The Kill by Emile Zola

“He truly feared that some night she might go mad in his arms. In her, the remorse, the fear of being caught, and the cruel pleasures of adultery expressed themselves, not as with other women in the form of tears and misery, but as a more unfettered extravagance and a more irresistible need to kick up a fuss. As her terror increased, a rattle began to make itself heard, a sound that signaled a breakdown of this lovely and astonishing machine, which was falling to pieces.”

The twenty-volumes in Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series are set in France during the period 1851-1873, and the novels trace the fortunes of various members of two branches of the same family. The Rougons are the legitimate, and so-called respectable branch whereas the Macquarts are illegitimate and fairly disreputable. Zola traces the hereditary influences of violence, alcoholism and prostitution through his characters as they navigate the changing social landscape of life in the Second Empire of Napoleon III (1852-1870) in the years from the coup d’etat (1851) which overthrew the Republic to the aftermath of the Franco Prussian war of 1870-71.

La Curee, the book’s French title, translates to The Kill, and this refers to the portion of game tossed to the dogs following a hunt. The Kill, which is the second novel in the Rougon-Macquart series, presents a heroine who is arguably every bit as tragic as Flaubert’s Madame Bovary or Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. In The Kill, Zola’s Renee Saccard is a startling beautiful young woman who’s locked in a loveless marriage of convenience to wealthy civil servant/real estate wheeler-dealer Saccard. And as with Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina, Renee Saccard is a desperately unhappy woman who bets all and loses.

Following the 1851 coup d’etat, Aristide Saccard (whose birth name is Aristide Rougon) left his provincial home of Plassans to make his fortune in Paris. Encumbered with a wife and small child, Aristide grudgingly accepts a minor civil servant post from his brother Eugene Rougon, and in this capacity, he waits like a spider, biding his time to make a fortune. In time he does indeed make a fortune by flipping Parisian property designated for seizure by Eminent Domain. He is in his “element” buying properties, creating false companies, and flipping the property deeds several times until he sells back to the city for vastly inflated prices. After his wife conveniently dies, he marries Renee, a much younger, beautiful, but compromised heiress. Theirs is a loveless match that accelerates Aristide’s social position.

When the novel begins, Aristide and Renee have been married for some years. They lead separate lives, although Aristide is clever enough to use Renee to advance his career. Renee thinks she leads a life of total freedom; she indulges every materialistic whim, leads a life of luxury, and has an endless string of lovers she selects and discards ruthlessly. But while Renee may appear to enjoy freedom, this is really just a façade. In reality, she’s little more than an exotic, expensive pet, kept by Saccard, and used by him to further his lust for wealth.

The novel opens with Renee and her adult stepson, Maxime enjoying a carriage ride. Theirs is a peculiar relationship based on playful camaraderie that sometimes tests the bounds of societal propriety. Renee has every materialistic possession a woman in her social position supposedly wants, and yet she’s not happy. She’s bored and restless. According to Maxime, his stepmother has “tasted every conceivable apple,” but with “her eyes aglow with unslaked curiosity” Renee frankly admits that she seeks a new sensation–that she wants “something different.” This elusive new sensation comes in the form of the forbidden sexual relationship between Renee and her weak, effete, androgynous stepson, Maxime.

Although the affair begins accidentally, soon Renee and Maxime indulge their lust in her lavish quarters–a temple designed to complement her sensuality. Renee rapidly becomes obsessed with her young paramour, while Maxime sees Renee as just another passing fling. Renee’s moral destruction takes place against the backdrop of the insatiable appetites of Parisian bourgeois society. She mingles in a superficial society predicated on use and social advancement. Soirees at the Saccard mansion are seen as little better than brothels for the rich and influential, and husbands trade the favours of their wives for promotions and contracts. Trapped in the avaricious jaws of the Saccard (Rougon) family, Renee is gradually destroyed and consumed by this family’s insatiable appetite for wealth and success. While her husband plots to deprive Renee of her last remaining assets, he traps her into marital compliance. Meanwhile Maxime is content to be indulged–both in the bedroom and in the pocketbook, and the sinister Sidonie Rougon, who offers her services as a pimp, arranging profitable assignations for ladies of fashion, conspires to destroy Renee as revenge for rejecting her dubious friendship.

