Emile Zola, a Very Short Introduction, by Brian Nelson

There are good reasons to read this book: if you know nothing about Émile Zola, Brian Nelson’s Very Short Introduction will convince you to add Zola to your TBR; and if you’ve read Zola in a general reader’s kind of way, the VSI enhances your knowledge of the author and his books, making you want to read or re-read more of this author.

This VSI also explains why you might not want to read the Rougon-Macquart cycle in the chronological order that I used, because themes reveal themselves differently if you read the novels in publication order.  The VSI also provides the historical context for the novels in a way that you might not have understood if you don’t have the OUP editions with their excellent introductions.  (Some of the novels were not available in OUP editions when I first started reading Zola, a problem since rectified.  See my post ‘The Art of Book Introductions, or Why You Should Always Buy the Oxford Editions of Zola’.)

Brian Nelson, Emeritus Professor of French Studies and Translation Studies at Monash University here in Melbourne, translated some of the recent editions of the Rougon-Macquart cycle, and wrote the introductions.  His style, as you will know if you have read the OUP editions that he translated, is clear, free of pedantry and academic jargon, and easy for a general reader to enjoy.  I was really pleased to add this edition to my collections of VSIs.

Zola, (1840-1902) like his predecessor Balzac (1799-1850), used storytelling to examine his society, but Zola’s focus was the changing cultural landscapes of the late 19th century.  He was a novelist of modernity driven by industrial capitalism.  He was interested in the new shapes of the city, new forms of social practice and economic organisation, and the heightened political pressures of the era.  One of the innovative features of his novels is the portrayal of crowds, a feature of the emerging mass society.

Committed to a literature of truth, and to a new freedom of expression, he introduced a new realm of subjects: urban poverty and the working class; class consciousness and class relations; sexuality and gender.  Truth, for him, was not just a matter of personal integrity, but also an aesthetic principle.  He believed in telling it like it is, with no aspect of human experience out of bounds.  He believed [and I do too] that a writer plays a social role.  What Zola shows is the lives of ordinary people but within the context of change: how they were affected by the growth of the city, by the abuse of power, by the growth of consumer culture, by banking, crime, poverty and prostitution.

His style was not documentary but ironic and satiric.  Zola was provocative, combative, critical and subversive.  He was the most criticised and maligned writer of his day, but also the most popular.  Today he is recognised as a narrative artist, a craftsman, a storyteller and a fabulist.

Chapter One delves into Zola’s research methods and his narrative genius.  His best works, says Nelson, are visionary.  They employ poetic character with movement, colour and intensity.  His descriptions are more than just that—they eclipse human beings to express a vision and magnify the material world.  An example from The Ladies Paradise is the cascading images and rising pitch in the description of the department store sales which suggest loss of control, the female shopper’s quasi-sexual abandonment to consumer dreams while mirroring the perpetual expansion that defines the economic principles of consumerism. [And it’s still very relevant today.  Reading this novel and Brian Nelson’s introduction to it redefined my understanding of the way marketing works and I am a cannier shopper for that.]

The predominant feature is Zola’s oeuvre is the machine, in entities that function like one: the department store, the mine, the stock exchange.  He also uses his theme of heredity selectively to create a sense of doom, like an ancient curse.  But running through all his works is a mythopoeic vision, not just parallels between his characters and figures from classical mythology, but also influencing the narrative patterns of his novels.

There is the origin myth of the first novel of the series, The Fortunes of the Rougons; the myths of hell and the universal flood in Germinal; the myth of the Garden of Eden and the Tree of Knowledge in The Sin of Father Mouret (La Faute de Abbé Mouret, 1875); the myth of Man’s lost majesty in The Sin of Father Mouret and L’Assommoir; the myth of the Eternal Return in Earth; the myths of Catastrophe and renewal in the later novels of Les Rougons-Macquart, from Nana onwards. (p.9) [I’ve reviewed all these, see here, but I didn’t recognise this aspect of the oeuvre.)

Chapter Two traces Zola’s career as a writer before he began the Rougons—I was interested to see that he learned the art of self-promotion at Hachette but he over-stepped the mark with Claude’s Confession, his second novel about a prostitute.  As an art critic he made himself notorious in the art world stoush over Impressionism v classical painting, but he also learned from Manet his guiding aesthetic, i.e. to look at life like a modern painter.

Novels which are discussed in detail in the VSI include

  • The Belly of Paris (Chapter 3) from his ‘angry young man’ period;
  • L’Assommoir (Chapter 4), the scandalous first great novel of working-class life;
  • Nana (Chapter 5), about a prostitute whose life span symbolises the disfigurement of French society from the coup d’état in 1852 to the declaration of war against Russia which signalled the collapse of Empire;
  • The Ladies Paradise (Chapter 6): a transitional novel, from the private lives of the bourgeoisie in Pot Luck to a new optimistic focus on progress which depicts the Darwinian struggle between small business retailers and the new new phenomenon of the department store;
  • Germinal (Chapter 7) is about class conflict and the struggle between capital and labour, which Zola foresaw would be the most important question of the 20th century. But it’s also a novel about the importance of working-class leadership: Zola was well aware of the risks of muddled thinking and patchy reading and the consequences for demagoguery;
  • Earth which Nelson thinks is one of Zola’s finest achievements, demolishing the myth of the inherent goodness of peasants and depicting them as they really were, primitive and insular in a harsh environment.  Their savage, sometimes murderous attachment to land is an anti-pastoral.

Chapter 9 introduced me to novels I haven’t read: the more mythic Three Cities trilogy (about a priest who loses his faith) and the unfinished quartet of the Four Gospel novels (exploring a secular replacement for Christianity). In this later period—amid the ideological shifts in la fin de siécle—Zola’s themes were life and death, creation and destruction, degeneration and renewal.  But his signature naturalism began to be rejected, Catholicism was on the rise and there was pessimism about the nation’s future.  Nelson says that some of these are more like tracts.

And then Dreyfus affair overshadowed everything else.  This VSI has one of the best and clearest explanations of this affair and its long-lasting effects on France.  And he also says that it may well have led to the probable poisoning of this genius of French literature.

Author: Brian Nelson
Title: Émile Zola, a Very Short Introduction
Oxford Very Short Introductions Series
Publisher: OUP (Oxford University Press), 2020
ISBN: 9780198837565, pbk., 144 pages including

  • A chronology of Zola’s life and works
  • References
  • Further reading, and
  • Index

Review copy courtesy of Oxford University Press.

