role in literary life with famous salons.

On another place of the social ladder, I was surprised to read that most employees worked in small “companies”. Only 10% of industry workers work for companies employing more than 500 people. So Germinal isn’t the rule for workers of that time in France. It existed of course but was limited to a small number of big firms. They develop though as new industries boom in that period, like the car industry. Renault had 6 employees in 1898 and 3936 in 1918.

40% of the working population were peasants, it’s five times more than in Great Britain at the time. The other difference between France and other Western countries is that most peasants own their land. 53% of the fields are cultivated by their owners and the estates are small, with an average of 4,3 ha. As a result, there was less emigration, less mechanization and less departures to cities.

The founding of a republican identity

In 1901 was voted the law on Associations. It’s an important part of France’s cultural life even today. It’s a legal device, like companies, with memorandum of association but it’s dedicated to non-profit organizations. At the time, it was used against the churches. They had to become associations.

In 1905 was voted the law that separates the State and the Church. The country became secular, detached from the Catholic Church. The State can’t support churches or pay for priests anymore. It’s a founding law, often referred to even today. It cuts the State apparel off its Catholic roots. It also means that civil servants must be religion-neutral when they work, even in their appearance. (no kippa, veil, cross or “Jesus Loves You” badges allowed)

The Third Republic relies on a new kind of army: the school teachers. They are 120 000, all trained in the same schools and coming from different social origins. The best students in middle school are oriented in these schools (Ecole Normale) and it’s a social elevation to become a teacher. They are the armed arm of the Third Republic: they promote republican values and build the attachment to this political system. The Republic struggled to impose itself after 1870 as a lot of people would have wanted a monarchy. The teachers are on a mission, which is more important than learning how to write or how to calculate. They are here to educate citizens of a Republic, detect talents and push forward brilliant students. This is exactly how Camus could study despite his poor origins.

A transition from an oral to a written culture.

Two elements coexisted and pushed toward a written culture and an abandon of the oral culture. In the 1880s, school became free, secular and mandatory. As a consequence, twenty years later, illiteracy was reduced. At the same time, the free press exploded (The freedom of press was voted in 1881). As a consequence, people started to read more and newspapers became a real power. Popular novels spread in the country thanks to newspapers and progress in publishing. New techniques appeared and resulted in lower production costs.

Writers and literature.

The beginning of the 20thC was favourable to literature. In 1903, John Antoine Nau won the first Prix Goncourt for his book Force ennemie. (Don’t ask me who he is). The NRF (Nouvelle Revue Française) was founded in 1909; it will discover most of the great authors of the time, although Gide refused to publish Proust, something he would regret later. The publisher Gallimard was founded in 1911 as well as Grasset.

Michel Winock reminds his readers of the literary talents of the time but doesn’t explore literature according to literary merits of the books or the writers. He looks at writers with the eyes of the historian and sheds some light on writer with a social or political aim. He mentions a lot Maurice Barrès, a writer I’ve never read despite all the streets named after him in my region as he was from there. I don’t think he’s much read now. He had really conservative and nationalist views so I’m not much tempted by his books. Same thing for Paul Bourget who was acclaimed in his time. The last writer is Anatole France, who had national funerals when he died. He was an early Dreyfusard and he inspired Bergotte to Proust and his mistress Léontine Arman de Cavaillet inspired Madame Verdurin and her salon. Honestly, he was just a street name to me. (Yes we have a lot of streets named after writers here.) I had to look on Wikipedia to know what he had written. I’m currently reading The Gods Are Thirsty, so I’ll let you know in an upcoming review what I think of him. Fame is a whimsical mistress: you can’t predict if it will last and turn into immortality after you’re dead.

Even if it took me a lot of time to read La Belle Epoque – I’m incredibly slow when I have to read non-fiction – I enjoyed that book and I found it enlightening. I’ve ordered another book by Michel Winock: Les voix de la liberté : Les écrivains engagés au XIXe siècle. (The voices of liberty: Politically committed writers in the 19thC) It sounds fascinating but I won’t have time to read it before next year, with the month of German literature coming, my book club and the readalong of Our Mutual Friends by Dickens hosted by Himadri at The Argumentative Old Git.