Zola’s well-drawn characters leap from the pages, and while none of them are particularly likeable, they’re all believable. Take the androgynous, Narcissus-like Maxime, who as a boy “had vices before he had desires.” In adulthood Maxime confesses: “As for making money, I’d rather run through it, though that isn’t always as amusing as one first imagines. Loving, being loved–one soon gets sick of it, no?…Yes indeed. One gets sick of it.” And Sidonie Rougon: “She had an instinctive taste for shady deals and a love of chicanery…she was a living catalog of supply and demand.”

Most of the intimate, highly erotic assignations between Renee and her stepson Maxime take place in either her opulent boudoir or the conservatory. Even the Saccard mansion seems complicit in the forbidden affair as Renee’s environment appears to consume and expedite her destruction: The “hothouse joined them in their lovemaking, burned with the heat of their passion. Through the oppressive air, by the white light of the moon, they took in the strangeness of the world around them, as the plants seemed vaguely to move about and embrace one another.” Zola describes a hypocritical world where money, greed and ambition rule, surpassing and destroying every other human emotion.

The Kill is an amazing book. I am astounded that in all in the literature classes I took, NO ONE EVER MENTIONED THIS NOVEL! If you enjoyed Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina, then I urge you to read The Kill. The Arthur Goldhammer translation brings the excesses of 19th century France to life.

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13 Comments

Filed under Rougon-Macquart, Zola

13 responses to “The Kill by Emile Zola

  1. I enjoyed the book immensely, and the Vadim film was a not-bad adaption to the 60s, but I don’t agree that it bears comparison with Bovary. I can’t see Renee as tragic – just doomed and decadent. The book struck me as almost fin de siecle in tone: though it depicts the 1860s, it seemed like it was steeped in the decadence of that later period. What anchors it in the 60s is Saccard, and his demonic chicanery, all tied to the Hausmanization of Paris. But in the end, Renee has none of Emma’s profoundly shallow depth, if you catch my drift…

    And yeah, how come I never heard about this one either!!

    BTW, in The Earth by Zola, is that Jean the one from The Debacle?

  2. I probably wasn’t clear about the Renee-Madame Bovary connection. I meant that we hear so much about Bovary but Renee doesn’t come up as a great literary female figure, and I think she should. Can’t count the number of times Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina popped up on reading lists of great female characters. Renee should be added to the list. I do think Renee is tragic, though, as those men eat her alive. She’s a bit like an exotic pet–right down to her bordello-style bedroom and hothouse enclosure.

    And yes, that is the very same Jean. At the end of The Earth he packs in farming and decides to go off and bash a few Prussians.

    I saw your post earlier today and went looking for a copy of the Vadim film but only found pricey versions. Too bad as it sounds worth catching.

  3. I should probably pay more attention to the chronology and genealogy of the cycle – I got mixed up.

    So, Jean leaves The Earth, fights in The Debacle, and in the end of that, resolves to return to the land again. And right now, I’m reading Money, which, fortunately, comes after The Kill, and features a resurgent Saccard.

    I got my DVD of La curee at the public library – fancy that!

    Renee is certainly pathetic…tragic, I’m not convinced. But the novel deserves more press, that’s for sure!!

  4. The entire Rougon-Macquart cycle can be a bit problematic as it goes back and forth between characters, and some people say the books shouldn’t be read in the order in which they were written.

    I decided to read them the way Zola wrote them, and I’m glad I did as this has effectively mixed in the great novels with the not-so-great novels.

    Jean makes a final appearance in Doctor Pascal too.

    One of the things that has really helped me keep the characters straight is a book called A ZOLA DICTIONARY by J.G Patterson. If you have a Kindle, you can get a free copy via Amazon, and it’s also available as a print copy. I bought my print copy before I got a Kindle, and my print copy was published by bibliobazaar. It wasn’t too pricey.

    It’ll be The Dream next for me. Not a great one, I expect, but I have a couple to go before I get to Money.

  5. Thanks for the tip on the Dictionary.

    When I started getting heavily into Balzac, I found a book called Balzac and His World by Felicien Marceau. It’s a series of essays, all very entertaining and interesting, and includes a complete index of the Comedy’s characters. Out of print though.

  6. I have Herbert J Hunt’s Balzac’s Comedie Humaine for reference but I don’t think it includes a list of characters. Will have to check out your suggestion. Thanks!

