The Battle: A Novel, by Patrick Rambaud. Translated by Will Hobson
2000, Grove Press
Published to great acclaim in France in 1997, The Battle recounts one of the very few battles Napoleon lost - Aspern-Essling. The novel was actually a planned book by the famous novelist Balzac. Balzac undertook considerable research and had accumulated a substantial number of notes but, alas, never actually finished the novel. Picking up at that point Patrick Rambaud has undertaken a very ambitious project. He is attempting to capture in print the experience of a massive battle. To do this the narrator follows a number of characters through the fateful events of May 20 - 22, 1809. The characters range from a cavalry trooper to a colonel of engineers, to Lannes, Massena, and Napoleon himself. The novel is presented entirely from the French point of view.
Unlike some historical fiction, such as the best selling Killer Angels (about the battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War) The Battle makes no attempt to place the campaign into any sort of context. Nor are the movements of the armies leading up to the battle recounted. Instead we plunge in the day prior to the first day’s actions as we are introduced to each of the characters. There follows two days of fighting followed by the French retreat back across the Danube.
The Battle is firmly entrenched in the tradition of the adventure novel. Throughout the battle we move from place to place on the battlefield - from the fighting in the village of Aspern, to the desperate attempts to keep the French pontoon bridges across the Danube intact, into Vienna itself where civilians watch the battle through rented telescopes. The movement of all of the various subplots is steady and quickly paced. At a modest 294 pages, the novel is truly jam packed with action. Alas, therein lies the rub. There are simply too many characters and plots to get fully involved with any of them. While Louis-Francois Lejeune, colonel of engineers, occupies center stage more than any other character, about half the novel is devoted to other plot lines. As a result we never get to know Lejeune well enough to really care all that much what happens to him as a man. Instead, we simply read on to find out what happens next. And while the novel is quite entertaining, it simply feels too thin to be taken as anything other than a simple adventure novel. Rambaud’s reputation is such that I expected more depth. I would have much preferred a paring down of the various subplots to focus more on fewer central characters, and then draw them out in richer and more subtle detail.
Among the many subplots are: a love triangle involving Lejeune, a fellow officer, and an Austrian women with whom they lodge; a plot to assassinate Napoleon; the adventures and depredations of one cavalry trooper; the intense jealousy and hatred between Napoleon’s generals and Marshals, including Bessieres, Massena, Berthier, Boudet, and Napoleon himself; a fusilier’s adventures as a scout and aide-de-camp to Lejeune. It should be noted that almost all of the characters are drawn from reality and just a few are invented.
In recounting the events of these four days we do come to understand that Sherman had it exactly right: war is hell. Besides the carnage of the battle itself, we are witness to a rape, several murders, corruption, the appalling state of medical care for the wounded, heroism, pettiness, and honor. As a portrait of warfare in 1809 the book succeeds admirably. While we can understand the glory of the immaculately dressed Imperial Guard as it advances, we also see the horrific fate of the wounded as they are burnt alive by ground fires, or killed for their boots and valuables.
Meticulously researched and admirably written, The Battle was a quick, entertaining read. I did, in fact, enjoy it quite a bit. Put it on the bookshelf next to your Richard Sharpe and Horatio Hornblower novels and it fits in quite well. Any hope for something more will, I fear, be disappointed.