La Belle Epoque by Michel Winock. Part I

October 17, 2011 30 comments

La Belle Epoque. La France de 1900 à 1914.  by Michel Winock. 2002. 387 pages. Not translated into English.

I’m not a great reader of non-fiction; somehow I just have difficulties to concentrate on non-literary books. I hesitated before buying La Belle Epoque, wondering if I’d manage to read it. I’m happy I gave it a try, it’s a wonderful book, full of useful information about the society, the political forces and culture in La Belle Epoque. Most of all, it gave the right level of information to me: it’s detailed enough to teach me many things I didn’t know or to help me pull together pieces of knowledge I had grasped through literature but not too detailed. And, last but not least, Michel Winock often illustrates his speech with literary examples and compares France to other European countries, mostly England and Germany. It’s a gold mine for me, always in search of bridges between history and literature.

Michel Winock considers that La Belle Epoque corresponds to the years between 1900 and 1914. It had to be after the Dreyfus Affair and before WWI. He often needs to come back to the preceding decades to explain the events of these years, which is even more interesting. The book is divided in four major parts: the economy, the society, the politics and culture. I’m not going to summarize everything. Although I found the parts about economy and politics really interesting and enlightening regarding the roots of French unions and the DNA of our political parties, I’ll skip on these ones here. I’d rather share social and cultural elements because I thought they might be useful to you too, reader of French literature. I’ll need two posts and this one will be a hodgepodge of facts I gathered about the mores.

Marriage / Adultery / Divorce / Babies.

Marriage is seen as a financial and social decision. Love has nothing to do with it and love life is often outside of marriage. So is sex, especially for men who go to brothels; it sounds very common when you read In Search of Lost Time, as if it were a part of a boy’s education. The basis of Civil Law in France lays in the Code Civil, which dates back to Napoleon. The law punished differently adultery for men and women. A woman risked from 3 months to 2 years in prison when a man risked a fine from 100 to 2000 francs. Divorce wasn’t possible under Napoleon, it was restored by the Third Republic in 1884. These juridical elements might explain why writers drew so many portraits of miserable marriages and doomed destinies of people attached to the wrong person.

The husbands keep the money from dowries. Women can’t work without their husband’s consent. 38% of married women had a full time job, when we consider all social classes.

France’s birth rate was low compared to other European countries. People had already started to have fewer children to give them better chances  to climb the social ladder. There’s a sort of concentration of financial means. Looking back on history, France was ahead of its time but it wasn’t analyzed that way at the time. The contemporaries were afraid of a “degeneration of the race”. Zola himself wrote a novel about it, Fécondité. The idea of decadence is also in Huysmans’s books. You can imagine all the stinking ideas that can stem from such disputable concepts.

We don’t know what kind of birth control was used, probably abstinence and coitus interruptus. As a consequence of political concern – without immigration, the population declines in numbers, which is not good for the Revanche, i.e. the next war with Germany that will erase the shame of the debacle of 1870 – the State strengthens the repression of abortion and puts into trial the “faiseuses d’anges”.

Women

I had gathered from different books (Like Madame Bovary by Flaubert, Une Vie by Maupassant, Le Rouge et le Noir by Stendhal, Mémoires de deux jeunes mariées by Balzac) that girls from the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie were educated in convents, with disastrous results. Michel Winock confirms my impression. The Third Republic changes that as it starts offering another alternative to convents. As a result, women’s education will be more republican and separated from religion.

Winock explains that the model for a woman is to be a stay-at-home mother. In the good society, girls are kept at home and don’t have a lot of freedom. It confirms my impression of Albertine in Proust: she’s far too free to be considered as a good match.

Some lesbians stand out, have famous literary salons and try to promote the feminist cause. The period offered small victories to women (1907: the right to keep their wages and spend it without their husband’s consent) but they’ll have to wait until 1945 for the right to vote. Indeed, in these years, women were considered as an ally to the Catholic church. After the separation between the State and the Church in 1905, the fight was hard between the clerical and anti-clerical sides. It didn’t help the feminists that the députés feared that women would support the clerical candidates.

