Friday, April 5, 2013

Beggar at the Feast!

I mean, it's not as if Hugo had the advantage of a catchy Abba song to encapsulate his point, but geez, man. We get it. Waterloo = bad for Napoleon. Also, inevitable, because: God said so.

This is not the way to encourage me to catch up with my Les Mis Project. But never mind. Here we are - Volume Two: Cosette of Victor Hugo's Les Misérables. And to start it off, 

Oddly enough, none of the Les Mis
covers out there depict the
Battle of Waterloo. But
here's a candle, which is
almost the same, right?
Book First - Waterloo 

So this whole thirty-page section goes like this:
Waterloo - I was defeated, you won the war
Waterloo - Promise to love you for ever more
Waterloo - Couldn't escape if I wanted to
Waterloo - Knowing my fate is to be with you
Waterloo - Finally facing my Waterloo

Or similar, anyway. There's a field. It's near Waterloo, in Belgium. There are armies amassed along various points of a triangle. It rained the night before, so Napoleon has to wait for the ground to dry out or his heavy artillery will sink in the mud, and he's an artillery-heavy fighter. The battle doesn't start until 11, because of the mud, which means by 4, blah blah blah. Ravines and hollow roads and some tussock or another. People who know they will die fighting, but it's for the Emperor, so, maybe that's okay. Or maybe it isn't, but it is what it is. And thanks to the rain delay, even though Napoleon thought he had the whole campaign wrapped up, Wellington was reinforced by Blucher, and the Emperor was dethroned.

It's not that Hugo doesn't do justice to the drama of the day. It's just that I read a lot of historical romance, and I've pretty much got all the military details down. At least insofar
as I care. But here's a taste for y'all anyway, because after all, I read this so you don't have to, but if I have to read about the carnage, so do you:

  • "Bauduin, killed, Foy wounded, conflagration, massacre, carnage, a rivulet formed of English blood, French blood, German blood mingled in fury, a well crammed with corpses... three thousand men in that hovel of Hougomont alone cut down, slashed to pieces, shot, burned, with their throats cut,- and all this so that a peasant can say to-day to the traveller: Monsieur, give me three francs, and if you like, I will explain to you the affair of Waterloo!" (p.218)
  • "If it had not rained in the night between the 17th and the 18th of June, 1815, the fate of Europe would have been different. A few drops of water, more or less, decided the downfall of Napoleon." (p.219)
  • Lots and lots of detail about the plateau of Mont-Saint-Jean, which, actually, was pretty cool because it seems it really makes a difference if the ground drains well or if there's a slight hill over on one corner: "Two hostile troops on a field of battle are two wrestlers. It is a question of seizing the opponent round the waist. The one seeks to trip up the other. They clutch at everything: a bush is a point of support; an angle of the wall offers them a rest to the shoulder; for the lack of a hovel under whose cover they can draw up, a regiment yields its ground...." (p.221)
  • The equipment! So much equipage: "We perceive the vast fluctuations in the fog, a dizzy mirage, paraphernalia of war almost unknown to-day, pendant colbacks, floating sabre-taches, cross-belts, cartridge-boxes for grenades, hussar dolmans, red boots with a thousand wrinkles, heavy shakos garlanded with torsades...." (p.222)
  • And then there was the Emperor himself. "Composed half of light and half of shadow, Napoleon thought himself protected in good and tolerated in evil. He had, or thought that he had, a connivance, one might almost say a complicity, of events in his favor, which was equivalent to the invulnerability of antiquity." (p.229)
  • Despite all that, and the earlier assertion that a bit of rain made all the difference: "It was time that this vast man should fall. The excessive weight of this man in human destiny disturbed the balance. This individual alone counted for more than a universal group.... The moment had arrived for the incorruptible and supreme equity to alter its plan." (p.232)
  • "He embarrassed God. Waterloo is not a battle; it is a change of front on the part of the Universe." (p.232)
  • "Napoleon and Wellington. They are not enemies; they are opposites. Never did God, who is fond of antitheses, make a more striking contrast, a more extraordinary comparison. On one side, precision, foresight, geometry, prudence...; on the other, intuition, divination, military oddity, superhuman instinct, a flaming glance, and indescribable something which gazes like an eagle, which strikes like the lightning...." (p.241)
  • "Waterloo is a battle of the first order, won by a captain of the second." (p.242) (Hugo has some funny things to say about Wellington's not quite deserving the plaudits he has today, but the English soldiers having earned lots of praise.)

Anyway, the battle is over, France is going to change mightily, and one thing about war? Some of it's noble, skanky. (Okay, "hideous features" is Hugo's phrase.) "One of them most surprising is the prompt stripping of the bodies of the dead after the victory. The dawn which follows a battle always rises on naked corpses." (p.246)
but a lot of it is a bit

Who would do such a thing? Who would scamper through the night, in a big floppy overcoat concealing large pockets, happily tromping through the mud and blood overlooked by a woman sitting on a laden cart? No one we've met, surely.

Oh, except for that one guy. Hugo plays it out a little, but I'll just tell you: Thenardier.

Plot points: Thenardier is skulking around collecting trinkets from the dead. He grabs a gold ring off a hand sticking up from a pile of corpses. The hand grabs him back, which makes Thenardier laugh and investigate further. He drags the corpse out from under the pile and discovers a silver Legion of Honor cross, a watch, and a purse full of cash.

The action of this hauling and pawing wakens the officer, who, let's face it, would probably have died under the weight of all the other dead men. Sergeant Thenardier hears the English approaching, and the officer (Pontmercy) tells him to take the watch and purse. Thenardier says they're gone already, such a shame, and before he scuttles off, he and Pontmercy exchange names.

Something tells me we haven't seen the last of Pontmercy, and now that Waterloo is over, I think we soon will see a great deal more of Thenardier.

No comments:

Post a Comment