Winner of the Prix Goncourt and Grand Prix Roman de l’ Académie Française, Rambaud’s first novel completes a job Balzac long intended to do but never did: retelling Napoleon’s 1809 battle with, and defeat at the hands of, the Austrians in a fight visible from Vienna’s walls and known now as Aspern-Essling for the villages of those names.
Like war stories from the Iliad to War and Peace, this one again is conventional of plot as it follows three nights and two days in the lives of assorted figures—of high station and low—who either fight in the battle or are swept somehow into its huge vortex (as, one may add, readers will be too). Here are Napoleon himself; Major General Berthier, his right-hand man; the semi-piratic but courageous Masséna, duke of Rivoli; the prim and dandyish Edmonde de Périgord; and the engaging, battle-wearied, near-despairing Marshall Lannes. Toward the more middle rank of society are Colonel Louis-François Lejeune, artist, aide, officer, and perhaps central character; his inamorata Anna Krauss, denizen of imperial Vienna, who will run off with another; and Lejeune’s friend, the also-smitten Henri Beyle, “who had not yet started calling himself Stendhal.” As well, there are the plain soldiers—like Pacotte, or the young Vincent Paradis, or the toughened fighter Fayolle, raised in the slums of Paris—who will fight and, in any number of ghastly ways, die. For it’s the battle itself, enormous, dreadful, like some huge and perverted force of nature beyond the control of any man—even of the Emperor—that is the true determiner of all things here, compelling men to rush into death, undergo sufferings and atrocities far beyond the credible, and then, if need be, do it again. The horrors—including those of the amputation-obsessed field surgeons—will fade no time soon, as neither, credit to Rambaud’s great learning, will the detailed feel, sense, and pulse of politics and history that underlie the whole.
History writ large, bold, vivid, and real: mesmerizing and authentic.