La Curée by Émile Zola 1872 English title: The Kill
La Curée is the second volume of the Rougon Macquart cycle. Zola’s aim was to draw the ups and downs of a French extended family during the Second Empire. (1852-1870). In this volume, Eugène Rougon is a rising politician when his brother Aristide moves to Paris to become rich. Eugène manages to have him hired at the Hôtel de Ville, which means he’s a civil servant for the city of Paris. Aristide starts a new life then and changes his surname for Saccard.
Eugène and Aristide also have a sister, Sidonie, a spinster who runs an apparently honest shop, as a façade for her more shady business; she lives upon discreet services to rich persons who confide in her and rely on her for some of their dirty dealings. Knowing many secrets, she manages to marry Aristide to Renée, the pregnant daughter of a respectable and rich bourgeois. Aristide has been on the lookout for a juicy opportunity to launch a business. When he marries Renée, he has just discovered he could make a fortune on speculating on the houses and lands the Hôtel de Ville will have to buy out to current owners to change Paris according to the Baron Haussmann’s plans.
It works. Saccard is now awfully rich and lives as a parvenu. René, who had a miscarriage, launches herself into a life of pleasure made of soirees, gowns, jewelry and lovers. She befriends with Maxime, Saccard’s son from his first marriage. They are close comrades, sharing their love lives, hanging out together like too young men and they have no secrets for each other. One night, they have sex, putting an end to their friendship. And while Maxime sees it as an agreeable fling, Renée is more and more involved emotionally.
The title of the book, La Curée, refers to the moment when dogs kill the animal they are hunting. The hunt is the underlying theme of the novel.
The hunt is in Saccard chasing money, cornering people to have them into his schemes. He noses out Paris when he arrives, in an attempt to smell a source of wealth. He is on the watch for any opportunity at the Hôtel de Ville, hidden, waiting for the right moment to catch hold of his chance for wealth. Nothing can stop him once he has smelled money. He’s alternatively the hunter and the fox. He hunts down people when he needs them; his creditors can hunt him down any time his risky financial schemes fail. The master of the hunt is Eugène, who holds the whistle and can socially kill Saccard at the first faux pas or whenever he wants to end the game.
The hunt is in Renée, relentlessly pursuing pleasure. She too has two roles, the hunter and the bait. Maxime is her prey, she doesn’t hesitate to corner him. Saccard uses her as bait in his hunt for money. He takes advantage of her stunning beauty and of her social skills to attract people in his salons and push forward his business deals. Renée is a great character, abandoning herself to her senses, surrendering to her carnal desires, behaving on instinct.
The hunt is in Madame Sidonie, chasing after comprising information and useful secrets. Confidences are her weapon; she can be unleashed on someone on demand.
The hunt is also in the society. It’s the portrait of a time when the politicians, the nouveaux riches are sent like hounds on the old Paris, tearing it down, putting it to pieces, selling it to the wolves. It’s a strong criticism of the Second Empire. I’m not saying that Zola is inaccurate but the reader must remember that he was a fierce republican; that he wrote under another regime which loathed the previous one. I was interested in Saccard’s shady dealings, the mechanism used to increase the values of the properties bought back by the city to cut what we now know as the Grands Boulevards. I also thought about Les Liaisons Dangereuses. All this sex, this debauchery, the alliance between Maxime and Renée, like Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil. It has a whiff of decadence and all oozes vulgarity, which can be heard in the protagonists’ name, Saccard. In French, the suffix “ard” (pronounce “ar”) is negative, underlying vulgarity.
I’d forgotten how descriptive Zola’s prose is and I thought it lacked dialogues sometimes. He talks to all our senses, describing the lights, the scents, the air, the fabrics, the sounds. I saw languid paintings by Manet or Ingres. The vivid descriptions of the atmosphere match with the characters’ feelings, especially Renée’s. The episode of the promenade in the Bois de Boulogne is a masterpiece. Renée is the only one who really questions her life, touches its limits. She suffers from ennui, knows her life is shallow. She’s a remarkable feminine character, as fascinating as Nana, far more interesting than Madame Bovary. If you still hesitate about reading La Curée, I recommend that you read Guy’s excellent review here. Like him, I wonder why this heroin isn’t more famous; she has everything to be a great literary character. Is it because the sex is rather explicit? Did that prevent to book from reaching high school classes?