I’ve previously made no secret of the fact that I wasn’t greatly enthralled reading The Kill (La Curée in its native french). The 2nd title in Zola’s great Les Rougon-Macquart series, this is the first novel of Zola’s that I have struggled reading.
I normally start these ‘Thoughts On’ posts by stating that this is a spoiler-free zone, but in the case of The Kill, there really isn’t much plot to spoil. I will talk about the premise of the novel, without trying to give away too much of what happens, but there are some things that should be known about the novel to discuss it fully.
There are 3 main characters to this novel:
Aristide Rougon – The third son of Pierre and Felicite Rougon, the couple who featured predominantly in the first novel of the Les Rougon-Macquart series, The Fortune of the Rougons (a great novel). Aristide had a medium/big part in the first novel as well, mainly as I remember being on the fence about the whole coup d’état (of 1851 of which the novel revolves around), until the end of the novel. Early in The Kill, he changes his surname to Saccard, at the request of his elder brother Eugéne, who is worried about Aristide’s schemes, and therefore besmirching the family name.
Renée Saccard – Aristide’s 2nd wife, who he agrees to marry for her fortune, though her family are happy with the marriage as well (more on that shortly).
Maxime – Aristide’s son from his first marriage to Angéle. When I first started reading the novel, I thought Maxime was a woman, but I’m not sure if that’s because it sounds like Maxine, or if Maxime can be a ‘girl’s name’ as well.
At the beginning of the novel, the ages of these 3 characters are 47 (Aristide), 29 (Renée) and 20 (Maxime). The whole first chapter is a flash forward of a scene where Renée and Maxime are on a journey, and then arrive at Aristide’s mansion, during an extravagant dinner party. The chapter is to describe the opulence and excessiveness that these characters and the society they belong to are a part of.
The scene is summarised by the following interaction between Renée and Maxime, whilst in a horse and carriage on the way to the dinner party:
‘I want something different,’ she replied softly. ‘But since you have everything,’ resumed Maxime, laughing ‘there is nothing different. What does “something different” mean?’
The novel then rewinds to immediately after the events of the coup d’état in December 1851 (as described in The Fortune of the Rougons). Paris is rapidly transforming into the modern Paris we know now, and Aristide wants to get a piece of the action. Whilst failing to get the investment he requires to start buying up Parisian property, his wife Angéle suddenly falls ill and is resided to her death bed. Even as Angéle lay dying, Aristide is discussing with his sister Sidonie, the opportunity of a new marriage to a young woman (Renée), who was raped and is now pregnant.
Renée is from a very rich family, who are desperate to avoid a scandal (charming people of course given the circumstances), thereby keen to marry her off to somebody like Aristide, who can pretend the baby is his (though Renée later miscarries), and with the marriage receive a huge dowry, that will give him plenty of cash to begin his property investment schemes.
The plot from then on can really be divided into 2 parts; the determination of Aristide to make his fortune by any means in this new Paris, and the boredom of Renée in this luxurious lifestyle, that leads to her having a semi-incestuous affair with her step-son, Maxime. These 2 plot elements are of course intertwined throughout the novel.
The novel is about far more than the story though, What Zola is trying to do in this novel is describe the excess of high society during this period of transformation in french history. In his preface to the novel, Zola states:
The Kill is the note of gold and flesh…..I want to show the premature exhaustion of a race which has lived too quickly and ends in the man-woman of rotten societies.
The two words I would use to sum up The Kill are excess and decadence. Zola is always trying to do more with his novels than tell the story, but in The Kill, I would have liked to have more story than description. The new Paris and the embellishments that go with it are described fantastically throughout the novel. And don’t get me wrong, the novel is clear evidence again that Zola is a magnificent and wonderful writer, it is just that I am not a great fan myself of overly-descriptive passages throughout novels. Less is more in my opinion.
What Zola is trying to do though is give a sense of the excess and materialism of this time period, and how this affected the characters in the novel. Whilst I understand what Zola wanted to achieve, putting the story secondary in my opinion does not make the novel a necessary read. I really did struggle to get through this book and had I not committed to reading the whole of the 20 volume Les Rougon-Macquart series, I probably would have stopped reading.
The heavy descriptions used throughout the novel are a problem, but there is another problem as well. I just didn’t care that much for the characters. Aristide is not a particularly intriguing or interesting character. He is ambitious at any cost, self-centred, and a crook. He does not really have any redeeming features, and does not feel unique in the real or literary world at all. When the novel follows Aristide (as opposed to Renée and Maxime), I just became disengaged and have no interest at all in the business of property investment or speculation that is constantly explained during these parts.
Renée and Maxime are more interesting characters, but not ones we fall in love with and really care for. The affair that they embark on I thought had started much earlier in the novel than it actually did, which shows I completely misunderstood what was going on, and that was probably largely due to my disinterest and/or wanting to get through the novel.
The best scene is the one mentioned earlier, where Aristide is discussing with his sister Sidonie about his potential new marriage, while his wife Angéle lays dying. It is of course intended to be of breathtaking callousness (as Wikipedia describes it) but is so well written and played, that I wish the rest of the novel could have been in the same vain.
Have I been too harsh on Zola and The Kill? These are just my thoughts, they aren’t necessarily right or wrong, and I would not want to discourage people from reading the book, if they want to. I read the Oxford World’s Classic edition, with a translation by Brian Nelson.
Nelson states in his introduction that The Kill is sometimes regarded as the best novel that preceded L’assomoir (Zola’s seventh novel in the Les Rougon-Macquart series). I would disagree with anyone that believes this, as even the first novel The Fortune of the Rougons is in my opinion a much more intriguing and interesting novel than The Kill, with a great storyline and incredible characters.
What of Zola then as the writer of this novel? It doesn’t matter really, he was a genius, and it just shows that geniuses are not always at the top of their game. It is the same with famous actors, musicians and sportsmen/woman. I have loved reading Zola’s novels and it is has to be expected that not every single one of the novels he wrote (and there were a great many!) is going to always ‘float my boat’.
Take heart in the fact though, that many other Zola fans do like The Kill, and the novel is studied in the french education system, so there must be more value to it than I picked up (I suspect in its descriptions of Paris at the time), but I just don’t overly care to know of the state of the Parisian world at the time, I just want to read a good story (whilst happy to learn a thing or 2 on the way). I know they were written over 10 years apart, but The Kill feels miles away in terms of standard from Germinal, which many would consider Zola’s masterpiece.
My plan after The Kill was to read The Belly of Paris (Le Ventre de Paris), the novel that directly followed it, but having understood that The Belly of Paris goes to even more descriptive lengths than The Kill, I have decided to read a more popular Zola novel Nana (as part of Zoladdiction 2020 – see my last blog post).
After that, I will probably get back to reading other classics, ones that are usually featured in the Great Books of the Western World series. I love reading Zola, but it was never my intention for this blog to be an Emile Zola blog, I want this to be about all classic literature.
I am of course keen though to keep making my way through the Rougon-Macquart series of novels, so may adjust to reading one Zola book, and then a non-Zola book and so on.