The Kill (1871-2) is the second novel in the publication chronology of Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle, but it is third in the recommended reading order. It’s the story of ‘uncontrollable appetites’ let loose by the Second Empire, and where His Excellency Eugene Rougon (1876) is about the lust for power, The Kill is about the lust for money and the lust for pleasure. For the main male characters, Saccard and his son Maxime, these drives for excess derive from their Rougon heredity: all the legitimate offspring of the matriarch, mad Adélaïde Fouque, prosper – but at a cost. They are upper-class, educated, ambitious and generally successful but they are characterised by a lust for power, money, and excess. Renée, brought into this milieu by her marriage to Saccard and her love affair with her stepson Maxime, shares this love of excess through the influence of a domestic environment which – in Haussmann’s new Paris – has no boundaries.
The Oxford Classics edition has an introduction by its translator, Melbourne’s own Professor Brian Nelson of Monash University. As I found before when reading The Ladies Paradise, the introduction is well worth reading for the way in which it illuminates Zola’s wider concerns. In particular, he explains the political significance of Haussmann’s Paris. Napoleon III set up this program of modernisation for the city in order to establish his authority and to legitimise his rule – he had been elected President in 1848 but staged a coup d’état in 1851, assuming the dictatorial powers of an emperor when in fact his only claim to any throne was that he was the nephew of Napoleon I. He needed to impress.
The slum clearances, the widening of the boulevards, and the beautification of the city were not merely to glorify the empire and to make it the preeminent city of Europe: crucially, these rationalisations were also about social and political control. Nelson’s introduction explains:
In the revolutions of 1789, 1830, and 1848, the barricade had been a potent weapon of resistance in the dense, rabbit-warren streets of the working-class slums. Haussmann’s straight boulevards and avenues linked the new barracks in each arrondissement, thus allowing the rapid deployment of troops in the case of insurrection. Many of the new streets were designed to cut through the densest and most politically hostile districts of Paris. Haussmann admitted quite candidly that one of his aims was to control the unruly and ungovernable poor. He was a great respecter of authority, and saw the keeping of order as one of his main duties. For him there was little difference between this kind of control and the improvement of the city’s sanitation; it was simply another form of hygiene. (p. xii)
The relevance of the Haussmanization of Paris for this novel is that it enabled the emergence of property speculation. The project was funded by the government compulsorily acquiring all the private land on either side of the route of the new boulevards, (displacing hundreds of thousands of people), and then selling it off to property speculators. Developers then built apartment blocks to precise new building regulations, providing new and better housing but at much higher rents. It was all ‘fantastically expensive’ and the financing was expedited by a ‘mixture of direct grants, public loans and ‘creative accounting’, using all the apparatus of the emerging capitalist system and causing ‘wild speculation in real estate and public works’ which included ‘expansion of the railways and in the coal and iron industries’.
The title of the novel in French, La Curée, is a hunting term: it means the scrap of prey tossed to the hounds after they’ve run it to the ground and Zola used it to represent the ‘scramble for political spoils and financial gain that characterized the Second Empire’. Zola’s Saccard embodies this insatiable excess and greed. The Kill is rich in metaphor: the city, animality, appetites, fire, water, disorder and madness (p. xxii) but it’s the images of the theme of gold and flesh which will startle readers even today. Money and sex, and no boundaries for either of them…
Towards the end of the novel, when Maxime has tired of Renée and is about to succumb to an arranged marriage because it improves his financial status (and the girl is conveniently doomed to an early death because of consumption), Zola depicts the conspicuous excess that defined the corruption of Parisian society. Everyone who is anyone turns up at the Saccard mansion for a series of tableaux, a lavish form of entertainment usually based on scenes from well-known myths or plays. It is followed by an extravagant ball.
The tableaux is an adaptation of the myth of Narcissus and Echo. The director is a Prefect, M Hupel de la Noue, and he has spared no expense in exercising his intellectual pretensions (though it’s not in very good taste). It stars Maxime as Narcissus dressed as a hunter in search of prey and Renée dressed in a scanty outfit as Echo, who is trying unsuccessfully to seduce him. In the first scene she takes him to Venus in the hope that Venus will help her, but he is disdainful. In the second scene she tries to tempt him with the riches of Plutus but that fails too. In the third scene, Plutus and Venus take their revenge, turning Narcissus into a flower, leaving Echo to die, her love thwarted. There’s a lot of gold and a lot of flesh on display.
