Amoss on Zanone (2017)

Zanone, Damien, editor. “La chose de Waterloo”: Une bataille en littérature. Brill-Rodopi, 2017, pp. xv + 268, ISBN 978-90-04-34752-6 

This volume presents the proceedings of a conference held in Brussels in 2015 to mark the bicentennial of the battle of Waterloo. Echoing Nicola Chiaromonte’s contrast in The Paradox of History (1970) between Stendhal’s and Hugo’s depictions of the battle, editor Damien Zanone explores a writer’s choice of two narrative strategies for composing an account of Waterloo. The first, “y être et ne rien comprendre,” is that adopted by Stendhal in La Chartreuse de Parme and by most actual participants who later recounted their experiences, including the British officer Alexander Cavalié Mercer: “Le défi narratif propre au récit de bataille quand il est rédigé par un témoin est clairement posé: il s’agit de raconter ce qu’on ne comprend pas” (35). The second strategy, “n’y être pas et comprendre,” is reflected in accounts by Hugo and Chateaubriand, where “l’écart de soi à l’événement est donné pour faible, mais suffisant pour atteindre le vertige de comprendre” (25). Jacques Neefs precedes Zanone’s essay with a survey of famous battle narratives in Stendhal, Hugo, Flaubert, and Balzac; as two essays show, writing the battle inflects both history and the writer. Boris Lyon-Caen describes the “configuration” of history that takes place in documents written by two participants, Souvenirs de guerre du lieutenant Martin and the Journal de campagne de Waterloo by the aforementioned Mercer. Procedures of theatricalization—dramatizing, building expectations, narrating in the present tense, presenting a set of characters (including informateur, figurant, and victime)—predominate. Nathalie Saudo-Welby considers Lady De Lancey’s Narrative, a short text in the form of a journal that Magdalene Hall wrote to recount the death of her husband, as autobiographical writing that in fact transformed its author.

A series of articles focusing on nineteenth-century French writers follows. Catherine Mariette identifies Stendhal’s narrative innovation as what made the Waterloo episode in La Chartreuse a model for future novelists: “[L]’individu, avec ses émotions et ses sensations, y devient le centre à partir duquel la réalité s’organise” (63). Indeed, this narrative innovation signals a historical reality: “[C]’est le passage d’un monde à l’autre, du monde de l’Ancien régime auquel appartient encore Fabrice, du monde de l’héroïsme, de la guerre des aristocrates, à l’autre monde de la guerre moderne telle que la Révolution et Napoléon l’ont inventée” (73). Balzac left a one-line manuscript entitled “La Bataille;” Andrea Del Lungo relates the writer’s failure to complete it, and the notable absence not only of Waterloo but of any other récit de guerre in Balzac’s œuvre, to considered aims in his fiction: “L’échec du récit de guerre semble donc relever d’un choix délibéré, qui tend à privilégier l’histoire à l’Histoire, la sphère intime à l’univers social, le drame à l’épopée (85).

It is doubtless fitting that the most substantial grouping of articles is around Hugo, who coined the phrase “la chose de Waterloo.” Jean-Marc Hovasse offers a rich consideration of Waterloo’s place in the poetry, beginning with its presence in the adolescent Hugo’s first known verses. Nicole Savy shows how the eighteen chapters on Waterloo that constitute an entire book of Les Misérables are a digression that transforms the whole (113). Claude Millet, too, treats this digression, arguing that Hugo’s point of view of a “témoin à distance” leads him both to democratize military history and also to see Waterloo in the context of battles past. Comparing Hugo’s descriptions here to “La Pente de la rêverie,” he concludes that this visionary approach allows him on the artistic level to integrate an epic into a novel (a sublime world into a prosaic one) and on the political level to write democratically the story of a tyrant (130-32). For Philippe Dufour, the writer of Les Misérables seeks to convey a teleological interpretation of Waterloo by embracing the “philosophical history” theorized by Hegel—“la ruse de la raison”—but rejecting the rational language of history. Dufour uses Pierre Leroux’s 1829 article on “LITTÉRATURE. Du style symbolique” to demonstrate how Hugo instead constructs a “symbolic history” to explain the seeming absurdity of Napoleon’s fall from power. In a lengthy article, Jean-Marc Largeaud departs from Hugo to examine the evolution of republican historian Edgar Quinet’s interpretation of the defeat at Waterloo in the face of the century’s succession of régimes.

A quartet of articles moves beyond nineteenth-century France to other countries and times. Catriona Seth peruses poems—French, Belgian, and British—written in the year following the battle for clues to the event’s place in the collective memory. Michael Rosenfeld considers the Flemish poet Prudens van Duyse, who tried to make the battle a unifying symbol for Belgium’s Flemish and Wallon populations—to no avail: his poems on Waterloo have never been translated into French. Pierre Schoentjes contributes a study of verbal images of Waterloo that appear in literary works inspired by the First World War, works that inaugurate a “mise à distance de l’héroïsme” (220) that persists today. Finally, Tiphaine Samoyault examines today’s interpretation of Waterloo as it appears in two twenty-first century novels, Jean Rodin’s La Clôture and a novel by Pierre Michon that is in progress. 

In the concluding essay, Alain Vaillant asks why the battle of Waterloo, that “glorious defeat,” occupies such a large place in nineteenth-century French literature. He notes first the underlying focus on military might in French romantic ideology and throughout French history (as opposed to the British reliance on commercial interests), and second, the French culture of improvisation (as opposed to preparation): “[C]’est l’idée même de causalité historique qui est niée, rejetée par le seul pouvoir d’un récit littéraire” (251). The collection ends with a bibliography listing separately works of literature, works of literary criticism, eye-witness accounts, historical accounts and studies, and a comprehensive index of personal names. 

Articles of high quality that range widely in their sources and references make this a collection that goes beyond the literary career of the battle itself. Addressing prose and poetry, fiction, memoirs, essays, and chronicles from points of view literary, historical, philosophical, and sociological, the volume will bring insight to all students of nineteenth-century French literature and culture.