Reading Horizons: 20 March 2019
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The Kill (La Curée) by Émile Zola
All the lonely peopleLyrics Eleanor Rigby, Paul McCartney
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?
People in Japan were astounded by a strange story of a homeless woman that appeared in the national press in 2008. The 58-year-old woman had managed to slip into the apartment of a meteorology worker and live there in a cupboard, undetected, for a year.
She was discovered only when, suspicious about the disappearance of food from his fridge, he installed a video surveillance camera in his apartment.
We searched the house … checking everywhere someone could possibly hide,” Itakura [police spokesperson] said. “When we slid open the shelf closet, there she was, nervously curled up on her side.”
This real life story forms the basis of Nagasaki, a novella by the French journalist Eric Faye which won the Académie Française Grand Prix du Roman in 2010.
Faye could have written it as a thriller in which the mysterious events experienced by the apartment owner have a menacing tone. Instead he turns this curious incident into a reflective narrative about loneliness and the way in which people can just drop unnoticed through chinks in society.
The narrative is told from the point of view of Kobo Shimura, a fifty-six-year old man who finds life has simply passed him by.
He lives alone, has never achieved any lasting relationship and has little in common with his colleagues at the bureau of meteorology. They go out to lunch and for post-work drinking sessions but this sense of comradeship eludes Shimura.
Instead he spends his lunch break searching for ‘friends’ on Facebook and his evenings talking back to the television news presenters. Even his home is on the fringes of the community:
Imagine a man in his fifties disappointed to have reached middle age so quickly and utterly, residing in his modest house in a suburb of Nagasaki with very steep streets. Picture these snakes of soft asphalt slithering up the hillsides until they reach the point where all the urban scum of corrugated iron, tarpaulins, tiles and God knows what peters out beside a wall of straggly, crooked bamboo. This is where I live. Who am I? Without wishing to overstate matters, I don’t amount to much. As a single man, I cultivate certain habits which keep me out of trouble and allow me to tell myself I have at least some redeeming features.
Each day is much like the previous day, turning him into a man who becomes increasingly fussy and tormented by the noise of cicadas that seem everywhere in the city.
What disturbs this equilibrium is his growing sense that food items are going missing, and that someone (or perhaps something) is getting into his flat and stealing the ingredients of his fish supper and his orange juice.
Shimura is naturally shocked when the culprit is found but is even more disturbed by the realisation of how closely he and his intruder had lived for a year.
Initially resentful of the woman, he begins to sympathise with her and to understand how circumstances had forced her to take refuge in his home. Even so, he cannot bear the thought of remaining in this apartment which will forever now be tainted by her presence.
His experience opens his consciousness to his city’s history, seeing a parallel in the way it had tried, but failed, to protect itself from intruding foreign traders hundreds of years earlier.
The woman’s intrusion also causes him to question his life and to see it more clearly. Watching news reports about the trend in creating robots to look after the country’s ageing population he sees that his fate is to die alone with only a robot to care for him.
Having pulled us so effectively into Shimura’s world, Faye leaves us dangling while he introduces the perspective of the other party in this human drama, the intruder herself.
In the second part of the story we get to hear of the sequence of events, including the effects of Japan’s deep economic recession at the time, that led her to find shelter in his home. Faye shows not only how someone’s life can cycle downwards until they have no place to go.
As interesting as it was to understand why she ended up in the apartment and the painstaking efforts she made to keep her presence secret, it was Shimura’s story that held my interest more and was written more compellingly.
This was overall however an excellent story which makes you think about your own future in old age and how many other people there are as isolated as Shimura or as desperate as his unwanted houseguest. A chilling thought..
Nagasaki by Eric Faye was published in English in 2014 by Gallic Books, translated from French by Emily Boyce. It’s been translated into 20 languages.
The real life story upon which his novel is based was widely reported internationally
Eric Faye was born in Limoges, France. He is also a journalist, editor-translator in the Paris offices of the Reuters news agency.
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.
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