Reading Horizons: 20 March 2019
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The Kill (La Curée) by Émile Zola
To read Zola is to be plunged into a world of passion and sensation: a world of corruption and greed. France in the period of the Second Empire (1852-1870) is, in Zola’s eyes, a dynamic society weakened by decadence, corruption and sexual promiscuity. Time and again in his Rougon-Marquart he returns to this issue, finding evidence in every quarter – government, business, religion – of a diseased nation.
In The Kill, his focus is on some of the uncontrollable appetites that have been unleashed in such a morally corrupt society. Lust for gold and lust of the flesh come together in the triangular relationship between the business tycoon Saccard Rougon, his unstable wife Renée and her young lover Maxime (her husband’s son.).
Saccard is a self made man; immensely rich from a business empire that takes advantage of Baron Haussman’s visionary plans to modernise and re-build the city. He buys land and property at low prices and then re-sells using vastly inflated valuations. In Zola’s portrayal, Saccard is the epitome of insatiable excess and greed, a man who, no matter how much money he possesses, can never have enough. A man who “could not be near a thing or a person for long without wanting to sell it or derive some profit from it.”
His wife Renée is the key to the fulfilment of his ambition to conquer and plunder Paris. She’s the daughter of an old bourgeois family, pregnant as a result of a rape. In return for marrying her to save her honour, Saccard receives a large sum of money together with Renée’s dowry in the form of some highly valuable property.
Renée is as much an item of prey ensnared by Saccard as the people whose houses and businesses are demolished to make way for his business empire. It’s her dowry and inheritance that initially funded the business. Then, when his business schemes start collapsing, he hatches a scheme to get her to part with the deeds to her family home (worth several millions) so he can keep up the pretence of success.
Renée played right into his hands. Caught up in the whirl of a lavish lifestyle, she had often had to ask her husband to pay debts to her costumier, little guessing the consequences of her requests.
With each new bill that he paid, with the smile of a man indulgent towards human foibles, she surrendered a little more, confiding dividend-warrants to him, authorising him to sell this or that. When they moved into the house in the Parc Monceau, she already found herself stripped almost bare.
Renée doesn’t understand business or money except how to spend it in great quantities. But that’s as far as her innocence extends. Bored by her lavish lifestyle, the carriages, the jewellery, gowns, the grand mansion and extravagant dinner parties, she craves excitement. Her desire leads to a dangerous affair with her stepson Maxime and to increasingly irrational and scandalous behaviour.
She develops a deep interest in courtesans and prostitutes. Disguised as a boy she dines at a cafe in which no women from her class would dare to be seen. She relishes the doubly transgressive nature of the relationship with Maxime, delighting in the risk of being discovered. Towards the end of the novel, when he is clearly tiring of her attentions, she appears at a ball dressed in such a skimpy outfit, she appears to be naked.
Not until the end of the novel, when her infidelity has been discovered, does she realise she had been little more than another commodity to her husband.
She was an asset in her husband’s portfolio, he urged her to buy gowns for an evening, to take lovers for a season, he wrought her in the flames of his forge, using her as a precious metal with which to gild the iron of his hands.
The novel’s French title La Curée, refers to scraps from the prey that are thrown to the dogs after a hunt. Zola uses the hunting symbolism throughout the novel to represent the way the Empire has enabled people to chase after money, power and influence. It was a time, Zola, reflects:
… when the rush for spoils filled a corner of the forest with the yelping of hounds, the cracking of whips, the flaring of torches..
and when people like Saccard “swooped down on Paris … with the keen instincts of a bird of prey capable of smelling a battlefield from a long way off.”
Zola clearly has no sympathy for people like Saccard; fortune hunters whose shady transactions, would “drag the country down to the level of the most decadent and dishonoured of nations.” But neither does he hold any affection for Maxime – an androgynous narcissistic figure who “had vices before he had desires” – or Renée. The latter, even after she has been abandoned by husband and lover, still acts recklessly, gambling, drinking and longing for new desires.
Zola’s primary critique is not however aimed at these members of the Nouveau Riche, but at the social, political and social system that enables and indeed encourages the decline of moral standards. As he made clear in a letter to the editor of La Cloche (the magazine that serialised The Kill), the novel was the product of its time, “a plant that sprouted out of the dungheap of the Empire.”
