Exceptional Excerpts: The Kill by Émile Zola

The Kill was originally published as La Curée in 1872. It was the second volume in Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series of books. The whole novel revolves around Saccard’s (a.k.a. Aristide Rougon) lust for money and Maxime and Renée’s lust for each other – Maxime is Saccard’s son from his first wife and Renée is Saccard’s second wife.

This excerpt is from the first chapter. A banquet has been held at Saccard’s luxurious house and the guests are leaving. Maxime and Louise, his betrothed, have sneaked off to the hothouse which is filled with exotic plants; Renée has followed them at a distance and spies on them.

Endless love and voluptuous appetite pervaded this stifling nave in which settled the ardent sap of the tropics. Renée was wrapped in the powerful bridals of the earth that gave birth to these dark growths, these colossal stamina; and the acrid birth-throes of this hotbed, of this forest growth, of this mass of vegetation aglow with the entrails that nourished it, surrounded her with disturbing odours. At her feet was the steaming tank, its tepid water thickened by the sap from the floating roots, enveloping her shoulders with a mantle of heavy vapours, forming a mist that warmed her skin like the touch of a hand moist with desire. Overhead she could smell the palm trees, whose tall leaves shook down their aroma. And more than the stifling heat, more than the brilliant light, more than the great dazzling flowers, like faces laughing or grimacing between the leaves, it was the odours that overwhelmed her. An indescribable perfume, potent, exciting, composed of a thousand different perfumes, hung about her; human exudation, the breath of women, the scent of hair; and breezes sweet and swooningly faint were blended with breezes coarse and pestilential, laden with poison. But amid this strange music of odours, the dominant melody that constantly returned, stifling the sweetness of the vanilla and the orchids’ pungency, was the penetrating, sensual smell of flesh, the smell of lovemaking escaping in the early morning from the bedroom of newlyweds.

Renée is overcome by the odours in the hothouse, the night’s excess and from watching Maxime and Louise. The chapter ends with this paragraph:

The shrub that half concealed her was a malignant plant, a Madagascan tanghin tree with wide, box-like leaves with whitish stems, whose smallest veins distilled a venomous fluid. At a moment when Louise and Maxime laughed more loudly in the reflected yellow light of the sunset in the little boudoir, Renée, her mind wandering, her mouth dry and parched, took between her lips a sprig of the tanghin tree that was level with her mouth, and sank her teeth into one of its bitter leaves.

( The Kill, by Émile Zola, Oxford University Press, translated by Brian Nelson, 2004, p39-40)

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5 comments on “Exceptional Excerpts: The Kill by Émile Zola

  1. Lisa Hill says:

    This is my next read!

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    • This was a really strange part that Jonathan quoted.

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      • Jonathan says:

        Strange? Possibly…but hopefully exceptional as well. I found Zola’s early R-M work contained a lot more descriptive and lyrical prose than his later R-M work. I love his plots, his dialogue, his characters, his detailed descriptions, his crowd scenes and also his lyrical prose. When I read it, this paragraph just jumped out and I had to re-read it several times before continuing.

        The whole of chapter one is brilliant from the initial ‘traffic jam’ to the hothouse scene above. Potential readers should realise that the quotation above is not typical of the rest of the prose, but the book does have a decadent feel to it. It’s one of the best ones of the series in my opinion.

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      • I didn’t mean strange it should be chosen, but strange the effect it all had on Renée, especially the smells causing her to swoon.

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        • Jonathan says:

          I think of this ‘music of odours’ as a companion piece to the ‘cheese symphony’ in ‘Belly of Paris’. I think I read somewhere that Zola got a lot of stick for these passages.

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