La Curée (The Kill) (1871-2 / 1874) 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. The main male characters, Saccard and his son Maxime, are from the Rougon family, i.e. the legitimate offspring of the matriarch, mad Adélaïde Fouque. Renee, Saccard’s second wife, is brought into this milieu by her marriage.
The Oxford Classics edition (2004, reissued 2008) includes an introduction by its translator, Professor Brian Nelson of Monash University Melbourne which explains the historical context of the novel. Page numbers below refer to this edition.
Please note that this is a plot summary and therefore full plot developments are revealed.
The Kill begins with a traffic jam in the Bois de Boulogne. Zola introduces two of the central characters, Renee and her stepson Maxime in their barouche, among a crowd of other wealthy Parisiennes in their expensive carriages. When the traffic starts up again they all move along in the same direction ‘as if the front carriages were dragging all the others behind them’ (p. 7)
Everything seems to be metaphor in this introduction: the carriages follow each other as their owners slavishly follow fashion; the blurring of the boundaries between the park and the city alerts the reader to the way moral and social boundaries will be transgressed. It doesn’t take long before they do:
Renee is briefly aroused from her languid reverie by Maxime’s taunts: he sees Laure d’Aurigny and reminds her that when her husband bought Laure’s fabulous jewels, the gift was also a way of helping Laure to pay her debts. Obviously the (as yet unnamed) husband has been playing away from home, but Renee can’t muster any serious jealousy, she’s satiated by all her luxuries, and she’s bored. The Bois reminds her of the glades of the gods and their ‘divine incests’ and this allusion to the absence of incest taboos in the Greek mythology  points to what comes next.
Renee talks to her stepson about being bored by her many lovers; she wishes she were independent like Laure. To shock her in return, Maxime jests that he fancies a nun for a lover, and Renee’s recognition that he too wants to transgress taboos makes her realise what she wants. She rests her ankle on his warm leg, but he ignores it.
They arrive at their mansion, an extravaganza like a miniature version of the new Louvre. It takes Renee an hour and a half to dress for dinner, and she takes the opportunity to muse about her past life as the daughter of a respectable bourgeois family. She feels nostalgia for that sober, sombre life, and resolves to curb her extravagances.
But that doesn’t last long. When she turns up downstairs to meet her guests she is dressed in an amazing frou-frou as notable for the violets all over it as for the fact that she is showing a lot of flesh. (Flesh and gold are two major themes in this novel, says Nelson in the introduction to the Oxford Classics version) and here Renee embodies them both.
Conversation at this dinner party exposes the other themes: property speculation, outrageous commercial loans to finance the property boom, the blurring of social boundaries with the presence among the aristocrats of two bricklayers who’ve made a fortune in the boom, and rising rents as developers build on the land blitzed by Haussmann’s boulevards.
And Renee? She is roused to jealousy when she sees Maxime with Louise, the unattractive young woman he is destined to marry because she has money.
 Juno and Jupiter were brother and sister, and also married.
Chapter Two provides the back stories of Aristide and Renee.
The imagery Zola uses emphasises the predatory nature of his character Aristide Rougon : he is a bird of prey, waiting to swoop on Paris. Unlike his brother Eugene who was in the right place at the right time when Napoleon III’s coup d’état took place, Aristide had compromised himself with his allegiance to the Republican cause. When the monarchy was restored, he was lucky to stay safe and sound. He bitterly regrets his folly and has come to Paris determined to improve his lot.
One obstacle is the hapless Angèle. As far as Aristide is concerned she is an insipid burden, especially since she insisted on bringing her four-year-old child Clotilde to Paris. However, Aristide insisted that their son Maxime stay in Plassans, finish school and stay with his grandparents.