He thus stresses the way in which in the new Empire, wealth could be accumulated with little effort and a lot of skullduggery. Saccard’s fortune has no firm foundations, it exists on paper only. All around him marvel at how gold flows from him in endless waves but no-one can really be sure whether in fact he had any solid, capital assets. What Zola shows in great detail is how government funding for Haussmann’s plans in the form of grants and loans to developers, opened the door for speculation and creative accounting. Saccard ends up acting for both sides in negotiations over some property, driving up prices to his own advantage.
A novel which describes the intricacies of investment strategies and property negotiations probably doesn’t sound very exciting. But this being a novel by Zola, The Kill is written with a high regard for dramatic tension as Renée hurtles towards her fate. It’s a gripping tale of a city undergoing rapid transformation with devastating consequences for many of its inhabitants.
About the Book
The Kill/ La Curée was the second novel in the Rogoun-Macquart cycle of twenty books. It was first serialised in La Cloche newspaper in 1872. Serialisation was suspended by the Government on the basis that if was immoral (the novel does contain many bedroom scenes), prompting Zola to write a robust defence of his work.
My edition is published by Oxford University Press, with translation by Brian Nelson. As with all other OUP editions of Zola’s novels that I’ve read, this contains an excellent introduction about the historical context of The Kill, its major themes and how it reflected Zola’s concept of naturalisation.
Why I Read this Book
I’m trying to read all of the Rogoun-Macquart novels. Those I’ve read so far are highlighted on my Zola project page. The #ZolaAddiction2019 initiative, hosted by FandaClassicLit blog. was the spur to dig out another title from my collection.
For other reviews of The Kill, take a look at the readingzola blog site
It’s the start of #ZolaAddiction2019, a month long celebration of the master of literature who put French contemporary society under the spotlight. That might sound rather dull and ‘worthy’ but in fact Emile Zola’s novels contain a high level of sensationalism. It’s impossible to read many of his novels without encountering rather a lot of sex and violence.
To mark the occasion I thought I’d give you a peek at my stack of Zola novels. They are all part of his Rougon-Macquart cycle of twenty novels which features two branches of a family over five generations. One branch are the respectable (ie legitimate) Rougons; the other are disreputable (illegitimate) Macquarts. Through them Zola traces the “environmental” influences of violence, alcohol, and prostitution which became more prevalent during the second wave of the Industrial Revolution.
My first encounter with Monsieur Zola came via Germinal: a stunningly powerful novel about industrial strife in the mining towns of northern France. I’ve read five more of his novels and haven’t yet been disappointed. But Germinal still remains my favourite.
These are the titles I’ve read so far.
I have another six titles in the cycle waiting to be read.
Nana is probably the best known among these titles. It tells the story of Nana Coupeau’s rise from streetwalker to high-class prostitute. Like many of the other titles in this series, it was an instant hit with readers. In 1879, Le Voltaire, the French newspaper, launched a gigantic advertising campaign to highlight its forthcoming publication of the story in instalments. It raised the curiosity of the reading public to a fever pitch. When the novel was published in book form the following year, the first edition of 55,000 copies was sold out in one day.
I try to buy Oxford World Classics editions, published by Oxford University Press, wherever possible. Not only are the covers of the most recent editions, ultra pleasing on the eye but they come with excellent introductions. Sadly not all of the 20 novels are available in these editions. I think in fact there are only four other titles from the OUP so I’m going to have to ration my reading and hope, by the time I get through this half dozen, the powers that be at the OUP will have pulled their fingers out and published some more….
#Zolaaddiction2019 is hosted by FandaClassicLit blog.
The Kill (La Curée) by Émile Zola
I’m long overdue a return to the world of the Rougon-Macquart families as depicted in Émile Zola’s 20-volume series. April 1 sees the start of
#Zoladdiction2019 – an annual event of reading all works related to Émile Zola – which has given me the impetus to pick up The Kill. This is the second novel in the series and deals with the lives of the extremely wealthy Nouveau Riche in Paris in the mid nineteenth century, laying bare their lust for power and money. Zola describes this period as
… a time when the rush for spoils filled a corner of the forest with the yelping of hounds,, the cracking of whips, the flaring of torches. The appetites let loose were satisfied at last, shamelessly, amid the sound of crumbling neighbourhoods and fortunes made in six months. The city had become an orgy of gold and money.
Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield
I’ve seen a number of comments in the blogosphere that Setterfield’s book is rather slow and overly long. That wasn’t my reaction at all. Even though it contained some mythical elements, which usually are a turn off, I thought this was a terrific story. Review to follow soonish….
I have an advance copy of the latest novel by Alys Conran that I’d like to read soon (it’s published on April 4). I thoroughly enjoyed her debut novel Pigeon (see my review here) which won the Wales Book of the Year award in 2017. Her new novel Dignity is a story of three women: Evelyn, an engineer’s wife in British India; Magda, an old lady stuck in an empty house; and Susheela, a young English carer of Bengali descent in a British seaside town on the verge of collapse.
Also vying for attention are two works of non fiction, both of which were Christmas presents: Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming and The Salt Path by Raynor Winn, a memoir of a couple who lose their farm and home when the husband gets a diagnosis of a terminal illness. With nothing left, they make an impulsive decision to walk the 630 miles of the sea-swept South West Coast Path, from Somerset to Dorset, through Devon and Cornwall.
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It takes a brave author to begin a novel by revealing the ending. The strategy could have gone horribly wrong for Leïla Slimani in Lullaby; her tale of a nanny who morphs from little miss perfect into a monster.
But this is a novel so deftly written that it doesn’t matter that we we know from the first few pages that the nanny ends up killing the two children in her care. What really keeps us reading is the desire to discover her motive and to learn what brought her to commit such an appalling deed.
Slimani takes her time in providing the answers; dropping clues and leaving hints while slowly ratcheting up the tension. Though we know the outcome there is still a strong sense of dread as details are revealed. As one reviewer commented on the back of my copy: “I defy you to read the disturbing opening sentences and not be compelled to read on.”
Compelling this novel undoubtedly is but it would be unfair to think of it purely in terms of its thrill factor. For Slimani has given us a novel that rests on an experience shared by many working parents in the twentieth century: the struggle between their desire for a rewarding, successful career and their desire to be with their children.
Myriam, the mother in Lullaby, is a highly intelligent woman and ambitious. She loves her children but after a morning of tantrums and tedious domestic chores she longs for her own space. “They’re eating me alive,” she think. An unexpected meeting brings an opportunity to return to the legal world she loved before her marriage. Just one problem: what to do about the children? Her husband’s career as a music producer is about to take off so it’s not feasible for him to replace her as chief carer. They decide the only solution is to bring in a nanny, being careful to filter out unsuitable candidates. “No illegal immigrants […] not too old, no veils and no smokers,” they agree.
With her smartly polished shoes, prim Peter Pan collar and neatly polished nails, Louise appears the answer to their prayers. She becomes indispensable, bringing order to the couple’s cramped Paris apartment; enchanting the children with her games and stories and creating delicious meals. They treat her like a family member at times, taking her on their holiday to Greece.
“My nanny is a miracle-worker'” Myriam tells her friends and colleagues.
But the magic wears off. After one incident involving his daughter, Paul decides he can’t stand their nanny any longer. Myriam begins to fret that she is losing the connection with her children. They relate more to their nanny than they do to her. A chilling episode involving a chicken carcass causes Myriam to think that Louise might be dangerous, or mad.
But the parental concerns come too late.
Are the murders some kind of punishment for parents who put personal ambitions ahead of their children’s wellbeing? That’s one interpretation. Equally feasible is that Slimani is making a point about parents who entrust their precious possessions to a stranger with only the flimsiest of background checks. So wrapped up are Myriam and Paul in their own lives that they never consider their nanny has a life — and problems — of her own.
Slimani deftly makes her readers more conscious of Louise as an individual than her employers ever do, showing this woman as a lonely figure, a woman who has never once had anyone to care for her or to make her a meal. In Myriam and Paul’s home and family she finds what she never had. When it becomes evident that her future in this “warm hiding place” is under threat, she becomes unhinged.
Lullaby is a deeply powerful novel that asks questions but doesn’t provide any easy answers. Though I finished reading it a few weeks ago, I can’t get it out of my head. Easily the best book I’ve read this year.
Leila Slimani is a Franco-Moroccan writer and journalist. She is the first Moroccan woman to win France’s most prestigious literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, which she won for Lullaby. A journalist and frequent commentator on women’s and human rights, she is French president Emmanuel Macron’s personal representative for the promotion of the French language and culture. Faber will publish her new novel Adèle in February 2019
I’ve watched the Alfred Hitchcock film Vertigo several times but never realised that this tale of mental disturbance and obsession was based on a French novel called D’Entre les Morts (translated into English as From Among the Dead).
The plot of the film is essentially the same as that of the novel though the characters’ names are different and Hitchcock makes far more about the vertigo suffered by the protagonist. Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac set From Among the Dead in Paris and Marseilles but Hitchcock went for San Franscisco, presumably because its relative proximity to Hollywood made it more economical.
More significantly the historical context is eradicated from the film version. From Among the Dead is set against a background of World War 2 and the ugliness of war deepens the sense of displacement created by the plot. The book opens in a period called ‘the phoney war’ when people in France wait uneasily for the hostilities that seem inevitable. Some in France, like the industrialist Paul Gevigné, stand to profit from the war but others, like his old university friend Roger Flavières feel they are living on the edge of an abyss. “The future was … a blank. Nothing had any real meaning except the spring leaves in the sunshine – and love.”
The pair haven’t seen each other for several years but Gevigné, now a prosperous shipbuilder, tracks down his old friend because he needs help. His wife Madeleine is behaving strangely, experiencing attacks which leave her in a frozen, trance-like state . She denies going out in the afternoons but Gévigne has evidence to the contrary. Is she lying (and if so, for what purpose) or is she suffering a mental disturbance affecting her memory? Doctors can’t find anything wrong with her but Gevigné isn’t convinced. Adding to his anxiety is the fact Madeleine’s great-grandmother, Pauline Lagerlac, suffered from a similar mysterious affliction and committed suicide when she was twenty-five, coincidentally Madeleine’s age now. His old friend Paul used to be a police detective so who better to help him by following Madeleine and solving the mystery?
Flavières is initially reluctant to help. But after just one sighting of Madeleine he’s dazzled. This is a woman whose beauty is as mysterious as that of the Mona Lisa, but with a sadness that he finds endearing. “It was no longer a question of watching her, but of helping her, protecting her,” he reflects after seeing her at the theatre one night. And so his fate is sealed. As he trails her through the streets of Paris, Flavières — who has never before been in love — becomes obsessed by his friend’s wife.
He was making a fool of himself of course. Torturing himself into the bargain, living in a constant tumult of painful impressions. Never mind! Beneath that tumult was a peace and a plenitude of joy such as he had never known. It swallowed up the frustrations of recent years, the fears, the regrets.
His delight is short-lived. On an excursion into the countryside, Madeleine throws herself off the tower of a church and dies. Her death brings part one of the book to an end, coinciding with the fall of France to the Nazi invaders.
Flash forward four years. The war is over and people in France are picking up the pieces of their lives. Paul Gevigné is dead and Roger Flavières is an alcoholic, tormented by the loss of Madeleine and his guilt that he couldn’t save her. His doctors tell him that for his own sanity he should get out of Paris. On his last night in the city he goes to the cinema and sees in a newsreel a girl who closely resembles Madeleine.
He persues her, courts her and takes her as his mistress but the relationship goes downhill because Flavières tries to remake her in the image of the dead woman, dictating what she wears and the style of her hair. Believing his mistress is really a reincarnation of his lost love, his hold on reality becomes ever more fragile. Flavières comes across as a bully at this stage, never letting up for moment in his determination to force his mistress to confess that yes, she is Madeleine.
Vertigo is a dark and stylish tale about a man in torment. A man who is destroyed by his infatuation for a woman and his search for the truth. Although we sense from the outset that things are not going to turn out well for Flavières, that feeling of inevitability doesn’t spoil the enjoyment of the novel. The first part is a little on the slow slide but the tension ratchets up significantly in the second part, coming to a satisfying twist in the final pages. But by then it is too late for Flavières. His life is in ruins.