Available from Fishpond: Emile Zola: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)

Cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers

(Re-reading) His Excellency Eugène Rougon (Son Excellence Eugène Rougon) by Émile Zola, translated by Brian Nelson

his excellency eugene rougonI have been re-reading His Excellency Eugène Rougon (Son Excellence Eugène Rougon) because I have a lovely new OUP edition, translated by Brian Nelson.  I’m not going to review the novel again because I’ve already reviewed the Vizetelly translation as part of my Zola Project to read the entire Rougon-Marquet series, but I do want to comment about why it’s so much more enjoyable to read a new edition than a freebie from Project Gutenberg.

I admire the whole concept of Project Gutenberg, and I’ve read plenty of their titles that I couldn’t otherwise source. The wonderful team of volunteers at PG have saved many titles from oblivion, and these titles are free, which makes them accessible to all budgets. But there are limitations with some titles, and the Vizetelly translations of Zola’s novels are particularly problematic…

I call them Vizetelly translations, but actually, Vizetelly was the publisher and although Brian Nelson says in his Translator’s Note that His Excellency was translated by Henry Vizetelly’s son Ernest in 1897, Wikipedia says that it’s not known who the translator was. That’s probably just because WP hasn’t caught up with the scholarship, but it is true that Gutenberg editions sometimes don’t #NameTheTranslator because translators weren’t acknowledged in the original editions. In the case of Zola, it may be that anonymity was desired, perhaps by a lady translator, because Zola was considered salacious and as Vizetelly learned to his cost, it wasn’t just risky for a lady’s reputation… there were worse consequences than that.

Henry Vizetelly (1820-94) was fined and imprisoned for three months in 1889 over the publication of La Terre, which was considered offensive. Subsequent editions of all of Zola’s novels were heavily edited by his son Ernest Vizetelly (1853-1922) in order to avoid further prosecutions. (Source: The Books of Émile Zola)

In the case of His Excellency the 1897 translation is after Henry’s gaol term, so it falls into the category of ‘heavily edited’.

So it’s not just that contemporary readers of Vizetelly have to adjust to reading a 19th century English version of 19th century French. It’s also that the novels were self-censored, as it were. Sometimes this prudishness doesn’t much matter. The missing details of Clorinde in scandalous (un)dress holding court to a coterie of admiring men while an artist paints her as Diana the Huntress, are hardly significant. OTOH readers would understand something completely different about a lovers’ relationship from Nelson’s use of the word ‘enslavement’ when referring to a woman wearing a dog collar and a badge inscribed with ‘I belong to my master,’ compared to Vizetelly’s coy ‘servitude’. Even though I read the Vizetelly back in 2014, I became quite adept at identifying text that had been cut or sanitised. ‘I bet that’s not in Vizetelly!’, I found myself saying, and each time I was right.

But also, there are details which make no sense to a modern reader without explanatory notes. For example, when Rougon is being told about a plot to assassinate the emperor, his informant suddenly says:

‘It’s planned for tomorrow night… They aim to assassinate Badinguet outside the Opera, as he is going in.’ (p.185)

Huh? thinks the modern Australian reader, who is this new character Badinguet and what has he got to do with anything? The Gutenberg edition on my Kindle leaves me none the wiser, but Brian Nelson’s Explanatory Notes helpfully explain that Badinguet was a derisive nickname for the Emperor. Louis-Napoleon had made two unsuccessful attempts at a coup before his triumphant third attempt, and was imprisoned after the second one. He escaped in disguise as a labourer by name of Badinguet. It’s not just a clever bit of French history thrown in at random: Zola is showing that this Emperor is still widely held in contempt.

I don’t often re-read books but this new translation based on the original French was a real treat. Extra features of this edition which enhanced my reading so much compared to the Kindle edition of the Vizetelly translation, include an Introduction; the Translator’s notes; a Bibliography, a Chronology of Zola’s life, and a Family Tree of the Rougon-Macquart, and Explanatory Notes.

PS I should add that there was a 1958 translation by Alec Brown for Elek Books, but my experience with Brown’s translation of La Bête Humaine was that it was utterly unreadable so my advice is to avoid Brown’s translations at all cost.

Author: Émile Zola
Title: His Excellency Eugène Rougon (Son Excellence Eugène Rougon)
A new translation by Brian Nelson
Publisher: Oxford World’s Classics, OUP (Oxford University Press), 2018, first published in 1876, 333 pages (not including the Explanatory Notes)
ISBN: 9780198748250
Review copy courtesy of Oxford University Press.

Available from Fishpond: His Excellency Eugene Rougon (Oxford World’s Classics) and from OUP. (Not the easiest site to navigate to find the rest of the Zolas, but if (from the Oxford World’s Classics home page) you click on Show More, and then Click on View All Titles, and then choose search ‘from Z to A’ all the Zolas in OUP editions come up, one after the other.)

Cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers.

Earth (La Terre) by Émile Zola, translated by Brian Nelson and Julie Rose

Earth (La Terre)As I come towards the end of my two-year Zola project, I am starting to feel a little bit melancholy.  What can I find to read that might bring as much sustained pleasure as reading the 20-volume Rougon-Macquart cycle?  Earth (La Terre) (1887) is 15th in the publication order but 18th in the recommended reading order; so for me after this all that’s left to read is only La Débâcle (1892) (The Downfall/The Smash-up/The Debacle) and Le Docteur Pascal (1893) (Doctor Pascal).  Oh woe!

Earth (also translated as The Soil) is a masterpiece.  It is a tale of terrible family conflict over land-ownership.  The peasants of this novel have such a distorted love of land that causes only toil and heartbreak, that they are prepared to abandon the ordinary impulses of humanity to keep it.

As with everything else he wrote, Zola researched his subject thoroughly, and it shows.  On the one hand there are lyrical descriptions of the landscape lush with the harvest or the desolation of a field after hail, and on the other there are crude, lewd descriptions of the earthy peasants, their drinking and carousing, their brutish work, their use and abuse of women, and their exasperating ignorance and stupidity.  As Brian Nelson says in his excellent introduction, Zola was not like other novelists of his era in idealising rural life; he wrote naturalism and he painted a frank portrait of what he saw on his research trip to the Beuce.  To quote Nelson:

The novelist attended a big cattle market, visited farms, conducted interviews, and took extensive notes.  This research is undoubtedly reflected in the remarkable particularity of authentic detail that informs his descriptions of the peasants’ world and his elaboration of scenes that evoke ‘the eternal round of things’. (p.118): the evening gatherings in the cowshed, weddings, baptisms, fairs, funerals, as well as the sowing, haymaking, and harvesting.  However, it did not alter (but rather, reinforced) his imaginative conception of the reality he wished to depict.  (Introduction, p. xv)

The story revolves around the fortunes of the Fouan family, into whose orbit Jean Macquart falls when he comes looking for work as a carpenter after his discharge from the army.  Estranged from his family and looking for a quiet life after the horrors of war, Jean finds himself attracted to life on the land and takes up work as a labourer.  Before long he finds himself feeling protective towards Lise and Françoise Mouche, and then in different ways, attracted to both.  Lise is pregnant to Buteau, the brutish son of old Fouan, but he’s abandoned her and taken off for elsewhere, partly because of a stupid row over land.