In Paris, Aristide is intoxicated by the city: he wants to ‘hurl himself into the furnace in order to mould the gold like soft wax with his fevered hands’. (p. 43) He visits Eugene – who, (as we learned in His Excellency Eugene Rougon) is a rising star in French politics. Aristide expects Eugene to find an appointment for him and is a bit put out when Eugene tells him he will have to wait a bit. He must live frugally in the meantime and he doesn’t like that at all. When a position finally comes along, it’s a disappointment: not enough status and not enough money. Eugene is disgusted: his lust is for power and he thinks that craving money is vulgar and puerile. He takes Aristide down a peg or two: he reminds him that he – having failed to finish his studies in law – doesn’t have the qualifications even for this job, and it’s no good acting ‘like an impatient schoolboy’. He tells him that the position of an assistant surveying clerk at the Hotel de Ville is a good stepping stone to bigger and better things. (Little does Eugene know just how good a stepping stone it’s going to be).
Along with advice about not causing any scandal, he gives Aristide a bit of money and suggests a change of name from Rougon so that they are not associated with each other. They tweak his wife’s name to Saccard because Aristide thinks it sounds ‘as if you’re counting five-franc notes’. Despite all this help, Aristide is peeved about being lectured by Eugene and he hates having to ask him for money. Yes, we can tell that Aristide is going to get Eugene off his case as fast as he can.
Before long he gets a promotion, more from greasing around his colleagues than through any hard work or aptitude, and his salary nearly doubles. This comes just in time because Angèle’s health is failing, and Clotilde is looking pale too, from being cooped up in dingy rooms. But Aristide doesn’t change his poky lodgings, he wants to stay out of debt. (Which, if you’ve read Balzac, is no mean feat in Paris.) He makes sure he’s obliging at work, and he makes sure that he hears about all the scandals that might be of use to him. (Which they eventually are).
Well, the Empire is proclaimed, strict censorship is imposed and Paris settles down to enjoy itself – because it’s certainly not safe to be involved in politics. It’s no wonder Zola had to flee when this book hit the streets, when he writes things like:
‘The Empire was on the point of turning Paris into the bawdy house of Europe. The gang of fortune-seekers who had succeeded in stealing a throne required a reign of adventures, shady transactions, sold consciences, bought women, and rampant drunkenness. In the city where the blood of December had hardly been washed away, there sprang up, timidly as yet, the mad desire for dissipation that was destined to drag the country down to the level of the most decadent and dishonoured of nations. (p. 49)
Aristide is on to the potential for speculation quickly – he’s in the right job to be in the know. The surveyor’s department is the one marking out the neighbourhoods for Haussmannization; he knows where the profits are to be made. Alas, he doesn’t have the initial capital to get himself started.
Enter his sister Sidonie, who is a somewhat shady widow and a dealer of some sort. Her real business, however, is scandal: she inveigles her way into the confidence of people, learns their secrets and offers her services as a problem-solver. Her favourite thing to do is to get involved in litigation, but she’s also good at arranging marriages for girls who ‘get into trouble’. And this is how she helps to get her brother Aristide started on his path to fabulous wealth.
Angèle‘s health conveniently continues to decline, and Madame Sidonie sees an opportunity. She knows of a young lady in urgent need of a spouse. Angèle is not quite dead yet, but that doesn’t stop Sidonie from whipping round to the deathbed and sussing out Aristide as the potential bridegroom. The young lady’s father is livid, (of course) and so the girl (yes, it’s Renée) and her accomplice Aunt Elisabeth have cooked up a story of the repentant seducer wanting to ‘atone for his momentary lapse’ by marrying her . All Aristide has to do is pretend to be the father of Renée’s baby. Fortunately Renée is very wealthy so this is quite an attractive bargain for any man on the make.
At first Aristide has some qualms (after all, Angèle’s still not dead yet), but his greed gets the better of him, and he’s none too careful about concealing his plans from the dying woman. Which makes her death rather an angst-ridden moment:
Her eyes also betrayed the terrified amazement of a sweet and inoffensive nature that discovers at the last moment the infamy of this world, and shudders at the thought of the many years living with a thief. (p. 58)
But hey, she forgives him, and with the wife out of the way it’s easy to dispose of Clotilde as well: she gets sent off to stay with Eugene’s other brother Pascal as a companion for him. (He’s a bit lonely, because he’s devoted to his scholarly research). Sidonie then starts negotiations with Renée’s aunt (Papa declines to have anything to do with it). Sidonie just happens to know of some posh furnished rooms (vacated by a priest who needs to rent them out) and he kits himself out in some fine clothes using the proceeds of selling his own furniture. He cleans up well enough, presumably, although he is 40, short, and unattractive.