D’Entre les Morts was published in 1954. Apparently Boileau and Narcejac wanted to move away from the conventions of Golden Age mysteries. They wanted to turn victims into conspirators and protagonists into perpetrators and operated to a rule that “the protagonist can never wake up from their nightmare”. The English version came out in 1956 and the film in 1958.
In 2015 Pushkin came out with a new edition as part of PUSHKIN VERTIGO, their new imprint for crime classics from around the world, focusing on works written between the 1920s and 1970s.
From the earliest Greek and Roman civilisations, people have believed in the idea that hell is an underworld accessible to mortals via special gates on the surface of Earth. It was through these gates that Orpheus travelled to rescue his wife Eurydice and Dante descended through nine concentric circles of suffering in The Inferno.
In Laurent Gaudé’s novella Hell’s Gate, hell is a state of mind as well as a place. It’s the mental torment experienced by Matteo, a Neapolitan taxi driver whose young son is the innocent victim of a gangland shooting. Matteo blames himself. If only he hadn’t harried his child to walk faster when he took him to school that morning. If only he’d listened to the boy’s cries to slow down. If only he’d stopped for a second to tie up his son’s shoe lace. Those seconds would have put his boy Pippo out of danger.
Matteo and his wife Giuliana are consumed by despair at the loss of their son. Matteo’s reacts by driving aimlessly through the darkened city every night, not picking up any passengers, just driving. His wife’s response is to demand revenge to bring ‘some small, fragile solace like a little breath of air on my wounds.” But though Matteo tracks down Cullaccio, the gangland leader responsible for the boy’s death, he cannot bring himself to kill the man. Giuliana leaves their marital home cursing her husband for his weakness and cursing all fathers for failing to protect their sons.
Just when Matteo feels his life has lost all meaning, he encounters the strange Professor Provolone and his revelations that there is a way Matteo can be re-united with his son. It requires him to accept there is an underworld the living can enter and from which they can return. It’s through the Professor’s explanations of the “bridges, intersections, grey areas” connecting the two worlds, that Matteo achieves a degree of peace.
For the first time in a long while Matteo felt happy. He looked at his strange companions: a disgraced professor, a transvestite, a mad priest and the easy-going owner of a café. He wanted to share a meal with these men, to listen to what they had to say, to stay with them in the dim light of the little room, far from the world and its grief.
Determined to recover his son he descends into the sulphurous underworld through a gate in the port of Naples. His companion and guide is the unstable priest Mazerotti.
They were on foot, going at the halting rhythm of pilgrims lost in a strange land. They were a tight little group of men feeling their way in the night, like blind men holding each other by the arm or the shoulder so as to not get lost. Or like madmen in a boat gliding silently through the water, wide eyed at a world they did not understand.
The rescue requires priest and father to negotiate multiple obstacles all of which are graphically described. It’s a vision of hell that will be familiar from its many depictions in art, one full of writhing shadowy figures streaming through a diseased landscape. Gaudé’s vision comes complete with giant doors sculpted with “hundreds of faces disfigured by suffering and horror … their toothless mouths forever laughing, dribbling, shrieking with rage and pain”; the Spiral of the Dead, a River of Tears where the dead souls are tossed and beaten as they see their lives pass by and Bleeding Bushes adorned with the scraps of flesh from the souls left in the land of the living.
That the boy is rescued isn’t a surprise because of the structure of the novel. Hell’s Gate actually opens with an adult Pippo hell bent on the revenge his father was unable to execute. It’s 20 years after Matteo’s journey into the underworld. Pippo is now a barista with the uncanny ability to concoct exactly the right blend for each character depending on their mood. Tonight will be his last at the cafe however because he is about to murder his murderer Cullaccio. He approaches his task without fear:
I’ve already been to hell – what could possibly be scarier than that? All I have to ward off are my own nightmares. At night, the blood-curling cries and groans of pain come flooding back. I smell the nauseating stench of sulphur. The forest of souls surrounds me. …. Other people might call them nightmares but they’re wrong. I know what I see is real – I’ve been there.
The book thereafter is organised in chapters that alternate between Pippo’s narrative in 2002 and his father’s in 1980. Taken together they offer an exploration of revenge, guilt and a search for salvation. Regardless of whether you believe in hell, the novel Hell’s Gate is an intense and compelling read that seamlessly weaves fantasy with reality.
