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The Kill Paperback – Aug 10 2008
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Was there ever a novel before "The Kill" in which every character is completely odious? Even in Zola's previous novel - The Fortune of the Rougons - there were a couple of sympathetic innocents, but the three principal actors of "The Kill" are loathsome from start to finish. Aristide Saccard is the son of the Pierre Rougon who pounced on Napoleon III's coup d'etat to 'lift' the Rougons from poverty in that first novel. Maxime is Aristide's effete son by his first wife in the village of Plassans, whom we met in "The Fortune" but whose death in "The Kill" affords Aristide his first opportunity to swindle his way to wealth in Paris. Renée is Aristide's second, much younger wife, whose dowry provides that opportunity. The novel "The Kill" is a tightly choreographed ballet, a 'pas de trois' of deception and seduction danced by these three despicable people, each one aiming to extract as much 'blood' from the other two as possible. In the latter chapters, in fact, explicit mention is made of "Phedre", that classic of the French theater, a drama of incestuous desire and suicide. One could read Zola's "La Curée" as a bold trope on the story of Phedre.
What pleasure can there be in reading a novel about three equally hateful characters in a menage a trois? You won't be able, dear reader, to take sides. The pleasure is all in the art of Zola's writing, and perhaps in the fervor of his historical denunciation of the Second Empire, which does seem surprisingly to resemble the state of things in "The World's Only Superpower" of 2010. The promiscuity and extravagance of Zola's Paris are not unmatched in today's America.
"The Kill" is an architectural masterpiece, a novel as precisely constructed as the Eiffel Tower and as ornate as the façade of any church or chateau in France. The first chapter, indeed, is a kind of extravagant façade of description, page after page of opulence -- clothing, carriages, furniture, palatial dwellings, all the trappings of excess and insatiable lust that swirl around Renée and Maxime (stepmother & stepson) like objects of Bacchanalia tossed in a tornado. Later in the novel, when the 'inevitable' occurs between Maxime and Renée, Zola portrays their ecstasy with the same brilliant indirection, describing the sensuous, narcotic luxury of Renée's bedroom rather than the sordid physical actions that occur in it. One can be seduced -- over-stimulated -- by Zola's powers of description. I read "La Curée" in French, by the way, and I relished this first chapter so much as poetic language that I found myself reading it aloud, something I rarely do.
There are twenty novels in Zola's "Rougon-Macquart" series, his epic depiction of French society and history through the interconnected lives of the descendants of two families from the Provençal village of Plassans. I've read and reviewed a couple of the later novels out of order, specifically "The Debacle" and "The Masterpiece". Eventually I may have to challenge Master Zola on a certain kind of double standard of sexual morality. In "The Kill", he is implacable in his condemnation of dissolute, decadent sexual frenzy among the "upper" classes of wealth and power. In "The Masterpiece", portraying the Bohemian lifestyle of the Impressionist painters and writers, he is far less minatory, far more indulgent. But hey, don't I feel the same ambivalence myself? Oddly enough, the original serialization of "La Curée" was interrupted in 1871 - censored by the government - ostensibly for its "immorality", and Zola was widely perceived as a 'prurient' writer, especially by British and American readers. In fact, in "The Kill" at least, he's as censorious as Savonarola or Jonathan Edwards.
This Oxford edition translation by Brian Nelson is the first since the end of the 19th C. I looked it over in a bookstore. It seems quite readable and representative of Zola's craft. I don't think you need to have read "The Fortune of the Rougons" or any other of Zola's books to appreciate "The Kill". A little knowledge of French history, and a tourist's visual impression of Paris, would facilitate your appreciation, but even those things are not necessary. "The Kill" is an awfully good novel.
Zola was a fervid hater of the regime and time of Napoleon III. We are looking at the so-called second empire in France, which lasted for 2 decades, from 1851 to 1870. Ironically, the demise was helped by Prussia's Bismarck, who started the 2nd Empire in Germany on the basis of the victory over Napoleon.
Zola wrote the book at the end of the 2 decades, and it was published during the early time of the next epoch, a republic. Zola was not generally greeted with enthusiasm. Some considered his book vulgar and obscene. By modern standards, that sounds a bit overstated.
The story starts around 1860, so it is not chronologically the next in the big epos, just the second one written and published.
The story of this novel focuses on Aristide, the youngest son of Pierre Rougon, chief villain of volume 1 and family `patriarch', if a word with such positive connotations is appropriate for this kind of selfish rogue. Another son has made it as a politician and has entered the cabinet as a minister. Aristide has struck it rich as a speculator. He has a young second wife and an adult son from his first marriage.
We start with a look at the life of the rich in Paris. We join a coach ride, and then a dinner party at Aristide's mansion. Zola spends a lot of effort on describing the park, the streets, the traffic, the architecture of the house, the interior decoration. High point may be the green house: Zola gives us a detailed listing and description of the plants in there. Of course this serves a purpose: with Zola, we do not admire the ostentation, the `bastard culture' of the time.
The young wife is bored to distraction with being a pillar of society, and she envies the lives of more adventurous and honest women, like courtesans or actresses. We smell early that an affair with her step son is brewing.
Aristide's métier is speculation in property, and his world are the businesses which benefit from public investments like Napoleon's rebuilding of Paris. Corruption is ubiquitous.
Aristide has started his career as a government employee thanks to a job arranged by his brother the minister. He has access to information about the Haussmann modernization plans. He needs a starting capital to use his insights. He obtains that thanks to a convenient demise of his first wife and an opportunistic second marriage, which allows him to get started big.
So the two legs of the story are a criminally acquired fortune and a frustrated rich woman failing to find purpose in life. The novel works well and I liked it better than volume 1.
I want to reserve my judgment about the historical merits of the Paris renovation. Zola may have been too radical with his condemnation. Based on the origin of the regime, his hatred is certainly understandable. The corrupt culture, if accurately described, is surely disgusting. On the other hand, wasn't the rebuilding of Paris with its broad boulevards and its rearranged arrondissements a good thing, after all? Need to read more about it.
It's a novel about a city being reinvented. Everywhere houses are being torn down to make way for new thoroughfares and elaborate building projects while the government reimburses the owners for their losses--a system ripe with abuses as speculators purchase property they know will be claimed and make inflated demands for compensation.
Financial gain and sexual gratification are the only motives. But, in The Kill, rapid growth and radical change come at a cost--not only financial, but moral. And the outcome is devastating.
This is my fourth book in Zola's Rougon-Macquart twenty-volume series. It is not my favorite --that being "The Belly of Paris"-- but it is of major significance. It is historical fiction but mirrors the realities of Napoleon III's regime leading up to the fall of Paris in 1871. It contains all of the sexual deviance, greed, gluttony and immorality associated with Paris during this period. It also provides much insight into the massive remodeling of Paris during the 1860s by Baron Haussmann at the astonishing cost of 2,500,000,000 francs.
Again, I don't think that this s Zola's best work, but it is well worth the time and effort if you have an interest in the history of Paris during this fascinating period.