So now we learn Renée’s back story:
Her father, M Béraud du Châtel is an old bourgeois whose own father, a Republican, was killed during the Terror. (1793, when enemies of the Republic – real and imagined – were purged). Béraud was a Republican too, and rather than serve as a judge under Napoleon III, he retires, an inflexible and gloomy old man of 60. His wife had died young, in childbirth, leaving Aunt Elisabeth to take care of the children. She played favourites and neglected Renée, who runs wild when at 19 she finally leaves the convent she’d been sent away to. When she comes home in disgrace, Aunt Elisabeth is mortified and thinks it’s all her fault for neglecting Renée, and so she becomes Renée’s accomplice in deceiving her father with the story about the repentant seducer wanting to marry her.
The negotiations for the marriage contract are long and complicated: suffice to say that Aristide is delighted with his new financial situation, quite pleased to have a pretty wife and more than capable of using great cunning to get started in property speculation. (Renée’s not so wildly enthusiastic about him, but needs must. Like many a young women then and now, she fails to keep an eye on what he’s doing with her property.)
Using his new money from Renée’s dowry, Aristide uses his insider knowledge from the surveyor’s department to buy up apartments in areas about to be dissected by the new boulevards, and with Sidonie’s help he sets about inflating the value of it by engineering fictitious tenants paying very high rent. This means that he gets paid much more compensation than he should. He knows the dirt about two members of the Compensation Authority so they stave off any inconvenient scrutiny of his application for compensation. Yes, Aristide Saccard is on his way.
(Eugene, by the way, was quite impressed by all this, and comes to the wedding. Sidonie on the other hand makes herself scarce, she’s too shabby and would betray Aristide’s humble origins to old M Béraud (who condescends to shake his hand at the wedding.)
Oh, and by the way, Renée does have a miscarriage, just as Sidonie foretold she would…
I do have some qualms about Renée’s story: she was actually raped, but Zola has a kind of ‘move on and avoid scandal’ attitude to this. Today, I think we would all know that she would be very fragile psychologically, and whatever the imperative to avoid scandal might be, her mental state would impact on any relationship with a male. But she seems to be insouciant, happily buying dresses and jewels etc, which is not really credible.
The other point which made me feel uneasy was the characterisation of the Baron Gourard. He’s a paedophile, a fact which Aristide uses to gain advantage over him. And that seems to be Zola’s only comment on the matter.
Chapter 3 provides the back story of Maxime, a curious character indeed.
Maxime had been left behind in Plassans in the care of his grandparents when Aristide moved to Paris, but when he turns 14 he’s allowed to join his father and Renee. She effects a transformation: from country bumpkin with a schoolboy haircut to a smart, effeminate young man in stylish clothes. To the envy of his friends he goes to school driving a tilbury, but he spends most of his time hanging around with Renee, (who’s not much older than he is). He takes a great interest in women’s fashion, going with her to couturier’s rooms – a development in the retailing of women’s fashions that was new at the time, providing a place for women to meet and socialise while they wait for their appointment with the great ‘Worm’.
Cheeky and confident, before long Maxime seduces a housemaid, who has to be sent away with an annuity. Aristide pays this without demur; Renee thinks it’s funny.
Aristide, meanwhile, is getting richer. The household is dedicated to pleasure, always full of people, laughter and vulgarity. But they never spend time together as a family, and Aristide treats both Renee and Maxime as his children. Zola explains in just enough detail how he was involved in buying, selling, trading, banking and so on, all of it sailing close to the wind as he takes one gamble after another – while for Renee, he is the perfect husband, never home to cause her any trouble, and an obliging banker for her extravagance. For his part, he likes having Renee decked out in lavish finery, and he uses her sometimes as an unwitting accomplice when he sends her to use her winning ways with a Minister or government functionary. (And when she sets sail for one of these missions, he tells her to be ‘good’, knowing that she won’t be. )
So she has one lover after another, bourgeois enough to feel guilty afterwards at times when she is bored. She has migraines, but always recovers enough to enjoy herself. She’s not afraid to play away outside her own society either: one of her lovers, Georges, is a bloke who picked her up on the street one night, and she meets him an Madame Sidonies. (Which is useful to Sidonie, because now she has a scandal that she can use against Renee when she needs it. It makes up a bit for being trumped as Renee’s procurer by a Madame de Lauwerens, who while maintaining her own virtue, holds salons where men and women of society can meet and flirt with each other. It’s a much more elegant and sophisticated way of matching up would-be lovers than Sidonie’s old-fashioned ways.
