Thoughts On The Kill by Émile Zola

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.

12 thoughts on “Thoughts On The Kill by Émile Zola

  1. I am glad to read your thoughts about Zola’s The Kill, Pete, and your reactions to it. Like you, I want to learn from a novel as well as to be entertained and moved. I don’t go for a lot of tedious description that doesn’t interest me though, but I do appreciate the word magic these authors are sometimes capable of as they set up a particular locale, whether urban or rural. Look out! You may be captivated by the eponymous heroine of your upcoming Zola selection. Her alluring persona had a powerful effect on the French public as she was an actress (among other pursuits) and she lived life to the hilt. Nana is an out-and-out rounder, on and off the stage. No holds barred and no holding back for her. Just a tease to pique your interest as you pore over this work.

    When you rightly observe that authors, athletes, actors and musicians are not always at the top of their game, it put me in mind of what Thomas Wolfe said about poets in his novel, The Web and the Rock. Wolfe said, “the poets who have been the greatest men that ever lived, have failed most often. Coleridge had the greatest genius of any poet since Shakespeare’s time, but he left us only a few magnificent fragments.” It’s also interesting what you said about the likability, or lack of it, in the characters we meet. Although flawed, like we all are, some of the characters Thomas Hardy gives us can wring the reader’s heart. I guess Hardy stands in relation to my overall body of reading somewhat as Zola does to yours. I mainly read Hardy in my 30’s which has been a few too many years back, but I still return to him at times.

    Right now, I’m reading some Alice Munro short stories, (very poignant) and some of the roguish Charles Bukowski, (what a man) in addition to some Kierkegaard and C.S. Lewis essay selections. I wish you the best of reading experiences as you pursue your quest into the classics.

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  2. Hi George, thanks as always for your detailed and thoughtful comments. Thank you as well for mentioning Alice Munro, she isn’t an author I had previously thought about reading, but reading a bit about her on the web now has made me want to read some of her short stories.

    I have 4 or 5 Thomas Hardy books on my 360 reading plan but have yet to begin any. So many books, so little time! But definitely would love to be more familiar with his work soon.

    I completely agree with all your sentiments, most geniuses are probably remembered for a very small portion of their work, but it is the consistency that produces those diamonds in the rough. I’ve read not all but over half of Shakespeare’s plays and though the whole collection is well known amongst academics, classic readers and the theatrical community, I am guessing that most members of the public would not be able to name more than 5 or 6 of them. But that’s how it goes. Nearly every truly successful band has a lot of missteps and forgettable tracks amongst their catalogues, but if they write and perform just a few songs that really touch people’s hearts and minds, they will be remembered.

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  3. As you say Pete, so little time to cover all these books. Your genuine interest, insight and enthusiasm is very pleasing to hear about.

    I think that some of the commentary I’ve read on Alice Munro is well-taken. This in regard to a number of her short stories, despite the limitations of the form, have a lot of the feel and detail of a novel. And the impact. I am finishing the Dear Life collection and want to explore her work further hoping to find more of the unique experience most of the stories give. And by all means Thomas Hardy is not to be missed, including his short stories and poetry as well as the unforgettable novels.

    How true is what you say about the successful bands and the few songs that may really get through to be remembered, but those songs stay with the ones of us that love them throughout life. I can attest to it. (I’d better not get started on music, too little time once again.)

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    1. Thanks for the further recommendation on Thomas Hardy, which novel of his would you advise as a good starter for his work?

      Yes, I shouldn’t get started on music as well, I could talk a lot on that! (But briefly) My family (including my parents) originates from Liverpool (Halewood is a town in Liverpool), so I have a particular love of The Beatles and their history, though I think they are a good example of a band that have a lot of work that people have not remembered (especially from some of their earlier albums).

      My favourite band however, are The Smiths, a band from Manchester in the ’80’s. They rarely put a foot wrong in my opinion, but their existence was very short-lived (5 years – 1982-87).

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      1. Pete, I would recommend Far from the Madding Crowd as the Hardy novel to begin with. According to the intro in my edition it is the first of his works that embody the full ripeness and flavor of his later writing, and I agree. Also, although somber in parts, this book is not as saturated with the tragedy that several of his later works are known for. I’ve read it completely three times with pleasure and a few films have been made from it. It is set in Hardy’s “Wessex” region, in southern England. According to Maugham, Hardy never wrote a page that wasn’t extant with beauty. Thank you for asking me which of his books to begin with.