Death / illness / doctors.

In these years, the attitude towards death shifted. On the one hand, dead people are worshipped and on the other hand, cremation was authorized in 1889. In 1907, the Préfet Lépine closed the morgue to visitors: it’s no longer a Sunday promenade. Death becomes hidden.

The government took seriously tuberculosis, syphilis and suicides. The tubercle bacillus was discovered in 1905. Health and hygiene campaigns were launched, it was a time of progress for medicine. At the end of the 19thC, there were still weird prescriptions, such as “spend the rest of your life on a steam boat commuting on the Rhône between Lyon and Avignon and eat in time with the orchestra” to heal …stomach cancer. Unbelievable. Monsieur Diafoirus and Monsieur Purgon had an offspring.

Syphilis was a great fear and a political concern as a proof of that “degeneration” I mentioned earlier and because, like AIDS, it passes from mother to child during pregnancy. If baby boys die or are in poor health, who’s going to fight the Germans? Humanism has sometimes twisted roots. According to estimations, 13 to 15% of adult males in Paris had syphilis. It seems a high percentage to me.

Suicide was a hot topic in that period, following a series of suicides among students and Durkheim’s work on suicide, which was published in 1897 and was much discussed.

That was the elements I thought relevent to better understand books regarding mores. In the next post, I’ll write briefly about social classes, the founding of a republican identity and a little about culture. I’m afraid my style is really clumsy, I lack the English words for that kind of posts. I did my best.

The Guermantes Way and the Dreyfus Affair.

March 3, 2011 26 comments

Le côté de Guermantes, by Marcel Proust. A la Recherche du Temps perdu, volume 3. Translated as The Guermantes Way, third volume of In Search of Lost Time 

When Proust started mentioning the Dreyfus Affair in The Guermantes Way, I put aside the novel to go and search about it on Wikipedia. It turns out there are 30 pages that give a good overlook on the affair. I had a vague idea of it and I remembered how it divided families the first time I had read Proust but I wasn’t aware of how much it had moved lines in politics at the time. There is no point for me to clumsily sum up what is already written on Wikipedia. So here is how Wikipedia sums up the Dreyfus Affair:

The Dreyfus affair (French: l’affaire Dreyfus) was a political scandal that divided France in the 1890s and the early 1900s. It involved the conviction for treason in November 1894 of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a young French artillery officer of Alsatian Jewish descent. Sentenced to life imprisonment for allegedly having communicated French military secrets to the German Embassy in Paris, Dreyfus was sent to the penal colony at Devil’s Island in French Guiana and placed in solitary confinement. 

Two years later, in 1896, evidence came to light identifying a French Army major named Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy as the real culprit. However, high-ranking military officials suppressed this new evidence and Esterhazy was unanimously acquitted after the second day of his trial in military court. Instead of being exonerated, Alfred Dreyfus was further accused by the Army on the basis of false documents fabricated by a French counter-intelligence officer, Hubert-Joseph Henry, seeking to re-confirm Dreyfus’s conviction. These fabrications were uncritically accepted by Henry’s superiors.  

Word of the military court’s framing of Alfred Dreyfus and of an attendant cover-up began to spread largely due to J’accuse, a vehement public open letter in a Paris newspaper by writer Émile Zola, in January 1898. The case had to be re-opened and Alfred Dreyfus was brought back from Guiana in 1899 to be tried again. The intense political and judicial scandal that ensued divided French society between those who supported Dreyfus (the Dreyfusards[2]), such as Anatole France, Henri Poincaré and Georges Clémenceau, and those who condemned him (the anti-Dreyfusards), such as Edouard Drumont (the director and publisher of the antisemitic newspaper La Libre Parole) and Hubert-Joseph Henry.   

Eventually, all the accusations against Alfred Dreyfus were demonstrated to be baseless. Dreyfus was exonerated and reinstated as a major in the French Army in 1906. He later served during the whole of World War I, ending his service with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel.