Old Fouan is a parody of King Lear: old and tired, he decides to divide his holdings between his three children, Fanny (respectably married to Delhomme); Buteau (a pig-headed oaf); and Hyacinthe, (a drunkard, gambler and poacher, known scandalously as Jesus-Christ).  The deal is that he and his wife will continue to live in the family home and all three children will pay him a pension.  There is one sordid scene after another while they haggle over every last sou, and in the end when they draw lots for who is to get which parcel of land, Buteau doesn’t get the one he wanted and he goes off in a huff.

As Zola makes clear, it’s the inheritance of land that results in these ignoble family quarrels.  After all the post-revolution redistributions of land, peasant families never had enough land to make a decent living.  Inherited land was redistributed into smaller and smaller parcels as it was shared amongst the offspring, and the only way that more land could be acquired was to marry it.  Women were prized according to the land they’d inherited, and where it was sited.  (It was most convenient if it were adjacent to a prospective spouse’s land, of course).

While Jean eyes off Lise as a prospective wife, Buteau eventually comes to his senses and returns to take up his share of the Fouan land and marry her, because she and her sister have inherited land from their father, and because Françoise is underage he will have the use of her land as well.  Jean then finds himself attracted to Françoise – but is also not averse to a little hanky-panky elsewhere as well, because, well, that’s how it is.  Two parish priests try and fail to establish a bit of morality but with only one or two exceptions, all the women in the novel sleep around, indoors and outdoors, with anyone at all.  The men, for their part, regard it as their right to take women as and when they please.  This might seem a bit confronting, but it is part of Zola’s intention to show that women are a commodity used to get land, and that the fecundity of the earth creates a lusty attitude to life that is natural in that society.

Zola also shows that peasant life not only breeds cynical politicians at the local and national level, it also creates tragedy for the vulnerable.  Palmyre’s brother is disabled, physically and intellectually, and he has a truly terrible life, finally meeting his end when he explodes in rage and tries to rape an old woman.  Françoise spends her young life fending off sexual assault by Buteau because he thinks that if he makes her his, she won’t be able to marry and therefore he can keep her share of the sisters’ inheritance.  Old Fouan’s children renege on their obligations, and he ends up trudging from one to the other in the cold and the rain, looking for a bed for the night:

Fouan stepped back, afraid that they might catch sight of him at the door, like a beaten dog crawling back to its food-bowl.  He was so overcome by shame that he was filled with a fierce resolve to creep into a corner and die.  They’d see if all he thought about was his food!  He went down the slope once more and collapsed on the end of a beam outside Clou’s smithy.  His legs were giving way under him and he lost heart completely as he sat in the dark beside the deserted road.  There was not a soul to be seen, for the evening gatherings had already begun and bad weather was keeping everyone indoors.  The rain had made the wind drop and was now teeming down. He did not feel strong enough to stand up and look for shelter.  With his stick between his knees, and his bare skull streaming with water, he sat motionless, stupefied by his wretched plight.  (p.346)

(The translation, as you can see, is excellent!)

The insularity of the peasant society can be seen in the way they react to the free trade versus protection issue.  Down at the tavern, the drunks gather to thrash the issues around.  (The women gossip at the market, and at Mass).  American wheat is flooding the market, and small scale farming can’t compete.  A lack of capital impedes one farmer’s efforts to innovate, and the positioning of a road meant to improve access to markets is manipulated to maximise government compensation rather than efficiency.  A free trade politician promising improvements that will never be delivered is more popular than his protectionist opponent, and communism and anarchism get an airing too.

The schoolteacher’s efforts to educate the next generation are doomed to failure, because for all the hot air, no one wants to change anything.  And that includes anyone trying to join this society where families have lived for generations and the only people ever to travel are the conscripts forced to fight in foreign wars.

So Jean Macquart, for all that he works hard and is a decent man, is always the outsider, and the novel concludes with his wife’s betrayal because he is not ever going to belong.

There are things you can only share with your own flesh and blood, keep buried in the little spot of earth where you have all grown up together, things which you must never, in any circumstances, be mentioned to strangers; and Jean was a stranger … (p.374)

Zola’s novel is rich in insights like this.  It’s an outstanding example of Zola’s storytelling in the service of a bigger picture, revealing the complexity of small village life without romanticising it or populating it with unrealistic quirky characters.  Highly recommended!

Author: Émile Zola
Title: Earth (La Terre)
Translated  by Brian Nelson and Julie Rose
Publisher: Oxford University Press, Oxford World’s Classics series, 2016
ISBN: 9780199677870
Review copy courtesy of OUP.

Cross posted at ANZ LitLovers

The Belly of Paris, by Émile Zola, translated by Brian Nelson

The Belly of ParisAs regular readers know, I’m a bit of a ‘foodie’ so I was expecting to really enjoy The Belly of Paris, (Le Ventre de Paris – also translated as The Fat and the Thin; Savage Paris; or The Markets of Paris).   First published in 1873, it’s the 11th novel in the recommended reading order for Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle, and it’s set in Les Halles de Paris, the huge fresh food market in the heart of the city that was a mecca for food-lovers until it was (unwisely) demolished in 1971.

Now, I like buying food, cooking food, admiring the presentation of food, and exploring different cuisines – but I am not especially interested in reading descriptions of food.  And so while I recognise that The Belly of Paris is a favourite of many and it was the first time a food market had been used as a poetic symbol of bourgeois consumerism, I found myself becoming a bit tired of the descriptions of food which litter this novel.  The plot, on the other hand interested me very much.

The central character, Florent Quenu finds himself inadvertently caught up in an insurrection during Louis-Napoleon’s 1851 coup-d’état and falsely accused of murdering a young woman.  He serves many years as a prisoner on the galleys at the notorious Devil’s Island,  eventually escaping to Paris where he finds the city unrecognisable under Haussman’s urban reconstruction program.  His half-brother Quenu takes him in, and despite his reservations about the gluttony symbolised by the markets, Florent eventually takes a position as an inspector at the fish market, reluctantly becoming part of the great market economy that was transforming Paris at the time.

His inertia, and his disdain for money, decent clothing and the bourgeois values that underlie the expansion of the markets, place Florent in conflict with his family and the stallholders.  Quenu’s wife Lisa is proud of the respectability of her charcuterie, and she is suspicious of anything or anyone that might sabotage it.  (As well she might, given the political instability that characterised French history in this period).

