Emile Zola, “La Curee/The Kill”

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.”

Winterhalter's 1855 portrait of Empress Eugenie and her ladies-in-waiting -- the fashion standard in this novel

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.

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
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13 Responses to Emile Zola, “La Curee/The Kill”

  1. Pingback: Follow my book blog, “Book Group of One” | | Carol Wallace BooksCarol Wallace Books

  2. The idea that Phèdre, that great monument of French perfection, is morally corrupting is funny. The idea that people are already so corrupt that Phèdre is not corrupting is even funnier.

    This is a great approach. It was so hard, with the one Zola novel I have read, to know exactly how seriously to take it.

    • carolwallace says:

      Amateur, it is hard to know how seriously to take Zola, in part because he’s such a bully. Easier to stand back and see the novels as panoramas with the occasional genuine human element. I do think that element of distance is built in; readers aren’t expected to identify with the characters. But, possibly, with the narrator. This is just occurring to me as I write but as I test it against Flaubert and Balzac and Maupassant it still feels OK.

  3. Pingback: Amor Towles, “Rules of Civility” « Book Group of One

  4. Pingback: Emile Zola, “La Debacle/The Downfall” « Book Group of One

  5. leon says:

    I just finished reading this novel en francais. I’ve been reading Zola for about a year now.
    Two of the most telling parts of this work are the arranged marriages (Arisitide and Renee) and (Maxime with Louise).
    Renee was raped at 19 years of age and became pregnant. Arisitde, always looking for the “kill”, agreed to marry her to hide the event in order to get his hands on her dowry.
    Later, Aristide puts his son, Maxime, up to marry the sickly Louise, again, so Maxime can benefit from the dowry. Louise dies a few months after the wedding.
    Yes, Renee was a hottie, but Aristide had other love interests, typical of highsociety Eurpoe at the time. Also typical, they did not share the same bedroom ( a very common way to live by the rich and famous).
    Actually, La Curee, in French refers to that part of the game after a hunt which is not for human consumption. In other words, it’s the left-overs. It was thrown to the dogs who would growl and fight over it. It does not refer to the dogs act of killing the game.

    • carolwallace says:

      Leon, thanks for the clarification of the title. Yes, the cynicism of those marriages is really something, isn’t it?

  6. leon says:

    I was on the run when I sent the previous post and didn’t get to, perhaps, the most important theme of the story . (I pick my wife up at work every day, so I was headed for the door).
    Aristide, motivated by his mother’s thirst for social recognition and wealth, (the family were social climbers and money grubbers), moved to Paris from a small town in southern France in order to “make it big time”.
    He uses his brother’s connections to get on the inside, buys up real estate in anticipation of the government’s purchasing this real estate for redevelopment and, then, gets himself appointed as one of the assessors who determine the market value of his own holdings, therefore, the 3 million franc figure he and others come up with for his mansion which was worth about 500,000 francs.
    Sound familiar? It’s the same thing that’s happening today in the USA (and else where) on Wall Street, the banking industry, armaments manufacturing, you name it.
    Plus ca change, plus ca reste le meme (the more things change, the more they stay the same).
    On another note, Aristide, at the behest of his family when he was still living in the country, changed political allegiances from Republicanism (not what we mean in the USA by Republican/Conservative politics) to backing Napoleon III (Empire), because his brother, who had been living in Paris got word from the inside that Napoleon was going to take over, so better to ally yourself with the winning side and to make the most of it.

  7. Diggitydigg says:

    Great review – thanks! We discussed La Curee at our Book Club (for Seven) last night and I think had all found it a good yarn, if somewhat flawed in its construction (dodgy beginning, odd end)

    • carolwallace says:

      Oh, good, Minnie. Yes, structure isn’t exactly Zola’s strength, is it? If nothing else, he hits things awfully hard, and sometimes he’s breathlessly trying to tie up ends. But that greenhouse is worth everything!

  8. Kitty Beer says:

    I am reading it in French but couldn’t find the translation of the title in the dictionary. Still not sure what it means. I love the book, mainly for the sexual tension and sumptuous scenes. I think Zola greatly enjoyed describing details of the very rich, I think he was jealous. Towards the end, I am beginning to skip the sections on business, as if they are only Zola’s excuse for writing a hot novel.

    • carolwallace says:

      Oh, Kitty, so true! The title refers to the moment in a hunt when the hounds overwhelm the prey: sometimes it’s translated as “The Kill.” Certainly Zola’s very keen on the money stuff — both pro and con. My other favorite of his novels is “Au Bonheur des Dames” — he’s surprisingly good on all of the feminine frippery of a department store. But it’s relatively chaste…

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