  7. Ian Goulden

    Just found your blog from a link in the discussion on “another booker prize” in the Guardian. Having read a few of Zola’s Rougon-Macquart novels I’m also working my way chronologically through the series at the moment- it’ll take me a couple of years.
    Am reading ‘the Kill’ at the moment – great stuff.

    The descriptions of the hothouse made me think of Huysman’s ‘A Rebours’- written a few years later. In a way ‘the Kill’ is a novel about decadence, while ‘A Rebours’ is decadence. As far as I know Zola and Huysmans fell out rather over ‘A Rebours’.

    A superb structure- I like the way the book starts kind of ‘in medias res’ at the height of the height of the Empire and Aristide’s sucess, then goes back ten years to his arrival in Paris, and allows us to watch his progress. An almost cinematic touch, that.

  8. I started reading the series back in mid 2007. I should have it finished this year. I didn’t push the reading and just read one when I felt like it. It’s nice to know I’m not the only one out there trying this.

    I’m glad I decided to read the books in the order Zola wrote them as this has sort of shuffled the marvellous ones in with the so-so novels. This has its disadvantages too. I finished The Earth and then a few weeks later read The Dream. The former is one of the best of the series, while the Dream is one of the poorest. It was a bit of a slap in the face to read such two different novels in so short a space of time. I’m still trying to puzzle out how Zola could have created such a brilliant novel and then followed it by such a horror. I’m wondering if he realized the difference in quality between the two? Probably. The Earth is supposed to be his favourite.

    I know what you mean about The Kill being cinematic and this, naturally, because I’m obsessed with film versions of books, led me to seek out films made of Zola’s novels. Gervaise (L’Assommoir) is really good but some of the sexual arrangements in the book have been bled out.

    I just found a copy of the silent film Au Bonheur des Dames which I am really interested to watch. There’s a film version of La Curee (Vadim and Fonda) but I haven’t been able to get my hands on a copy yet as it’s too pricey. There is a review of it at:
    http://www.iamyouasheisme.wordpress.com

    I thought The Kill was amazing–one of the best in the series and it deserves more recognition.

    As for the Booker Prize, well I always have better luck with the losers. Not sure why that is….

    I’m a Huysmans fan so I’m going to have to look into that dispute. Thanks for the tip on that.

  9. In a way ‘the Kill’ is a novel about decadence, while ‘A Rebours’ is decadence.

    I felt the same way. The depiction of decadence in The Kill is almost clinical at times, although there are passages in which Zola seems almost caught up in it.

    Hard to imagine Huysmans and Zola seeing eye-to-eye on literature, but I guess they did at first. I read most of a bio of JKH, and he was a pretty interesting fellow…

    A silent version of Au bonheur des dames!!

  10. leroyhunter

    I picked this up the other day…you have to start somewhere. I haven’t read the review yet but skimming the comments has me looking forward to it a lot.

  11. leroyhunter

    So, I just finished my first dip into the world of Rougon-Maquart. What a great novel! I loved it, I was riveted all the way through.

    Your review is absolutely right to wonder at why this book and its characters are overlooked vs. eg Flaubert (or even other books in the cycle). I would tend to line up a little with Lichanos, in that I think Renée’s situation is tragic, rather then her being tragic per se. It’s misfortune that puts her into the destructive grasp of Saccard, but she plays a pretty big role in her own downfall. When she’s caught in the middle of the terrible trap it’s hard not to feel sorry for her though.

    Reading this now, as the grim results of property speculation and the associated hubris dominate the news where I am, gave the book an additional frisson. The corruption of public offices and mechanisms, the flipping of sites at fantastical, nonsensical valuations, the indulgences of the new speculator class – it doesn’t read like a book from 140 years ago.

    I read an OUP translation by Brian Nelson – he’s done The Belly of Paris as well, so that’ll be my next one. We have a project!

    • You will love MONEY. Saccard appears in the novel again–now totally unleashed. And that novel will certainly play into the recent madness. I agree, The Kill hasn’t aged at all.

      Academia narrows books down to just a few. I can’t count the number of times I was assigned Madame Bovary. Yes, it’s a great book, but there are others. I was honestly shocked by how great The Kill is and how overlooked it is.

  12. Pingback: Hunting high and low for money, pleasure or power « Book Around The Corner

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