As I pointed out in my posts on A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleur, the Narrator depicts the rampant anti-Semitism strongly rooted in the French society. Without this and the defeat of 1870 against the Germans, it is not sure this affair would have gone so far. Two things made of Alfred Dreyfus a perfect scape-goat as he was Alsatian, the part of France annexed to Germany after the 1870 war and Jewish. He was a candidate for treason.

In The Guermantes Way, The Dreyfus Affair is in all the conversations, when the Narrator visits Saint Loup at Doncières, when he has lunch with Robert and his lover Rachel, when he calls on Mme de Villeparisis, when he meets Swann at the Guermantes. At the time, Zola is on trial and Dreyfus is still held on the Devil’s Island, which means that the novel takes place in 1898. 

The general expectations would be that the aristocracy and the military were anti-Dreyfusards and the Jews and liberal people were Dreyfusard. But the lines aren’t so clear and families are torn apart. Here are the opinions of several characters we often encounter in In Search of Lost Time:

Dreyfusard

Anti-Dreyfusards

The NarratorThe Narrator’s grand-motherRobert de Saint Loup

Swann

Bloch

Rachel

BourgeoisBourgeoisAristocrat

Jew

Jew

Jew

The Narrator’s fatherPrince de GuermantesDuc de Guermantes

Mme Swann

BourgeoisAristocratAristocrat

Married to a Jew

 The Duchesse de Guermantes does not express clearly her opinion and would rather sidetrack her interlocutor by a joke.

“In any case, if this man Dreyfus is innocent,” the Duchess broke in, “he hasn’t done much to prove it. What idiotic, raving letters he writes from that island. I don’t know whether M. Esterhazy is any better, but he does shew some skill in his choice of words, a different tone altogether. That can’t be very pleasant for the supporters of M. Dreyfus. What a pity for them there’s no way of exchanging innocents.”

 Shallow as she is, she complains about the impacts of the Affair on her social life:

“I went to see Marie-Aynard a couple of days ago. It used to be so nice there. Nowadays one finds all the people one has spent one’s life trying to avoid, on the pretext that they’re against Dreyfus, and others of whom you have no idea who they can be.”

It is fascinating for us to see how it moved the lines between the people one could be acquainted with and in all the social classes. For example, Mme Sazerat, a relative of the Narrator’s family from Combray, doesn’t greet the Narrator’s father any more as he is anti-Dreyfusard. When relating the incident, the Narrator reveals the opinions in his own family. 

“Mme. Sazerat, alone of her kind at Combray, was a Dreyfusard. My father, a friend of M. Méline, was convinced that Dreyfus was guilty. He had flatly refused to listen to some of his colleagues who had asked him to sign a petition demanding a fresh trial. He never spoke to me for a week, after learning that I had chosen to take a different line. His opinions were well known. He came near to being looked upon as a Nationalist. As for my grandmother, in whom alone of the family a generous doubt was likely to be kindled, whenever anyone spoke to her of the possible innocence of Dreyfus, she gave a shake of her head, the meaning of which we did not at the time understand, but which was like the gesture of a person who has been interrupted while thinking of more serious things. My mother, torn between her love for my father and her hope that I might turn out to have brains, preserved an impartiality which she expressed by silence. Finally my grandfather, who adored the Army (albeit his duties with the National Guard had been the bugbear of his riper years), could never, at Combray, see a regiment go by the garden railings without baring his head as the colonel and the colours passed.”

Robert de Saint Loup is Dreyfusard, which is a difficult position to hold, both as an aristocrat and a soldier. The Duc de Guermantes says about him:  “I do claim to move with the times; but damn it all, when one goes by the name of ‘Marquis de Saint-Loup’ one isn’t a Dreyfusard; what more can I say?” At Doncières, his friends disapprove of him but really like him and thus:

When the conversation became general, they avoided any reference to Dreyfus for fear of offending Saint-Loup. The following week, however, two of his friends were remarking what a curious thing it was that, living in so military an atmosphere, he was so keen a Dreyfusard, almost an anti-militarist.