Sidonie is a faithful friend to Maxime as he enters his 20s and enters society. Zola calls him a strange hermaphrodite, which means, I think, that he is bisexual. Drawing on his theories about heredity and behaviour, Zola attributes Maxime’s sexuality to his mother Angele’s passivity and weakness, and his father’s greed and wild appetites. Maxime is a Rougon who has become refined, delicate and corrupt. Nothing surprised or disgusted him; vice was his natural way. These three were not a family, they were an investment company, and they felt no need to hide their pleasures from one another. Aristide and Maxime even use the same courtesans, meeting each other on the way in and out.
A marriage is set up for Maxime, with Louise de Mareuil, daughter of one of Aristides’ cronies. Louise is consumptive, unattractive and prone to the same debauchery as her dead mother, but she’s rich.
For Renee, always bored with her fatuous life, the highlight of her life is when she finally manages to get to the Tuileries and meet the emperor. The significance of this snippet at the end of the chapter is that it signals how society at its highest levels now accepts the nouveau riche into its ranks.
Chapter 4 is basically a long slow seduction scene as Renee and Maxime spend more and more time together in increasing intimacy. The catalyst for their incest is an actress’s ball: it’s not seemly for a lady who’s caught the eye of the Emperor at the Tuileries to be seen there but to Renee’s jaded taste it looks like fun so she makes Maxime take her there.
She dresses in a black domino (cloak and mask) and off they go, but it turns out to be rather dull. So they head off to one of Maxime’s private after-hours haunts (where, as Renee knows, he takes his lovers). There they become lovers, and although Renee feels guilt-stricken the next day she gets over it very quickly and soon their love-making is routine.
Zola mercifully doesn’t labour the point, but unlike most 19th century novelists, he makes it quite clear what they’ve done, even though he doesn’t describe the act itself. He describes instead the voluptuous luxury of Renee’s rooms, all gold and flesh, pink and white, bearskin rugs and whatnot. I found it a bit kitsch.
In between the initial seduction and the first reprise, Saccard comes to see Renee. For the first time he refuses to pay one of her extravagant dressmaker’s bills, and this is because his speculations have become so entangled that he owes money everywhere and it’s all a pack of cards about to fall. He doesn’t tell the truth, of course, but uses this situation to persuade her into parting with long withheld dowry property. She signs the bill of sale partly out of ignorance about what he’s doing and partly out of repressed guilt.
Siddonie comes to see Renee too, when she’s having one of her post-indulgence migraines. Renee confides in her about the unpaid bill, and Sidonie offers to help.
Maxime and Renee are intimate everywhere. Servants don’t suspect because they’re so close to each other anyway. Celeste catches them at it one day but she is discreet, she says nothing to anyone and even warns them of any approaching danger.
One day Renee dresses Maxime up as a cousin wearing a dress, and it takes a while for her bosom friends to realise it’s him. (Renee has two ‘at-homes’ these days, one for everyone, and one just for her closest intimates.) They think his cross-dressing is a great joke and won’t let him change out of the costume. This hermaphrodite aspect of Maxime’s sexuality hints at a same-sex aspect of the incest, a sort of lesbianism, which makes it even more shocking.
Renee’s own costumes become ever more elaborate and costly, including one which alludes to her predatory nature with deer-hunting scenes embroidered all over it, with matching accessories.
Renee and Maxime no longer enjoy summer at the seaside, they need the hothouse of Paris as a stimulant and Maxime hates the sea: he won’t go in it, i.e. he doesn’t want to be cleansed of his sins.
