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The Kill by Émile Zola #bookreview

the killTo 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 

 

The Fortunes of the Rougons by Émile Zola

RougonsWith The Fortunes of the Rougons, Émile Zola embarked on an ambitious project to write a comprehensive fictional history of the social, sexual and moral landscape of his era. By examining in minute detail the “natural and social history” of two branches of the same family, he intended to demonstrate his theory that character was inescapably determined by the twin forces of heredity and the environment.

In his preface to The Fortunes of the Rougons, Zola commented that the book could just as appropriately have been entitled Origins. It’s a reflection  of the fact that as the first of his 20-book Rougon-Macquart cycle, much of this novel is concerned with introducing the members of the respective family branches.  The Rougons are the legitimate side, loyal supporters of the Royalist cause who rise to occupy commanding positions in government and finance. On the opposite side of the political fence are the illegitimate disreputable Republican Macquarts. Both branches are descended from the strange and “quite mad”Adelaide Fouques who twice shocked the fictitious Provençal town of Plassans: first when chose as her husband a peasant by the name of Rougon and then, on his death, when she shacked up with an unsavoury poacher called Macquart

The fortunes and misfortunes of these families are set against the background of Louis-Napoleon’s coup d’état in 1851 which resulted in the Second Empire under Napoleon III. As the novel begins, Republican opposition to the coup is gathering pace in Provencal. Idealism sweeps through the Var region. The region’s woodcutters and peasants begin to march towards Plassans, intent on seizing control of the town. In their midst are Silvère and Miette, two young lovers who get caught up in the patriotic fervour and join the march, a decision which ends in tragedy.

The novel isn’t really about these ill-fated lovers although it’s their moonlight assignation in a deserted cemetery with which the book opens. What Zola is really focused on is depicting how the imminent crisis exacerbates the tendencies in the Rougon and Macquart family to greed, treachery and murder.

The insurgents’ march provides Pierre Rougon and his wife Félicité, with the perfect opportunity to achieve their ambition of power and influence. They calculate the fortune that will be showered upon them by a grateful Emperor if they can rally the loyalists and hold the town for his cause. They set about ingratiating themselves into the bourgeoisie of Plassans, using their “yellow drawing room” as a meeting place for the conservatives who support Louis-Napoleon. But their manoeuvring is threatened by the activities of Antoine Macquart, the illegitimate son of Adelaide, who sees the Republic as a way “to fill his pockets from his neighbour’s cashbox and even strangle his neighbour if he objected in any way…”

Zola’s portrayal of the clash between these characters, none of whom can be considered remotely sympathetic, is superb. Zola exposes them as manipulative, avaricious individuals whose desire for fortune becomes tainted with blood. In one key passage as Pierre and Félicité lie in bed and she explains her plans for the conquest of Plassans bring together themes of blood, greed and money.

They kissed each other again and fell asleep. The patch of light on the ceiling now seemed to be assuming the shape of a terrified eye, staring unblinkingly at the pale, slumbering couple, who now reeked of crime under their sheets, and were dreaming that they could see blood raining down in big drops and turning into gold coins as they landed on the floor.

As that passage shows, there is nothing very subtle about this novel. Each member of the Rougon family has blood on their hands by the end of the novel, laying the foundations for the family’s future as “a pack of wild, satiated appetites in the midst of a blaze of gold and blood.”

It is a thrilling story. Fast-paced with some glorious set pieces in which Zola satirises and parodies, the extreme provincialism of Plassans, and the lack of principle in its inhabitants. Although the political dimension is central to the plot, it doesn’t require an exhaustive knowledge of the period (my Oxford World Classic edition contained a very useful summary plus family tree) to understand the issues which divide the Rougon-Macquart family and the citizens of Plassans. Zola’s writing, if not as powerful in The Fortune of the Rougons as in the later novels (particularly Germinal and La Bete Humaine), is still completely engrossing.

End Notes

The Fortune of the Rougons was published in 1871, serialised in the newspaper Le Siècle. Émile Zola went on to publish a further 19 novels in the Rougon-Macquart series under the sub title of Histoire natural et social dune famille sous le Second Empire. 

The sympathetic portrait of the insurgents seen in The Fortune of the Rougons stems from Zola’s own opposition to the Empire he once referred to Louis-Napoleon’s coup as a bloodstain that could never be washed away — although he abhorred violence and did not believe in violent action.

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