The Battle, by Patrick Rambaud

Back with my Prix Goncourt Project (#9) – this time, Patrick Rambaud, winner in 1997, elected to the Academy himself a few months ago (along with fellow ex-winner Ben Jelloun), founder of magazine Actuel and writer of 30 or so novels – quite a few of them in English – but who still apparently doesn’t merit a page on Wikipedia. I’ve placed it 2nd overall – though was unsure it merited it over Queffélec (you can get the whole list now by hovering your mouse over the Prix Goncourt Project thing in the categories section – seems to work better with Internet Explorer for some reason).

The idea for this novel was Balzac’s:

In [my projected novel] I undertake to initiate you into all the horrors, all the beauties of a battlefield … What I have to do is make a man sitting quite coolly in his armchair behold the country, the inequalities of the ground, the masses of troops, the strategic events, the Danube, the bridges; he must admire the details and the whole of this conflict, hear the artillery, interest himself in every movement on this military chessboard, see everything, and feel, in each joint of that great body, Napoleon, whom I shall not show, or of whom I shall give only a passing glimpse … Not a single women, only cannon, horses, two armies, uniforms. On the first page the cannon roars; on the last it falls silent…

Which, the battle of Aspern-Essling, Rambaud accomplishes with great skill and verve: – really, most of the novel is just one bravura set-piece and you feel quite taken away, – though, in truth, he does occasionally include Napoleon and there are, unfortunately, women: – in fact, there’s a long introductory preamble, which is entertaining enough, about love and some other such nonsense, and including various scenes featuring Henri Beyle (whoever he was), possibly with many in-jokes I didn’t get, not being a literary type.

Of course, because it is Balzac, critics have noted too how it is like Balzac; but for my money, it isn’t: – I’d say, his relishing of macabre violence (particularly the scenes of the medical orderlies), his building of detail upon detail – much more like Zola – for which I myself (a Zola fiend – a, as it were, regular bête Zola) am pleased.

So I bought the other two of the trilogy: The Retreat (or, to give it its French title, It was Snowing), and The Exile – which I’m eager also to be about.

(Next up: probably Marguerite Duras’ The Lover, in my July (or maybe August, depending on how I feel) Short Novels Project)


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