Oh. My. Goodness. This novel is so much fun. For a certain reader, that is. If you require subtlety in your fiction, La Curée (translated as The Kill) will not be your cup of tea. Emile Zola was heavy-handed. But golly, if you can get past the forceful nature of his story-telling, you’re in for a great treat here. Sex! Real estate! Paris! Fabulous clothes! (Really, Alexander McQueen, eat your heart out.) It’s like “Dynasty” filmed by Merchant Ivory, with an “R” or “X” rating depending on how the sex scene on the bear-skin rug is shot. You heard me: “sex scene on the bear-skin rug.”
The novel was written in 1872 but set roughly ten years earlier, when acre after acre of narrow streets and grubby slums were replaced by the linked boulevards lined with elegant apartment buildings that represent Paris-as-we-know-it. As you might imagine, some people in this period got very, very, rich: the “kill” of the title is the final moment of a hunt, when a pack of dogs tears the prey to pieces. That’s Zola’s metaphor for the businessmen leading Parisian urban renewal. One of them is Aristide Saccard, a wily Provençal speculator with a keen appetite for a deal. Think Donald Trump, with black hair and a French accent. (I’m not going to get into Zola’s theories about genetics, or his network of novels about the extended Rougon-Marcart family, or his place in French literature. You know where to go for that.) Saccard has, naturally, a trophy wife. Evidently Trump did not invent the phenomenon. This one is called Renée, and of course she is beautiful, miraculously fashionable, and a total hottie.
But. Here’s the genius part — Zola gives Saccard a son from a previous marriage, named Maxime, who is twenty and also a hottie, if a hottie of equivocal gender identification. Slender, blond, hairless, beautiful, but he likes girls. Likes them to hang out with, which is why he and his step-mama are such good friends. Also, it turns out, likes them for sex, which is why Maxime and Renée end up in bed together. Now, since Zola is so keen to drive his point home, he sends Maxime and Renée to see a production of Racine’s Phèdre, which involves incest in exactly their configuration. But unlike the characters in the classical tragedy, Renée and Maxime note the resemblance and more or less shrug their shoulders. Paris, Zola wants to be sure we understand, is morally bankrupt.
He doesn’t solicit our emotional involvement with these characters, though they are all psychologically plausible. They are a lesson to us, about the corruption of Imperial Paris and the weakened blood lines of France. (Note that the novel was written two years after the demoralizing defeat of the Franco-Prussian war.) But it’s not a polemic. It’s a fiction. It’s not kitsch, it’s not campy and flippancy aside, it actually isn’t like “Dynasty”. When Zola’s describing incestuous sex on a bear-skin rug he is depicting maximum depravity. To bolster his case, this scene takes place in a conservatory full of tropical plants, all swollen with sap and discolored — honestly, I’m not making this up, and there’s nothing remotely ironic about it. Zola’s conviction — which pervades all of his novels that I’ve read — carries the day. He believes he is writing a tragedy, arousing your pity and fear.
But of course we are a little too jaded to take it seriously. Or that old bear-skin’s gotten a little moth-eaten with use. Yet there are still scenes capable of touching the emotions. At the end of the book Saccard is examining a demolition site with some colleagues. One of them realizes he is stepping over the ruins of the house he’d lived in as a youth. He spots the fifth-floor room, peeled open by the wreckers, with its torn wallpaper trembling in the wind.
“I spent five years there,” he murmured. “Things weren’t going well, but that was all right, I was young… You see the armoire? That’s where I saved up three hundred francs, one sou at a time.”
Renée’s bill from Worth (Worms, in the novel) is 250,000 francs at her death on the last page. Easy come, easy go.