But eventually Maxime tires of Renee and he becomes amenable to the marriage that his father is arranging: he is to marry the consumptive hunchback Louise, a prospect only attractive because of her large dowry and the likelihood of her impending death. Maxime has never had any money and Renee has always paid for everything, indulging every whim, but he would like to be rich. Saccard is keen on the marriage because his own finances are always precarious: they’re a ‘pack of cards always ready to fall’. He’s still after Renee’s property – his latest ruse to get hold of it is quite elaborate but it falls through because Maxime in a fit of pique tells Renee that Saccard is duping her.
The debt-free Saccard who arrived in Paris so long ago is now up to his neck in debt. Renee’s debts are astronomical, and now she’s short of money too because Saccard is beginning to refuse to pay her bills. She even goes to her father to borrow 50,000 but backs out at the last minute, intimidated by the sober atmosphere of the house and her own memories of the simple life she led as a child. She doesn’t even tell Aunt Elizabeth about the financial scrape she’s in even though Worm the couturier is threatening to cut her credit and she’s terrified of a lawsuit. Instead she goes to Siddonie, but foolishly offends her by rejecting her idea of taking on M. de Saffre who’s very keen on her and would happily lend her the money she needs.
Everybody is duping everyone else. Renee is even lying to Maxime about Saccard restoring normal marital relations with her. She feels it is degrading to be sleeping again with her husband so when Maxime sees a man leaving her room she tells him it’s M. de Saffre. Maxime of course finds out the truth when one day Saccard starts waxing lyrical about the joys of married life – and that jealousy is what triggers Maxime’s revelation that Saccard is trying to trick Renee out of her property.
Maxime is sour on both of them, and it looks as if things are going to get nasty.
Zola begins this extraordinary chapter with a series of tableaux held at Saccard’s mansion, 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 Renee dressed in increasingly scanty outfits 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.
In between the scenes, the men talk business and politics, relating one financial scandal after another while Saccard waits impatiently for his brother Pierre, the Minister, to arrive so that he can announce the forthcoming marriage of Maxime and Louise. Eventually Pierre turns up, rather disdainful of the whole show, but ends up colluding in it by compromising himself terribly with promises of one sort or another including an offer to make Maxime an auditor to the Council of State.
Meanwhile Siddonie, dressed as a sorceress, is up to something. She’s in cahoots with Saccard, and she’s keeping a watchful eye on Renee.
After the tableaux, there is a monstrous ball. Renee 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 sequences 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.
Anyway, eventually Renee finds out about the marriage and she is distraught. She pursues Maxime, hauls him up to her bedroom, grabs him by the wrists to prove her superior strength and insists that he can’t marry Louise, they must run away to Italy together. But Siddonie has alerted Saccard to the fact that a man has been seen going to Renee’s room, and he turns up just in time to see Renee kissing Maxime on the mouth. He is taken aback, to say the least, but recovers nicely when he sees that Renee has finally signed over the property to him (so that she would have the money to go to Italy). He decides to be a man of the world about it, Maxime decides that Paris is more fun than Italy, and the pair of them go downstairs together, leaving Renee to ponder her worthlessness. Saccard doesn’t care enough about what she has done to even get angry, and Maxime doesn’t want her.
This short chapter ties up the loose ends.
Three months have gone by. Maxime comes back to Paris, a rich widower because Louise has died of consumption as she was expected to. He reconciles with his father – though he doesn’t take his advice about ‘investments’. Saccard is still speculating, still presiding over precarious finances, and still ripping off the system with inflated compensation demands for buildings he’s purchased.
Renee has no one in the end, not even her maid Celeste. The loyalty she’d assumed was simply Celeste’s determination to stick it out till she’d saved up enough money to be financially independent and go back home. She takes the opportunity to tell Renee some home truths, and also reveals that Baptiste, the sober-sided butler, isn’t what he seemed: it wasn’t the horses he was interested in, it was the grooms.
Renee takes a ride alone in the Bois. There is a reprise of the opening scene of the novel with all the characters making a reappearance in their carriages, culminating in the arrival of the Emperor, reminding Renee of her former triumph. Overcome by shame she goes home to her father and shortly afterwards dies of meningitis, leaving her father to pay the astronomical couturier’s bill.
Lisa Hill ANZ LitLovers (The Zola Project)