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The Battle


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Among Honor‚ de Balzac's papers were notes for a projected novel about the battle of Essling, one of Napoleon's first major defeats. Rambaud, picking up on Balzac's ideas and suggestions, and having conducted further research on his own, has written a novel about that conflict. Balzac's plan was to deliver the battle raw, minimizing Napoleon's direct role, but Rambaud shows quite a bit of the Corsican, as well as of his marshals Lannes and Massena. A subplot features Henri Beyle, better known as Stendhal, waiting in Vienna for news of the battle and fantasizing about Anna Krauss, a delectable blonde Austrian. Rambaud follows a select group of soldiers, from Private Paradis, who just wants to get back to his father's farm, to the emperor, during two days of intense fighting that ultimately left 40,000 dead on the field. The author excels in creating scenes that rip the heroic mask off the atrocities of war: a seasoned French infantryman raping a dead Austrian girl; a doctor marking chalk crosses on the foreheads of wounded men he considers to be unsavable; the Austrians setting alight a huge mill wheel covered with pitch and sending it down the Danube River to break up the French pontoon bridge. This last tactic denies the French reinforcements and practically decides the battle. Rambaud is less able to avoid historical novel cliches: his Vienna seems plucked from an operetta, while his Napoleon is not fully drawn but characterized mainly by his tics, a lapse at odds with the colorful, ambitious scenes of combat. (May) FYI: Battle has won the Prix Goncourt and the Prix de l'Academie Fran‡aise. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.

In 1831, French novelist Balzac began taking notes for a novel of the Battle of Essling (1809), Napoleon's first defeat on the Continent. The narrative would include "not a single woman: only cannon, horses, two armies, uniforms," with Napoleon appearing at a distance, crossing the Danube at the end of the day. Balzac never finished the book, but Rambaud has amply realized his ambition in The Battle, which won the Prix Goncourt and the Grand Prix Roman de l'Acad‚mie Fran‡aise. Napoleon dominates Rambaud's account: "he detested familiarity and advice: all he desired of his officers, like his courtesans, was mute obedience." Wherever the emperor goes, his household goods go, too: a mountain of linens, china and food, his iron bedstead, carpet, chandeliers, and a round of parmesan cheese to sprinkle on his soup. Future novelist Stendhal is also present as witness to the devastation of this "battle without a victor." Rambaud balances horrific battle set pieces and subtle characterizations to produce what will be a classic. Enthusiastically recommended.--David Keymer, California State Univ., Stanislaus Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.

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