        It is interesting to learn of the strong Liverpool tradition in your family heritage. The Beatles have been a major interest and influence throughout my life. Never a throwaway or filler cut on any album they ever produced. I learned to play the guitar due to their inspiration, and it has turned out to be a lifelong way of entertaining myself. Where would we be without the enormous contributions to the cultural enrichment of life that have come from “this realm, this emerald isle, this England?”

        As far as the Smiths go, I listened to one of their songs about a “hooligan” that a blogger I liked had recommended, and it was pretty wild; seemingly about the exploits of a serial killer. I listened to more of their pieces that radiated a frenetic energy that you couldn’t miss and I let it go at that. I bet you have quite a list of musical favorites, in addition to your 360 book list, that would be quite a topic for exploration.

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      2. Thanks for your recommendation. Far from the Madding Crowd is not on my 360 book list and I will tell you why – because myself and my wife watched the relatively recent movie of that book starring Carey Mulligan, and did very much enjoy it. What I’m worried about, though I should put this aside now, is struggling with reading the novel after I have seen the film. I completely understand that a book is much different rom the film in terms of depth, detail and characterisation, but plot is also important to me, and if I know that, I struggle to get through the book, as I have done in the past with Jane Austen. But I will put that to one side for Far from the Madding Crowd, as I understand from yourself and other people, that it is a really good book, and worth the effort. I will fit it in!

        Completely agree, The Beatles did not do throwaway or filler tracks, though I struggle with some of the inclusions on The White Album (you might understand better than I do!). But absolutely for me, they are the greatest and most culturally significant band to have existed, and their work will be loved and remembered in the same way as the classics in years to come.

        I loved the ‘This Sceptered Isle’ quote from Richard II! One of my favourite Shakespeare plays, thanks for sharing! I do feel lucky (though I am biased of course) to have grown up in the UK, with so much history (one of my great passions) and culture all around to visit and enjoy. My particular favourite is Hampton Court Palace near London, which is one of the most awe-inspiring, and historically alive (if that makes sense) experiences one can have today. I would compare it to the visiting the Pantheon in Rome.

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  4. I would also take issue with anyone who claims this is one of his greatest books. They clearly haven’t read Germinal or La Bete Humaine. But I enjoyed The Kill more than you did – the descriptive passages didn’t worry me and I did get engaged with Renee – not to the extent of sympathising with her, but more from an interest in how far she is used as a pawn by her husband

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    1. Yes, descriptions are fine and welcome by some people, but they just don’t work for others, and I think I am in the latter category.

      I remember listening to Stephen King’s semi-autobiography ‘On Writing’ and he emphasises the importance of description, but how it should be minimal and not over-elaborate, but again, that is just his and mine taste I get.

      Thank you for mentioning about Renée being used as a pawn by Saccard, I should have really mentioned that in my post.

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  5. I can’t resist a short further comment, Pete. First, I’m glad you liked the partial quote from the Bard about England, and thanks for your correcting it. As to the White album, for my part, Revolution #9 could have been left out of it many times over. And it’s good that your reading of Nana is going well. Jill Masters, an English lady who I think reads in a special way, has recorded it, I think. She also did the major Hardy novels back in the 80’s.

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    1. Hi George, I honestly did not mean to correct your quote from Shakespeare, I didn’t know it was incorrect (if it is). I assumed you were quoting a part of it, I honestly can’t remember the whole quote off the top of my head.

      I will have to look at the audiobooks you mention by Jill Masters. I really do like listening to audiobooks, although to be honest, I’m not very good at listening to novels, I lose the plot too easily (especially when driving). But knowing the story already would be different, I would like to give it a shot.

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  6. I found fourteen titles on Audible, and three more on Penguin Random House that are narrated by Jill Masters and are available. Thank you Pete, for your interest.

    Like you (probably far more than you), I have issues with concentration when listening to audiobooks. On the positive side however, I notice that at times a perceptive audio reader can bring out nuances in the work that I would have missed. Or is capable of injecting a surge of drama that adds a jolt to the narrative proceedings beyond what I might have quietly imagined when reading silently.

    Since I listened to Jill’s work back in the ’80s, it’s safe to say the good impression she made on me was lasting. Hopefully, the audio quality has held up and that you will get a chance to listen to a familiar work sometime, in this way by this reader.

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