 Swann, whose intelligence was abundantly described in the first volume, is a fierce Dreyfusard. It clouds his thinking:

“Dreyfusism had brought to Swann an extraordinary simplicity of mind and had imparted to his way of looking at things an impulsiveness, an inconsistency more noticeable even than had been the similar effects of his marriage to Odette; this new loss of caste would have been better described as a recasting, and was entirely to his credit, since it made him return to the ways in which his forebears had trodden and from which he had turned aside to mix with the aristocracy.”

His wife is anti-Dreyfusard, to make her acquaintances forget she married a Jew. People were judged according to the side they supported. Here is Saint Loup, trying to convince the Narrator that his cousin Poictiers is worth knowing:

“I don’t go so far as to say she’s a Dreyfusard, you must remember the sort of people she lives among; still, she did say to me: ‘If he is innocent, how ghastly for him to be shut up on the Devil’s Isle.’ You see what I mean, don’t you?

Her opinion about the Dreyfus affair is put forward to depict her temper. Isn’t that incredible? Once again, Proust doesn’t hide the anti-Semitism:

“Yes, the Prince de Guermantes,” I said, “it is true, I’ve heard that he was anti-Semitic.” “Oh, that fellow! I wasn’t even thinking about him. He carries it to such a point that when he was in the army and had a frightful toothache he preferred to grin and bear it rather than go to the only dentist in the district, who happened to be a Jew, and later on he allowed a wing of his castle which had caught fire to be burned to the ground, because he would have had to send for extinguishers to the place next door, which belongs to the Rothschilds.”

Frightening anecdotes, aren’t they?  

The Dreyfus Affair had extraordinary consequences on the French society. Zola’s intervention and the people who supported him created the concept of the “Intellectuel”. The Intellectuel is a humanist, liberal and acting as a political conscience. Their role is to rise against injustice or wake people’s consciousness. After Zola, there will be Camus, for example. It also enforced the press as the fourth power. Here is Wikipedia again on the consequences of the Dreyfus Affair: 

Political ramifications

The factions in the Dreyfus affair remained in place for decades afterward. The far right remained a potent force, as did the moderate liberals. The liberal victory played an important role in pushing the far right to the fringes of French politics. It also prompted legislation such as a 1905 law separating church and state. The coalition of partisan anti-Dreyfusards remained together, but turned to other causes. Groups such as Maurras’s Action Française, formed during the affair, endured for decades. The Vichy Regime was composed to some extent of old anti-Dreyfusards and their descendants.

 Antisemitism and birth of Zionism

The Hungarian-Jewish journalist Theodor Herzl had been assigned to report on the trial and its aftermath. Soon afterward, Herzl wrote Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State, 1896) and founded the World Zionist Organization, which called for the creation of a Jewish State in Palestine. The anti-Semitism and injustice revealed in France by the conviction of Alfred Dreyfus had a radicalizing effect on Herzl, persuading him that Jews, despite the Enlightenment and Jewish assimilation, could never hope for fair treatment in European society. While the Dreyfus affair was not Herzl’s initial motivation, it did much to encourage his Zionism. In the Middle East, the Muslim Arab press was sympathetic to the falsely accused Captain Dreyfus, and criticized the persecution of Jews in France

Not all Jews saw the Dreyfus Affair as evidence of anti-Semitism in France, however. It was also viewed as the opposite. The Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas often cited the words of his father: “A country that tears itself apart to defend the honour of a small Jewish captain is somewhere worth going.”

Honestly, I didn’t get any of this the first time I read The Guermantes Way. I didn’t quote everything; it would have been too long. I strongly recommend reading a bit about the Dreyfus Affair before reading The Guermantes Way, or the reader will not fully understand the conversation in the salon at Mme de Villeparisis. I think Proust’s take on the Affair and his testimony of how it affected the society is precious. In Search of Lost Time is often seen as essentially a beautiful description of feelings, an analysis of the fleetingness of life and worldly meetings. We should not forget it is also a way to understand the politics and the society of that time.

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