On top of this pile of gold sat Madame de Guende as Plutus, a female Plutus with generously displayed breasts set in the great stripes of her dress, which represented all the metals. Around the god, erect, reclining, grouped in clusters, or blooming apart, were posed the fairy-like flora of the grotto, into which the caliphs of the Arabian Nights seemed to have emptied their treasures. Madame Haffner as Gold, with a stiff, resplendent skirt like a bishop’s cape; Madame d’Espanet as Silver, gleaming like moonlight; Madame Lauwerens in bright blue, as a Sapphire; and by her side little Madame Daste, a smiling Turquoise in the softest blue; then there was an Emerald, Madame de Meinhold; a Topaz, Madame Tessière; and lower down, the Comtesse Vanska, lending her dark ardour to a Coral, recumbent, with raised arms loaded with rosy pendants, like a monstrous, seductive polyp displaying a woman’s flesh amongst the yawning, pink pearliness of its shell. All of these ladies wore necklaces, bracelets, sets of jewels formed of the precious stones they impersonated. Especially noticeable were the jewels worn by Mesdames d’Espanet and Haffner, made up entirely of small gold and silver coins fresh from the mint. In the foreground the story remained unchanged: Echo was still tempting Narcissus who continued to reject her overtures. (p. 217)
In between the scenes, the men in the audience talk business and politics, relating one financial scandal after another so that the reader is left in no doubt that the entire edifice of Parisian wealth is based on a speculative ‘house of cards’. After the tableaux, there is a monstrous ball. Renée reappears dressed up as a Tahitian, wearing very revealing tights and a transparent blouse which leaves nothing to the imagination. Some of the ladies are a bit shocked, most think it’s a great joke, and (of course) the men are all delighted. The house is decorated as if it’s a forest, and the musical instruments are mostly brasses i.e. an allusion to hunting horns. The guests hurl themselves after the food, grabbing, gorging, and ‘capturing it’ in the crush of greedy gluttony. There is a sequence of dances in which the men as hunters go after the women as prey. It’s all very undignified and vulgar and everyone ends up dishevelled and drunk.
As Nelson explains, Zola uses the sense of disorientation in the new city and the way the boundary between domestic and public life has been blurred to illuminate the way that the architecture of family life collapses along with the demolished buildings. The perversion of the characters represents the diseased society: people – especially women – have become commodities. And as Balzac so often also noted, the marketplace rules, and women and their ‘dot’ (dowries) are part of the apparatus of a man with social and economic aspirations.
The tone of the novel is rather lofty: Zola has no affection for any of these characters, not even poor little consumptive Louise, who is the nearest there is to an innocent. Zola provides a tragic back story which accounts for some of Renée’s salacious behaviour, but there is little compassion for her and the author can’t resist telling us that her only legacy is a massive couturier’s bill. Indeed, the heroine of this story is someone the reader will barely notice, a prudent, discreet woman who saves up her earnings so that she can abandon Paris to its corruption. Yet even she is corrupt, in turning a blind eye to behaviour that would generate strong disapproval even in the anything-goes 21st century!
The translation by Brian Nelson is excellent. Trust me, if you want to read Zola, it is worth paying for a modern translation and a reader-friendly introduction that sets the work in context. Check out Nelson’s style with a short intro to Zola’s intentions at the OUP Classics blog.
PS Oxford is just about to release its latest Zola translation in its Oxford World’s Classics series: Money, the 18th novel in the Rougon-Maquart cycle. The translator is Valerie Minogue, and this edition will be the first unabridged i.e. uncensored edition in English. Valerie Martin is the President of the Émile Zola Society in London, and the novel is due for release on March 13th 2014.
Author: Émile Zola
Title: The Kill Publisher: Oxford World’s Classics, Oxford University Press, 2004, reissued 2008
Source: Personal copy, purchased from the Book Depository, $13.83
This commentary is by Lisa Hill, and cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers.