Sunday, September 13, 2020

Fortnightly Book, September 13

Why did Balzac choose this little-known battle? Possibly because, at Essling, the nature of war changed.

In the 1830s, Honoré de Balzac began a project to write a historical novel on military life in the times of Napoleon, with a centerpiece of it intended to be La Bataille, on Napoleon's first significant defeat, the Battle of Aspern-Essling. It was his ambition to turn all the arts of novelistic realism to giving readers a view of the battlefield from the battlefield, with all of its beauty and horror. It was to give the tale of Napoleon's defeat with Napoleon mostly offstage, the battle and defeat as seen from the soldiers, most of whom, of course, did not spend their time interacting directly with the general. Balzac, alas, never completed the task, although he kept pulling together the notes for it.

Patrick Rambaud was intrigued by the project, and set out to complete it, and his work, completed in 1997, gives us the next fortnightly book, The Battle. I will be reading it in Will Hobson's English translation, put out by Grove Press. It is May 16, 1809, in the midst of the War of the Fifth Coalition. The army of the Austro-Hungarian Empire has arrived outside Vienna to attempt to stop the apparently unstoppable Napoleon, and the prospects do not look very good. But in the fight to exhaustion that ensues, Napoleon will pay a high price.

Derniers moments du Maréchal Lannes à la Bataille d'Essling (Albert Paul Bourgeois)
Albert Paul Bourgeois, Last Moments of Marshal Lannes at the Battle of Essling

Guérin - La Mort du maréchal Lannes, duc de Montebello
Pierre-Narcisse Guérin, The Death of Marshal Lannes, Duke of Montebello