I was reading Emile Zola’s The Kill (La Cureé) alternately with Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes, so I was struck by de Waal’s description of the Paris inhabited by Zola’s Aristide Saccard during his years of prosperity. The Kill is the third book in the Rougon-Macquart novel series in which Zola portrays the corrupt France of Napoleon III. (The “kill” is not a murder, but the piece of the fox awarded to the hounds after a successful hunt.) For a detailed description of the events in the novel, see Lisa Hill’s plot summary.
When Aristide Rougon leaves Plassans (Aix-en-Provence) for Paris after Louis Napoleon’s coup of 1851 he is poor and must continue to live a frugal existence on his clerk’s salary. An advantageous second marriage gives him the capital to speculate successfully in the real estate of Paris. The city is being transformed by the plans of Baron Haussmann, who creates boulevards and parks, including the Parc Monceau, next to which Saccard builds his mansion.
Parc Monceau, painted by Gustave Caillebotte
During the Second Empire, the [d’Orleans] family sold lots within the park to real estate developers, who built luxurious town houses, reducing the size of the park by half. The remaining part of the park was purchased by the city of Paris in 1860. All that remained of the original folly was the water lily pond, the stream and the fantasy “tombs,” including the Egyptian pyramid.
In 1860 the park was purchased by the city, and in August 1861 Parc Monceau became the first new public park in Paris to be remade by Baron Haussmann as part of the grand transformation of Paris begun by Emperor Louis Napoleon. Two main alleys were laid out from east to west and north to south, meeting in the center of the park, and the alleys within the park were widened and paved, so carriages could drive the park. An ornamental grill 8.3 meters high was installed along a newly created avenue, Boulevard Malesherbes, Curving paths were laid out around the park for strolling.
The house Saccard builds dramatizes the opulence he has achieved. After a rather precise explanation of its structure, Zola goes on to describe the decorations.
The display of decoration was profuse. The house was hidden under its sculpture. Around the windows and along the cornices ran volutes of flowers and branches; there were balconies shaped like baskets full of blossoms, and supported by tall naked women with wide hips and jutting breasts; and here and there were fanciful escutcheons, clusters of fruit, roses, every flower it is possible for stone or marble to represent. The higher one looked, the more the building bust into blossom. Around the roof ran a balustrade on which urns, at regular intervals, stood blazing with flames of stone; and there, between the bull’s eye windows of the attics, which opened on to an incredible mass of fruit and foliage, mantled the crowning portions of this amazing spectacle, the pediments of the turrets, in the midst of which the naked women reappeared, playing the apples, adopting poses amidst sheaves of rushes.
So. Fruit and flowers and naked women, but none of them real – just stone representations without any softness at all.
Zola used as his model for the mansion he calls a “fireworks display” the Hotel Menier, which still stands today in its favored position by the park. After finding the beautiful Hotel Ephrussi, the home of the Parisian branch of his family, Edmund de Waal visits the nearly Hotel Menier.
But nothing compares to the mansion built by the chocolate magnate Émile-Justin Menier. It was a building so splendidly excessive, so eclectic in its garnished decorations, glimpsed above its high walls, that Zola’s description of it as ‘an opulent bastard of every style’ still seems about right. In his dark novel of 1872, La curée, Saccard – a rapacious Jewish property magnate – lives here on the rue de Monceau. You feel this street as the family move in: it is a street of Jews, a street full of people on display in their lavish golden houses. Monceau is slang in Paris for nouveau riche, newly arrived.
That’s an interesting error, calling Saccard a rapacious Jewish property magnate. Rapacious yes, Jewish no. Saccard was a Rougon and nowhere does Zola hint that any of them were Jewish. If, as de Waal suggests, some wealthy Jews were sharp-dealing scoundrels, it does not follow that Saccard was Jew. Many 19th century authors would at least hint at the probability. In Zola’s Money. this same Saccard must deal with the Jewish banker Gunderman. Saccard’s feelings about Gunderman may be those of the character or his author; we cannot be sure. We can be sure, however, to find casual anti-semitic jibes in well-regarded authors right up to the time of World War II.