The Book: Hell’s Gate by Lauren Gaudé was published by Gallic Books in April 2017. Translation from the French is by Emily Boyce and Jane Aitken. The original French version was published in 2008 as La porte des Enfers.
The Author: Laurent Gaudé was born in Paris in 1972. He is a winner of the Prix Goncourt for two of his novels. La porte des Enfers is his fourth novel. He has also written several plays.
Why I read this book: My copy was provided by the publishers Gallic Books via NetGalley in return for an honest review.
I’ve been known to enjoy a glass of wine (or two even). Even more appealing if I can do this while looking out onto some splendid French vista. Wine + France is a near perfect combination (now if only someone would create a chocolate flavoured wine I’d be in heaven….) Add a touch of mystery to that combination and you have the set up for The Winemakers Detective Series by Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noel Balan. This highly successful series delves into the darker world of the wine industry with the aid of two amateur detectives: master winemaker Benjamin Cooker and his aide-de-camp Virgile Lanssien.
In Late Harvest Havoc, the latest episode to be translated into English, the duo are in the Alsace region. It’s winter time and in the countryside dark clouds are gathering. Someone is vandalising local vineyards just as the late harvest is about to start. There seems no pattern to the attacks, nothing to connect the damage at one estate to that of another a few miles away. Is this vengeance for a personal grievance? Is there a connection to the days of German occupation? Cooker and Lanssien put their collective brains to work to try and bring peace.
Detective work is demanding so of course the duo need plenty of sustenance. This is a novel which it’s probably not wise to read if you’re hungry or thirsty. Every day comes with details of something rather scummy sounding from foie gras de canard; caisson de porcelet rôti aux épices douces, and duck and sour cherry terrine to baba au rum. Cooker is a man who likes to eat well and whose palette is as sensitive to food as to wine:
He loved it perfectly ripened, when the golden crust was nice and firm and he rind had gone from soft to creamy. As with wine, Benjamin Cooker assessed Munsters with his nose. He’d plunge his knife in to reveal the centre of this cheese from the Vosges plateau. The more tenacious and rustic the aroma – even a tad repugnant – the more the cheese lover’s nose quivered.
The plot may be rather on the skimpy side and the writing plodding at times but by the end your knowledge of the finer points of viticulture will have increased markedly. The novel is peppered with gems of info with which to impress your friends. Did you know the best wines in Alsace come from the slopes of the Vosges Mountains, that the Rosacker vineyard takes its name from the wild roses growing nearby or that Riesling needs “exposure to southern sun and a steep incline in slate-rich soil that furrowed in stormy weather.”
All this focus on eating and drinking seems fitting given that the idea for the Winemakers’ Detective Series originated over a meal and a bottle of Château de Gaudou 1996 which is apparently a red wine from Cahors. I’ve no doubt the detailed descriptions of the wines are accurate but I did wonder whether someone who makes a living from his tastebuds would really smoke as many cigars as Cooker. Wouldn’t that affect the palette so much it would be difficult to pick out the subtler notes of each wine? Maybe I’m quibbling too much and the finer points don’t matter to the fans of this series or the millions of viewers who watch the TV adaptation.
Late Harvest Havoc has been available in France since 2005 but only became available in English in 2015. Translated by Sally Pane it is published in the UK by Le French Book, Inc. My copy is courtesy of the publishers. For details of the book tour organised by France Book Tours. For full tour dates click here.
Win a copy of Late Harvest Havoc
5 copies of Late Harvest Havoc are available in a giveaway. To enter click on this link.
Winners will get a choice of print or digital if they live in US residents. In other countries, winners will receive digital copies.
November has suddenly become rather attractive. Lovers of Emile Zola’s novels will want their ears glued to BBC Radio later this month when the Beeb begins their new new series, Emile Zola: Blood, Sex and Money. It’s a 27-episode “mash-up” of adaptations from the Rougon-Macquart novel sequence, which traces the fortunes and fates of the Rougon, Macquart and Mouret families. the cycle presents its readers with unflinching stories about power, lust, crime and addiction.
