(A new translation, with an Introduction, by Arthur Goldhammer)
It’s time for a classic again and since Émile Zola has been on my list of writers to read, I decided to pick out The Kill as my introductory book into the realm of his works.
The Kill (published in 1871 under the title La Curée) is the second book in a series of twenty novels titled Les Rougon-Macquart. The books follow the lives of descendants of a family set on a background of French history. Banned upon publication, the book was translated several times and even made into a movie, The Game Is Over, starring Jane Fonda, in 1966.
The story begins in the Paris of the 1850’s. It is a time of quick money to be made, of speculations which could turn staggering profits, of luxury, debauchery and gluttony. Every vice is exacerbated; love affairs are used to manipulate deals, while rivers of money pour into the houses of the rich who only think of spending them as quickly as possible. There’s an opulence which dazzles the eye and the people appear to be marionettes to be dressed in the finest, most daring and rich costumes. Indeed, the whole book gives the reader the impression of watching a great spectacle: here a socialite dresses up for a great ball, her clothes a triumph of French couture, there a speculator planning to get his hands in the next profitable business, or a lazy son whose main goal in life seems to be to drink from the cup of debauchery until the very last drop; a rush for pleasure, for aesthetic opulence, for money and more money to spend, for parties and gossip and the latest trend.
Paris seems to be a character in itself, pulsating with life, always changing, always on the move.
“The lovers were in love with the new Paris. They often dashed about the city by carriage, detouring down certain boulevards for which they felt a special affection. They took delight in the imposing houses with big carved doors and innumerable balconies emblazoned with names, signs, and company insignia in big gold letters. As their coupé sped along, they fondly gazed out upon the gray strips of sidewalk, broad and interminable, with their benches, colorful columns and skinny trees. The bright gap stretching all the way to the horizon, narrowing as it went and opening out onto a patch of empty blue sky; the uninterrupted double row of big stores with clerks smiling at their customers; the bustling streams of pedestrians – all this filled them little by little with a sense of absolute and total satisfaction, a feeling of perfection as they viewed the life of the street…They were constantly on the move…Each boulevard became but another corridor of their house.”
The book follows the life of three people: Aristide Saccard, his second wife Renée, and Maxime, his son from his first marriage.
Against this background of decadence, Renée’s life seems just another tiny spark lost in the crowd. Her marriage is merely a business transaction meant to save her reputation – she gets a husband and he gets the fortune he’d always dreamed of. Renée spends her days in frivolous pursuits which her husband finances while at the same time using her influence to increase his fortune. Fleeting between love affairs, bored with her life of leisure, she sets her eyes on her stepson, the young Maxime, and their incestuous relationship will cause her to oscillate between despair and happiness. Her fate brings to mind Flaubert’s Madame Bovary – however, Zola took things much further with vivid descriptions of sexual encounters, parties, and lavish dinners meant to intoxicate and stimulate the senses. Paris is a cauldron of desire always on the verge of boiling.
“She raised her head. The upper branches of the trees stood out against a clear sky, while the irregular line of houses blurred to the point where it resembled masses of rock jutting up along the shore of a bluish sea. But this strip of sky made her sadder still, and it was in the darkness of the boulevard that she found a certain consolation. What remained clinging to the deserted avenue of the evening’s noise and vice was her excuse. She could almost feel the heat of all the footsteps of all those men and women rising from the cooling sidewalk. The shame that had loitered there – the momentary lusts, the whispered offers, the one-night nuptials paid for in advance – evaporated, hovering in the air like a heavy mist roiled by the morning breezes. Leaning out over the darkness, she breathed in this shivering silence, this bedroom scent, as an encouragement that came to her from below, an assurance that her shame was shared and accepted by a complicit city.”
I found it best to savor the novel in small doses. The richness of the language, the obvious “moral hollowness” of the characters combined with the spectacular renderings of Paris made reading the story an interesting and enjoyable experience – a glimpse into the decadent life of the city in the 19th century.
*Read in November, 2011