What Zola shows so cunningly in this book is the power of the mob.  The plump, placid people of the market harbour doubts about Florent because he is thin – his very physique symbolises his rejection of The Good Life that they sell to Paris in their food stalls.  While some of his actions are imprudent, it’s the whispering campaign that becomes a roar that leads to his downfall.

Visit The Books of Emile Zola for Jonathan’s ‘Exceptional Excerpt’ to read a description of Lisa in her triumph, and check out Nancy’s review at Silver Season.

I also enjoyed Zola’s representation of the artist Claude, prefiguring the later novel The Masterpiece which led Cezanne to rupture his long-standing friendship with Zola.  Many of the scenes are like still life paintings made with words and you can visualise the composition of the pictures as you read.  (I am really looking forward to reading The Masterpiece, I love reading novels about art and artists. )

Savage ParisThe translation by Brian Nelson for the Oxford World’s Classics edition is excellent, and I really like the cover image which is a detail from The Square in Front of Les Halles by Victor-Gabriel Gilbert.   It’s a remarkable contrast with my copy of the 1955 Elek edition cover at left, which emphasises Zola’s theme of the Fat in conflict with the Thin!  (You can see more lurid and tasteless covers of this title  in Jonathan’s amazing collection at The Works of Emile Zola).  Gilbert’s lovely painting  – which for some reason still has copyright restrictions so you can only view the complete painting by visiting one of the sites that  sells prints of it is one of a series of paintings of the markets by Gilbert, and I was able to use the ones at Wikigallery since this blog is not a commercial site.  I have used the collection to make the slide show below.   There are also wonderful B&W photos of the markets here (click to enlarge each image).

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Author: Emile Zola
Title: The Belly of Paris
Publisher: Oxford World’s Classics, 2009
ISBN: 9780199555840
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Fishpond.

Fishpond: The Belly of Paris (Oxford World’s Classics)

Cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers

Emile Zola, Pot Luck / Pot-Bouille

ZolaPotThe expression Pot-Bouille, the title of one of Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series of novels, is difficult to render in English. “Pot luck” in the Midwest, where I come from, implies taking your chance on what may be in the pot that day. A French dictionary calls pot-bouille a “repas ordinaire d’un ménage.” I rather like that – it’s what you usually get, and luck doesn’t much enter into it.

The ménage in which Zola finds this ordinary meal is an apartment house in Paris, in which live a number of bourgeois families and their servants. These human ingredients of Zola’s story are no more exceptional than the ingredients of pot luck; their activities and attitudes are as we would expect. For details, see two posts here at Reading Zola where Jonathan provides a plot summary  and Lisa describes the characters and their interactions. Lisa also remarks that the “smart new building is Zola’s metaphor for the hypocrisy of the bourgeois.”

Almost all the inhabitants of the building are corrupt in some way. The servants steal from their employers and gossip about them. The tenants cheat financially and sleep with each other and with the servants. The bourgeoisie are hypocritical about what is going on; the servants are not. They know what is being concealed. After the morning gossip,

 They [the maids] all plunged back into their kitchens; and from the dark bowels of the narrow courtyard only the stench of the drains came up, like the smell of the hidden filth of the various families, stirred up by the servants’ rancor. This was the sewer of the house, draining off the house’s shames, while the masters lounged about in their slippers and the front staircase displayed all its solemn majesty amid the stuffy silence of the hot-air stove.

Now that I have read several Zola’s novels, I am struck by his repeated use of human constructions as metaphors for the theme of his story. In Pot-Bouille, it is the apartment house, designed to be impressive, but concealing its decadence. In La Curée, it is the grand, over-decorated mansion constructed by Saccard to display his wealth and social importance. In Germinal, it is the mine and its machinery – underground, yet dominating all above and below. In The Belly of Paris, it is the market, which is large, complex and contains the delights of fresh foods along with the stink of garbage.

In his biography, Zola: A Life, Frederick Brown gives a detailed account of how Zola acquired a modest country property at Medan. As he prospered, he expanded the original house, remodeling it and adding wings and towers. Construction had meaning to Zola, as shown by the attention he paid to his own property and his evident pride in the results. His house was a testimony to his success. With his feeling about the importance of buildings, it is appropriate that an apartment building in Bot-Bouille links together the characters and subplots of the novel. For example, it represented the conventional virtues to the erring Berthe, hiding from her angry husband.

 Then gradually the solemn staircase filled her with fresh anguish; it was so black, so austere. No one could see her; and yet she was overcome with confusion at sitting there in her chemise amid such respectable gilt and stucco. The wide mahogany doors, the conjugal dignity of these hearths, seemed to load her with reproaches. Never had the house appeared to her so saturated with purity and virtue.

Berthe is wrong, of course. The house itself cannot be virtuous, only the people within. Zola notices the details of wide mahogany doors and grants conjugal dignity to hearths. He is sensitive to constructions and what they represent. I hope he was satisfied by what his own domestic constructions meant to him, as well as what they represented to the world.

Pot Luck by Emile Zola, translated by Brian Nelson

6251723Well, here we are at No 7 in the recommended reading order for those wanting to read Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle of novels. It’s Pot-Bouille, written in 1882 and translated variously as Pot Luck, Restless House, and Piping Hot though none of these really capture the metaphorical meaning of the original title, according to Brian Nelson, the translator of this Oxford World Classics edition. There isn’t really an English word which manages to convey the ‘melting-pot of sexual promiscuity’ which pervades the building, and the stewpot of swill as a metaphor for the moral and physical corruption of bourgeois Paris in the 19th century. But if you can’t read the novel in the original French, this translation is a most enjoyable version instead, even if the translator himself isn’t happy with his title!

In this novel, a smart new building is Zola’s metaphor for the hypocrisy of the bourgeois. Octave Mouret, known to me as a man with his eye on the main chance from my previous (out-of-order) reading of The Ladies’ Paradise (see my review), comes to Paris from Plassans to make his fortune. Through his connections with relations of M. Campardon, Octave rents a room on the fourth floor of a new apartment building. The building is distinguished by elegant surface features of fake marble and mahogany which mask shoddy workmanship, peeling paint and sleazy servants’ quarters.


The concierge M. Gourd spruiks the building’s other tenants as he escorts Octave upstairs (where, alas, the posh red carpet fizzles out as they reach the cheaper rooms). Gourd is at pains to emphasise the respectability of the house, but these tenants are anything but respectable!