The BBC has adapted the novels into three series. The first instalment will be broadcast every day over an “intensive” week on Radio 4 in November. One of the episodes draws on La Bête humaine (The Beast Within) the 17th book in Les Rougon-Macquart series. It’s a superb psychological thriller about insanity and murder in Paris.
Blood, Sex and Money will witness the return of twice Oscar-winner and former MP Glenda Jackson to acting for the first time in 20 years as well as Robert Lindsay and Georgina Campbell. There will be an accompanying documentary, Blood, Sex and Money: The Life and Work of Emile Zola, broadcast on Radio 4 at 4–4.30pm on 16th of November.
You’ll find some additional info here:
This is the work of a skilled wordsmith turning a shrewd eye on a city of increasing tension between the newly restored aristocratic class and the bourgeoisie class resulting from the Industrial Revolution. What Balzac sees is a corrupt, ruthless society that feeds on ambition, money and status.
Into its net steps a young, poor law student from the provinces. Eugène de Rastignac is determined to climb the ladder to wealth and status. He is undeterred by his lack of money (he simply exploits his poor mother and sisters by persuading them to sell their jewels) but he has a valuable connection through his cousin Madame de Beauséant. She tutors him in the ways of high society, advising him bluntly that to succeed he must put aside his previous character.
The more cold-blooded your calculations, the further you will go. Strike ruthlessly; you will be feared. Men and women for you must be nothing more than post-horses; take a fresh relay, and leave the last to drop by the roadside; in this way you will reach the goal of your ambition.
The further Eugène progresses towards remaking himself, the more he sees that beneath the glitter lies a world of deceit, greed and manipulation and an obsessive love of money.
In the decrepit boarding house where he takes a lodging he experiences another kind of obsession in the shape of a fellow inhabitant, the retired pasta maker, Père Goriot. Once wealthy, the fortune of this old man appears to have melted away and he’s fallen on hard times. He’s a target for snide comments by other lodgers who soon learn that the two young and astonishingly beautiful girls seen entering his room are his daughters. So obsessed with fatherly love, Père Goriot has sacrificed everything he ever owned to indulge these women and help them maintain their status in the salons of the city. He has just one shirt to his name while they run up bills with dressmakers and drive around the city in gilded coaches.
On his deathbed, one of the most pitiful scenes in the novel, Goriot cries out to see his daughters one more time, alternatively berating them for their ingratitude and forgiving them for going to a ball instead of visiting him. Eugène is so touched by the old man’s plight he chases around the city in search of the daughters to persuade them to visit their dying father. In the event, rather than attend Goriot’s funeral, his daughters simply send their empty coaches.
Goriot does at first appear to be a man to be pitied. But ultimately, Balzac makes it evident that Goriot is entirely responsible for this situation, having raised the girls in a way that ensured they would be vain, idle, and grasping women. “The upbringing he gave his daughters was of course preposterous,” we’re told at one point. Far from being the epitomy of fatherhood he has spectacularly failed in his duty to install in them qualities of moral integrity and selflessness. In one of his few moments of lucidity Goriot is forced to acknowledge his culpability: “It was I who made them, they belong to me.”
Goriot’s experience and the reaction of his daughters open Eugène’s eyes still further to the true nature of the society he has aspired to join. But it doesn’t deter him from his path. It means only that he goes forth, no longer an innocent youth, but a man more cynical and calculating, ready to take on the city. Standing on a hill surveying the city laid out beneath him, he shouts a warning “Beware Paris, here I come — ”
There is plenty of drama and fast moving action to be found in this novel with some exciting set pieces. But it’s the meticulous detail in which Balzac describes Père Goriot’s boarding house lodging at Maison Vauquer and the penury of its inhabitants, that most held my attention. The book opens with a lengthy description of this establishment in the old Latin Quartier of Paris. It is not a place where you would relish having to spend even one night. The high garden walls surrounding the house give the impression of entering a prison , its shabby sitting room is full of furniture that is “old, rotten, shaky, cranky, worm-eaten, halt, maimed, one-eyed, rickety, and ramshackle”; the bedrooms are wretched and the nauseating smells from the kitchen permeate the whole place. Sounds wonderful doesn’t it?
