Readers of Émile Zola’s The Kill are plunged into a world of passion and sensation: a world of corruption and greed.
in Zola’s eyes, France in the period of the Second Empire (1852-1870) is a dynamic society weakened by decadence, corruption and sexual promiscuity. Time and again in his Rougon-Marquart series 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 Kill, 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.
The Kill by Émile Zola: Footnotes
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, translated by Brian Nelson who has also written an excellent introduction which places the book in its historical context and shows how it reflected Zola’s concept of naturalisation.
For other reviews of The Kill, take a look at the readingzola blog site