The landlord is M. Vabre, whose offspring all live in the building. They are:

  • Clotilde Duveyrier (Vabre’s daughter) likes to hold court in her artistic salon, waylaying every eligible male to sing in her chorus, and subjecting both her piano and her listeners to muscular renditions of Chopin. Her husband Alphonse (a judge) spends most of his time with his mistress Clarisse, who (unbeknown to him) makes many a man welcome in the rooms he has furnished for her.
  • Théophile, (M. Vabre’s second son) is married in name only to Valérie. She married expecting to inherit wealth. But it’s common knowledge that she gave up on Théophile because he’s impotent. She used a local stud to have a child so that they would get their share of the Vabre inheritance when the old man dies, and she’s been having meaningless affairs ever since.
  • Auguste (M. Vabre’s eldest son) is a silk merchant who makes a disastrous marriage to Berthe. She is the daughter of the impecunious Josserands who (like Octave) live on the less salubrious fourth floor. He makes the mistake of making regular business trips away from home…

The other tenants are

  • The Josserand Family: Madame Josserand is a termagant. Determined to marry off her daughters Hortense and Berthe but handicapped by not having enough money for the requisite dowries, she harangues her honest, hard-working husband into fraud and an early grave, and bullies the younger daughter into an unedifying pursuit of Auguste Vabre. The Josserands also have an older son who avoids them as much as possible, and a boy ominously called Saturnin, who suffers bouts of insanity and attacks anyone who upsets Berthe.
  • The Campardon Family: Madame Rose Campardon is a pseudo-invalid, much given to languid loafing about and managing to look quite sexy although her ‘malady’ has made her ‘unavailable’ since the birth of their only child Angèle. Mildly fond of her husband Achille, Rose initially turns a blind eye to his long-standing affair with Gasparine, a distant cousin, but when she gets tired of his too frequent absences, she moves Gasparine in to live with them.
  • The Pichon Family: This strange, completely passionless young couple are under the thumb of Madame Pichon’s interfering parents who have laid down the law about how many children it is respectable to have on their income. They come round for dinner once a week to make sure that proprieties are being observed. Things go badly wrong when Marie borrows a novel…
  • Madame Juzeur: Inexplicably abandoned by her husband after ten days of marriage, she likes to flirt with young men and then refuse them. Today, she would be labelled a ‘tease’.
  • There’s also an anonymous author, who keeps himself to himself!

Into this curious collection of sexually mismatched couples comes Octave, young, virile, and ambitious in more ways than one. He gets himself a job as a salesman at ‘The Ladies’ Paradise’ (just a drapery then, not then the spectacular department store it is to become in the later novel of the same name) and sets out to seduce his employer’s wife, Madame Hédouin. When she’s not interested he turns his attentions elsewhere, and elsewhere, and elsewhere! But he’s not interested in the servants, because he needs his conquests to lead to advancement in other ways.

The hypocrisy and sleaze spread outwards and upwards as well. The Josserands have a dissolute old uncle Bachelard who hangs around with Duveyrier and Trublot, a cynical young man who sleeps with almost all the servants. These hapless young women are caught between Gourd’s insistence on respectability (so much so that he evicts a young woman from the house on the eve of her confinement) and the expectation that they will submit to any man who wants a bit of fun upstairs. They are vulgar and dirty, and they have filthy mouths, but these servants are the only honest characters in the novel. In the most moving scene in the book, one of the servants gives birth alone and in silence, terrified of being caught and losing her job. The fate of her infant is heart-breaking, but was probably not uncommon. (It still happens today, though changes in social attitudes and the status of women make it rare, at least in the West).

Pot Luck is a biting satire, one of Zola’s best.

Next up in my Zola Project will be No 9 in the recommended reading order because I’ve already read No 8, The Ladies’ Paradise (Au Bonheur des Dames). There isn’t a nice modern OUP World’s Classic translation of La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret so I shall have to make do with one of these, listed on the Translations page at The Books of Emile Zola by the indefatigable Jonathan who has contributed so much to our collaborative blog there:)

  • Abbé Mouret’s Transgression (1886, Tr: unknown, for H. Vizetelly, Vizetelly & Co.)
  • Abbé Mouret’s Transgression (1900, edited by E. Vizetelly, Chatto & Windus)
  • The Sin of the Abbé Mouret (1904, Tr: M. Smyth, McLaren & Co.)
  • The Abbé Mouret’s Sin (1957, Tr: Alec Brown, Elek Books)
  • The Sin of Father Mouret (1969, Tr: Sandy Petrey, Prentice-Hall)

Author: Emile Zola
Title: Pot Luck (Pot-Bouille)
Publisher: Oxford World Classics, reissued 2009
ISBN: 9780199538706
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Fishpond. (OUP have very generously sent me most of their Zola editions for review, but not this one, because I already had it).


Fishpond: Pot Luck (Pot-Bouille) (Oxford World’s Classics)

Cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers

Lisa Hill, August 2014


The Rise of the Department Store: Zola’s Au bonheur des dames

zola-bonheurAu bonheur des dames, Zola’s exploration of the modern department store, is so very relevant in these early years of the 21st century, even though it was written over a century ago. Like the good naturalist novel that it is, Au bonheur studies what happens when mega-stores move in to old, settled neighborhoods and drive the small businesses there into bankruptcy. With the rise of department stores around this time, small-scale merchants with umbrella shops, say, or shops that specialized in scarves or hats, had no chance. The department stores could buy in bulk and undercut their small competitors.

Through the course of the novel, we watch as, one by one, the small shops surrounding the “Bonheur des Dames” store shrivel up and die. Of course, there’s one holdout, but he hangs on out of sheer desperation, rather than hope. Playing out against this backdrop of commercial carnage is the developing love affair between Octave Mouret, the owner of the store, and his lowly employee Denise Baudu. Ironically, Mouret, who prides himself on knowing what women want and how to get their money, finds himself ultimately conquered by a poor and powerless young woman (ahh c’est la vie).

As with most Zola novels, though, this short summary doesn’t do justice to the almost overwhelming amount of detail and information that coalesces into a rich picture of mid-19th-century Paris. Like my man Herman Melville, Zola uses a boatload of facts and in-depth descriptions to immerse us in a particular place in time; in Au bonheur, Zola treats us to detailed discussions of staff responsibilities, retail innovations, pricing and supply chains, and the almost infinite varieties of fabrics and laces and styles and textures offered to the customers. By the time you finish this novel, you feel like you’ve just been in Paris for a year. And you’ll want to go shopping.

(cross-posted at Bookishly Witty)

Plot Summary: ‘The Fortune of the Rougons’

The Fortune of the Rougons (La Fortune des Rougon) was originally published in 1871 and is the first book of the Rougon-Macquart series. It contains a lot of background information of many of the characters that appear in the later novels. Despite this, it is not essential to read it first.

