“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.