For page after page Balzac gives shape and form to this residence and breathes life into its tenants, detailing what brought them through the door of Maison Vauguer, what hopes they have for the future and how they relate to each other. The point isn’t simply to show the individuals involved in the drama but to depict a society patterned after the Parisian one. Here is the city in microcosm where the guests are lodged and treated according to their financial means and social position. Their room within the house changes as their fortunes fluctuate. Goriot himself had started in prime position on the lower ground but as a bankrupt he is despatched to the topmost and most decrepit room. It’s a visible, uncomfortable reminder to Eugène of the fate that awaits him if his quest for higher social status should fail.
Having gobbled up Le Père Goriot, I’m now wondering what next by Balzac I should tackle…This is meant to be one of the best novels in La Comedie Humane series
Le Père Goriot first appeared in 1834 in series form. My copy of this novel is a Penguin Classics edition translated by Marion Ayton Crawford. For a reason not explained in the foreword, the title is translated as Old Goriot, not Father Goriot which seems to eradicate the centrality of Goriot’s role as a father. The point of the novel isn’t that Goriot is old, but that he is a father. Annoyingly I can’t find any explanation for this decision.
Patrick Modiano’s Paris Nocturne doesn’t merely convey atmosphere; it oozes forth in every section, every page, every paragraph. Dreamlike, mysterious, unsettling; this is a book that begins with a puzzle and ends without answers. In between Modiano adds layer upon layer of obscurity.
Paris Nocturne opens with an accident. The unnamed narrator, a young man in his early twenties, is knocked down by a car near the Place des Pyramides. His journey to hospital is in the company of the driver whose name he overhears while waiting for treatment. By the time he comes round she and her male companion have disappeared, leaving an envelope stuffed full of banknotes as the only sign they existed.
Waking in a strange hospital he thinks he’s encountered the woman driver somewhere previously. She looks like a woman who looked after him as a child. But he’s not sure if his memory is genuine or the hallucinatory effect of a dose of ether. He sets out to track her down, driven not simply by a desire to piece together the events of that night but by a feeling she has answers to the many questions he has wrestled with all his life. Questions which often involve the father from whom he became estranged; a father he suspects was up to something distinctively shady. If he can find her, he reasons, every part of his life will somehow all make sense.
His search takes him on a meandering journey through deserted streets, across moonlit squares and into the cafes and bars of Paris. He makes an odd looking figure in his bloodied coat and bandaged foot but his attempts to solve the mystery are hampered less by his injuries than by his confusion about what is real and what he has truly recalled or merely imagined.
At times past and present seem to blend:
The same circumstances, the same faces keep coming back, like the pieces of coloured glass in a kaleidoscope, with the play of mirrors giving the illusion that the combinations are infinitely variable. But in fact, the combinations are rather limited.
That sense of a shrinking life resonates through the novel. This man has been a drifter for much of his life, hanging around cafés, eavesdropping on philosophical discussions led by a shifty guru-like figure, and engaging in unromantic liaisons with girl friends. Now thirty years later, reaching “an age at which, little by little, life begins to close in on itself” he regrets his many lost opportunities.
In the streets at night, I had the impression I was living another life, a more captivating one, or quite simply, that I was dreaming another life.
His explorations into the past don’t bring answers but serve only to further disorientate and dislocate him from the present. Appropriately for a novella of unanswered questions, one of the last lines is: “I think there’s something you’re hiding from me” which is how readers could well feel by the time they get to the end.
It’s a strange novel for sure, rather confusing but with a dreamlike quality that keeps you reading more. And if your attention ever wanders, you could just get out a map of Paris and plot our narrator’s night time meanderings through the quarters of the city. Be warned however; just like the narrator you may end up in more than a few blind alleys.
Paris Nocturne by Patrick Modiano was first published under the title Accident Nocturne in 2003
This new edition translated in English by Phoebe Weston-Evans is published by Yale University Press. My copy came courtesy of the publishers via NetGalley.
Patrick Modiano was named the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2014. Given the way Paris Nocturne invokes the sense of the city, it’s interesting to see that the speech awarding him the prize, commented on how his work had “endowed the past with entrancing life and his Parisian cityscape with a singular voice. Magnificently, his work instantiates what an earlier Nobel Laureate,Seamus Heaney, called “the poetry of place”.
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