The novel takes place in the fictional Plassans, which is the setting for several of the early novels in the series. Apart from the family history, the main plot is about the coup d’état of Louis-Napoleon in December 1851 and how it affects the small town of Plassans. Louis-Napoleon had been voted in as President of France in 1848 following the revolution that ended the monarchy. This creates a three-way split in allegiances of the population of Plassans as well as in the whole of France. Very loosely the aristocracy support the monarchy, the bourgeoisie support the Empire and the workers support the Republic.

There are only two readily available translations of La Fortune des Rougon; Vizetelly’s translation from 1886 and Brian Nelson’s translation from 2012.

Please note that this is a plot summary and therefore full plot developments are revealed.

Chapter One

Set in Plassans, south of France, December 1851. An area of waste-land, which used to be a graveyard, called Aire Saint-Mittre atracts children, gypsies, lovers etc.

A man arrives on the edge of Aire St-Mittre at night carrying a rifle. He hides the rifle and sits on an upturned tombstone. A girl arrives. They are young lovers, he is Silvère and she is Miette. He is planning on leaving to join the Republicans. They walk about in the moonlight wrapped together in Miette’s brown cloak. They walk to the edge of town where they can hear muffled noises which grow louder. It’s the sound of a marching army singing the Marseillaise; they are marching to Plassans. As they pass, Silvère gets emotional. Silvère and Miette race to Plassans via a short cut but arrive at the same time as the army. The men at the head of the army tease Miette viciously about her father who was found guilty of murder. Miette only takes offence when he is also called a thief. Others back her up and she’s affected by the kind words that are now being said about her father. She takes up the banner and turns her cloak inside out to display the inner red lining. She appears to the others as Liberty and they are fired up with enthusiasm. Silvère runs off to get his gun.

Chapter Two

Plassans is divided into three groups: the nobility, the bourgeois and the workers. The nobility keep hidden away in their hôtels.

The Foques were a family of market gardeners before the revolution. Adélaïde Foque (b. 1768) became an orphan at eighteen. She was odd and rumoured to be mad. She married a young gardener Rougon, who was coarse and vulgar. After a year they had a son, Pierre Rougon (1787-1870). Rougon died after fifteen months of marriage and Adélaïde took a lover Macquart – he was a drunkard and would often disappear for long periods. She had two children by him: Antoine Macquart (1789-1873) and Ursule Macquart (1791-1840). They lived together in total freedom.

They rolled about on the vegetable patches, spent their days in the open air playing and fighting like little devils.

Adélaïde had fits. A skilled gardener looked after their land; he robbed them shamelessly.

By the age of seventeen Pierre came to see the house and the fortune as legitimately his. He was disgusted with the antics of his family and the thieving of the gardener. Adélaïde grew fearful of Pierre and became increasingly subservient to him. Pierre tried to use this to his advantage. He took over the house’s finances and sacked the gardener. Antoine was conscripted into the army and Pierre refused to buy him out of this obligation. Ursule married a hatter called Mouret and moved to Marseille. Mouret refused any dowry. Pierre suspected a trap.

Pierre now wanted to get rid of Adélaïde, but he would have preferred it if she left of her own free-will. News reached them that Macquart had been killed in Switzerland whilst smuggling watches. Adélaïde moved to his shack leaving Pierre in charge of the house. He now wished to sell the land and marry the daughter of a merchant. His attentions turned to Félicité Puesch, the daughter of an olive-oil dealer who was close to bankruptcy. Their marriage was agreed. His attentions turned to the sale of the land but it was legally his mother’s and Antoine & Ursule still had a claim. He managed to convince his mother to sell the land for fifty thousand francs with the promise of an annuity of six hundred francs.

Félicité and Pierre helped run the family business. After three years Puesch & Lacamp retired leaving the firm in the young couple’s complete control. The next few years were disastrous financially and they were close to liquidation several times. Félicité dreamt of being rich. Thirty years later her father died; she was expecting an inheritance but he had put his money into a life annuity. Pierre put on weight and became lazy and their business scraped by.

Félicité gave birth to three boys and two girls: Eugène Rougon (b.1811) (His Excellency Eugène Rougon); Pascal Rougon (1813-1873) (Doctor Pascal); Aristide Rougon (Saccard) (b. 1815) (The Kill & Money); Sidonie Rougon (b. 1818) (The Kill) mother of Angélique Rougon (The Dream); Marthe Rougon (1820-1864, The Conquest of Plassans)

Félicité gave up on making a fortune herself and now put all her efforts into her sons’ futures. She sent the three boys to the town’s main school which was a drain on the family’s budget. Two studied law, the other medicine. They complained that they had been educated above their station.
At the beginning of 1848 Eugène was nearly forty, portly, slow, languid, but was contemptuous of modest ambitions and fortunes. His heart wasn’t in his law practice. He looked towards Paris for his fortune. In January he moved to Paris sensing that something was about to happen.

Aristide was sly and had a taste for petty intrigue. He was without scruples and wanted to become rich fast. He was Félicité’s favourite son. He lived off his parents when he returned from Paris. He married Angèle, daughter of Commander Sicardot. He lent Pierre the dowry and used it to keep Pierre in his debt for four years. When Pierre repaid his debt Aristide and family moved out. Aristide and Angèle had a son, Maxime (b. 1840, The Kill).

Pascal was the black sheep of the family. He set himself up as a doctor in Plassans after his studies and he enjoyed the life of the provinces. He studied natural history in his spare time. He had few patients but only the poor would go to him. He was unmarried and he was oblivious of the coming events in Paris.

Pierre and Félicité retired in 1845 with forty thousand francs. They rented an apartment, consisting of three rooms. They still dreamt of being rich. Pierre had grown portly and looked wealthy.

The Revolution of 1848 found all the Rougons on the lookout, frustrated by their bad luck, and ready to use any means necessary to advance their cause. They were a family of bandits lying in wait, ready to plunder and steal.

Chapter 3

Plassans was essentially conservative and few predicted the coming Empire of Louis-Napoleon. Marquis de Carnavant used to visit the Rougons and was an enthusiastic Royalist supporter. The reactionary meetings started to take place at the Rougons. Others that turned up at the meetings included M. Isidore Granoux, an almond dealer; M. de Roudier, a rich landowner who could talk for hours; Commander Sicardot, Aristide’s father-in-law, who had a dominant personality; M. Vuillet, a bookseller and producer of a bi-weekly newspaper. Rougon became the public leader of the group.

In April 1849 Eugène left Paris to visit his father for two weeks. He attended the meetings but didn’t join in, though he spoke to Sicardot often. Vuillet was suspicious of his presence. Aristide supported the Republicans as he thought they’d win, he wrote in a democratic newspaper critically of the reactionaries in the town which brought approbation from the Rougon group. After meeting Eugène he wasn’t so certain who would win and backed off his support of the Republicans.

Before leaving for Paris on 1st May, Eugène had a long talk with his father. They seemed to have a plan but did not divulge anything to Félicité. Pierre ended up revealing to her their plan of him becoming the receiver of taxes.

News reaches the group about Louis-Napoleon sending troops to Rome to snuff out the recently created Republic. On 10th December Louis-Napoleon was voted in as President. The group broadly supported him, especially Pierre. By the following year the Rougon group had gained popularity as people tired of the Republic. The Marquis sensed that a coup d’état was now inevitable. He spoke to Félicité who realised this also.

It was now the beginning of January 1851. Félicité managed to get a key from Pierre and read the letters he’d been receiving from Eugène. From these letters it was apparent that Eugène was working for Louis-Bonarparte’s cause. She kept her knowledge a secret from Pierre and she worried about Aristide’s support of the Republic. She even managed to get Pascal to attend some meetings.

By the end of November the coup d’état was looking more likely as Louis-Napoleon was accused of seeking the position of Emperor. The Rougon group were now all on the side of the Empire and Sicardot had arms ready. On 1st December a letter arrived from Eugène which stated that the time had arrived, and that Pierre was to tell Félicité everything. However Pierre did not speak to her about it.
On 3rd December the news was officially announced. The mayor and the clergy came out in support of the Empire as it was opposed to their enemy, the Republicans. The democratic sub-prefect resigned and left Plassans. Aristide wrote an article attacking the coup although he visited the Rougons, intrigued with what they were plotting. He overheard Marquis and Félicité discussing recent events. Realising that the coup was going to succeed, he ran to the newspaper’s office and stopped his article being printed. Aristide now had to wait to see who would emerge as victors.

In the next few days revolts occurred in surrounding towns. As the Rougon group met, news reached them that insurgents were on their way. Many left to hide; the commander left to join the his men. Félicité staged a scene where she tried to stop Pierre from leaving. It was agreed that Pierre would stay behind armed with fifty men. After the commander left the rest decided to lay low until it had all blown over. Pierre went to his mother’s to lay low.

Chapter 4

Antoine Macquart (half-brother of Pierre) moved to Plassans after the fall of Napoleon. He was idle and drunk and despised anyone that worked for a living. He was furious when he found out that Pierre had taken his inheritance. He went around town telling people how his brother had robbed him of his money. He would hang about outside Pierre’s shop being a nuisance. Eventually Félicité invited him in to discuss it and he eventually settled for two hundred francs, a new set of clothes and a paid apartment for a year. He soon drank his way through the money and couldn’t get any more money out of the Rougons.

Antoine learnt how to plait baskets and hampers so he could earn some money. After ten years of this he was fed up with working. He married Josephine Gauvadin (aka ‘Fine’) who worked at the market. She worked tirelessly whilst he idled away his time. When they drank they would fight. They had three children: Lisa Maquart (1827-1863, The Belly of Paris); Gervaise Macquart (1828-1869, L’Assommoir) and Jean Macquart (b. 1831, The Earth & Debacle). Gervaise was conceived when they were drunk; she was tall and lanky and had a limp. Jean was dull but liked to study. Lisa worked as a maid and moved to Paris in 1839 with her employer. Once Gervaise & Jean were earning money, Antoine had no scruples with living off them as well as Fine. Gervaise & Fine would drink anisette together when Antoine was out of the way.

Antoine supported the Republic as a way to get his revenge on society and the Rougons. Once the Rougons were trying to establish their position among the reactionaries Antoine was a source of embarrasment to them. Antoine, of course, enjoyed causing them embarrasment. He even threatened to publish the story of how Pierre had robbed his mother.

Antoine tried to find accomplices in his attacks on the Rougons. Aristide was wary of him. Meanwhile, his sister, Ursule and her husband, Mouret, were happy running their business. Ursule died in 1839 and Mouret later killed himself. Of their children, Francois (1817-1864, Conquest of Plassans) was employed by Pierre and he married Pierre’s daughter Marthe (1820-1864, Conquest of Plassans) . Silvère was taken in by Adélaïde (Tant Dide). Antoine tried to bend Silvère to his way of thinking. Silvère and Tant Dide were very fond of each other though a little distant. He would watch over her when she had one of her fits. Silvère was serious and largely self-taught, he became an apprentice to a wheelwright. He read Rousseau and considered himself a Republican. Antoine and Silvére would meet and talk politics and Antoine would try to turn him against the Rougons.

At the beginning of 1850 Fine died. Antoine sold many household items to raise cash, then turned to the children’s earnings. A month later Gervaise ran off to Paris with Lantier and her two children, Jean soon followed. He half-heartedly started making his baskets again.

Once the uprisings started in nearby towns after the coup Antoine saw his chance. He joined a group in the main square in Plassans and persuaded them to go to the Rougons house as they were enemies of the Republic. They couldn’t find Pierre as he had left (see end of Ch. 3). The main group from the other town entered Plassans at 11 o’clock and marched to the main square. They confronted the mayor and commander but quickly overcame them.

Silvère got involved in a tussle with a gendarme (Rengade) who was teasing Miette. Silvère believed that he had killed the gendarme and fled to his house, he didn’t notice that Pierre was there at first. Pierre tried to stop Silvère from leaving but Silvère pushed him out of the way as he returned to Miette and the other insurgents. As the insurgents were preparing to leave town Antoine persuaded them to leave him twenty men with which he could try to control Plassans.

Chapter 5

The insurgents leave Plassans to Orchères. By daybreak Miette is exhausted. Silvère convinces her to pass the banner to someone else and to take a short cut to Orchères so that they can take a rest. They talk and kiss when they’re alone.

Miette was nine when her father was tried for murder. She ended up living with her aunt, Eulalie Chantegreil and her husband Rébufat and Miette’s cousin, Justin. Her aunt died when Miette was eleven. Rébufat treated her like a farm labourer. They would tease her about her father. The well in the yard of Aunt Dide’s house was connected to the Foques’ property and could be used from both sides. One day the pulley broke when Silvère was using it and when he later built a new one he had to climb on the wall, from where he spotted Miette. They eventually spoke and got to know each other. They started to meet at the well by viewing each other’s reflection in the well via an aperture on each side of the dividing wall. Justin started to suspect something was going on, but he didn’t know what. They tired of seeing only each other’s reflections though. Silvère noticed the door that Macquart and Adélaïde had made and so he hunted for the key to this door in his house and eventually found it. He surprised Miette the following day by sticking his head round the doorway; they held hands and talked. Turning round Silvère was surprised to see Aunt Dide standing in the doorway, she had come to the well at that time by chance. It had been so long since she’d been there and there had been so many changes that she didn’t recognise the place. She then recognised Silvère and became distressed. Without speaking she took him by the hand, led him back to their side and threw the key into the well.

That evening Tante Dide had another attack. They didn’t use the door again but instead they started meeting at Aire Saint-Mittre where they continued to meet for two years. They also rambled over the countryside at night. For a while during the summer they swam in a stream where Silvère taught Miette how to swim. When their rambling tired them they would return to the Aire St-Mittre. One night Miette uncovered a tombstone where they could only make out some of the inscription, which read: ‘Here lies…Marie…died…’. (Miette’s real name was Marie).

Silvère and Miette had slept peacefully. They set out on their way to Orchères to join the insurgents. The insurgents are welcomed in Orchères. Silvère bumps into Dr. Pascal. News reaches the insurgents that events in Paris has gone against the republicans. They stay two more days in Orchères befoe the decision is made to leave. Before they could leave news reaches them that an army of soldiers is approaching. The fighting starts, some men flee. Miette is shot, she clutches her breast and falls, Silvère stays with her. Pascal arrives as Miette breathes her last breath; he pronounces her dead. Meanwhile the insurgents are being massacred. Eventually a gendarme appears and drags Silvère away from Miette.

Chapter 6

At five in the morning Rougon leaves his mother’s house. It seems like the city is dead. He is concerned that he’s lost his chance. On returning home he sees a silhouette of his wife in the window involved in a struggle. The key to the shed containing the arms is thrown to him on to the pavement. He rounds up Roudier and Granoux. He finds out from them that the insurgents left during the night. They round up thirty-nine men, collect the arms from the shed and march to the town hall. They find the guards asleep and go inside. Macquart is in the mayor’s office waiting for the insurgents to return. Rougon storms the office, in the tussle Rougon’s gun goes off and the bullet damages a mirror. Macquart is taken prisoner. Rougon issues a proclamation to the town and then returns to Félicité. It is dawn and they talk and dream of their future successes. Others arrive and praise Rougon Only Viuillet is missing but he soon arrives. He had installed himself in the post office during the chaos. They recount the heroic acts of the militia and the breaking of the mirror. Rougon leaves to go to the town hall.

By ten o’clock news of the events has spread through Plassans. News that Rougon has arrested his own brother and that the events had been achieved with only forty-one people was astonishing. The Rougons are applauded as model citizens. Félicité spots Aristide and tries to convince him to join them but he is still unsure who has the upper hand. Rougon takes over the mayor’s office, he visits the injured, including Rengade. People believe that the soldiers will arrive to save them, however by evening they are imagining that the insurgents are on their way. Vuillet is unwilling to print a paper fully supporting the Empire’s position as he is unsure how events will turn out. As rumours of insurgents continued, Rougon takes the others to Carnavant’s mansion which has a view over the surrounding area and where they stand watch throughout the night.

By morning everyone’s spirits are low. The gates are closed at midday. Rumours circulate that the coup d’état has failed and Rougon and Félicité are beginning to despair. They wonder why Eugène hasn’t written to them with news. They see a copy of Vuillet’s Gazette which attacks the insurgents violently and realise that only that morning he was too scared to print anything against them. Why the sudden change? Félicité goes to see Vuillet at the post office and as she suspected he had intercepted a letter from Eugène announcing the success of the coup d’état. Félicité makes a deal with Vuillet – his ambitions are low as all he wants is to be able to supply the college with books.
Félicité returns home with the intention of getting revenge on Pierre over the letters. She pretends that she believes that everything is lost. Pierre blows into a rage and blames his whole family and he eventually reveals that he’s been getting letters from Eugène. Rougon has an idea to regain control.

The next day Félicité goes to the town hall to speak to Macquart. Macquart had got used to living in luxurious surroundings and his enthusiasm for the Republic is waning. Macquart agrees, in return for a thousand francs and freedom, to lead remaining Republicans in the town to the town hall where they will be ambushed. Rougon returns to the town hall. In town the tension is high. Granoux arrives at the town hall in the evening to support Rougon. Félicité convinces Aristide that the Republicans’ cause is lost. Macquart hides out at his mother’s house until the evening. He rounds up fellow republicans and marchs on the town hall where they are ambushed. The noise wakes up the town and many people think that the insurgents have entered the town. Granoux rings the tocsin. There are four corpses in the town hall which are left there for the town to see in the morning. The townspeople are now grateful for Rougon for defending them from an attack by insurgents. An army has arrived outside of town under Colonel Masson and M. de Blériot. Masson and Blériot enter the town to reassure the population. Aristide has written a pro-Empire edition of l’Independent. Blériot congratulates Rougon and Granoux publicly.

Chapter 7

The following Sunday the troops came back via Plassans. They had been involved in a recent massacre at Saint-Roure. A terror campaign is in full swing. Eugène writes that Rougon will receive the Legion of Honour and receivership of the taxes. They decide to celebrate by inviting other dignitaries to dinner. Rougon goes to his mother’s house where he meets Macquart and Pascal. Aunt Dide is on the bed raving. Macquart recalls that Aunt Dide had gone out for brandy and returned in a state of shock. Pascal tries to get Rougon to release Silvère. He pays Macquart and leaves to return home, to the dinner. Aristide and Rougon make peace.

People toast Rougon’s bravery and his upcoming decoration. At one point Félicité asks Aristide if he has any news of Silvère, whereupon he reveals how he was shot by Rengade: When the troops had returned they started massacring republicans at the Aire Saint-Mittre. People were beaten and shot. Rengade found Silvère amongst the prisoners and took him to be shot. Silvère was still in a daze. He was taken to the path near the tombstone where he used to go with Miette. Whilst kneeling, waiting to be shot he saw Justin watching from the wall and thought he saw Aunt Dide at the end of the path facing him. Then Rengade shoot him.

That evening the Rougons carry on enjoying their popularity. They toast the Emperor and decorate Pierre with a strip of satin in anticipation of his real decoration.

The Kill: Saccard’s Opulent Paris

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

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.


Parc Monceau today

Parc Monceau today

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.


Hotel Menier, Paris

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.

Plot summary: The Kill, by Emile Zola

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.

Chapter One

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 [1] 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.

[1] Juno and Jupiter were brother and sister, and also married.

Chapter Two

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 Three

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. )

Renee is a complex woman, says Zola.  She lives by conflicting principles.  She is honest and bourgeois like her father but she in intensely curious and she has unspeakable longings.  The rape made her feel that evil is written within her and so she feels that she may as well not struggle against it.

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 Four

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.

Chapter Five

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.

Chapter Six

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.

Chapter Seven

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)