Monday, June 30, 2014

The Kill - Emile Zola

A new translation by Brian Nelson.

'The Kill' is book two in Zola's Rougon-Macquart series and like 'The Fortune of the Rougons' is translated by Brian Nelson, my copy of the next one up ('Money') is translated by Valerie Minogue and I will admit I'm curious to see if I'll notice a difference, so far I'm a big fan of the Nelson translations. I did have one quibble with this book though and I'll get it out of the way now, it could have done with a Rougon Macquart family tree in it, 'The Fortune of the Rougons' has one which I referred to constantly whilst reading and there were times when I felt it would have been useful here as well.

'The Kill' moves the action from the Provencal town of Plassans to Paris at the start of the second empire, Eugene Rougon is safely ensconced somewhere senior in government and is prepared to do something for his brother Aristide on certain conditions. Eugene wants to keep a certain amount of distance between himself and his sibling to which end he suggests he changes his name. Aristide Rougon becomes Aristide Saccard, through his brothers good offices he finds himself an assistant surveying clerk, it's a modest position but one that will allow him access to extremely useful information.

After his initial disappointment over not being given a better job Aristide settles down to making the most of what's available to him, slowly he pieces together the scale of the second empires plans for Paris and starts to see how much money a clever speculator could make but what he doesn't have is the necessary start up cash. Just when you sense he's almost chewing the carpet with frustration his wife dies which paves the way for an advantageous second marriage. Aristide's sister Sidonie (I look forward to more of her in future books, she's a shadowy, grotesque, creature full of great potential) provides him with the perfect candidate - Renee is desperately in need of a husband, she's been raped and found herself pregnant, marriage is the only escape from total disgrace. Her aunt is happy to pay for a husband, and better yet Renee comes with a dowry of land in the heart of the areas being redeveloped. Aristide takes her. As Sidonie predicts the pregnancy ends in miscarriage but it's to late to do Renee any good, she's caught in her new husbands trap.

The key to Aristide's character is that along with his hunger for wealth and love of speculation there is a compulsion to scheme and cheat so that his swindles become ever more elaborate and unlikely to succeed. Initially all goes well for Aristide, the money pours in and it truly seems he has the golden touch but slowly he over reaches himself with increasingly expensive projects all based on credit and the threat of disaster constantly nipping at his heals.

For Renee a different sort of disaster beckons, encouraged by her husband to spend lavishly whilst he plunders her property she really has very little to do beyond being a wealthy mans accessory. A combination of boredom and curiosity drive her into an affair with her slightly younger stepson, an effeminate and depraved young man. By the laws of the day this is most definitely incest, to match the decadent and rotten flavour of the whole novel much of their affair is carried out on a bearskin rug in the fetid atmosphere of a hothouse. When Aristide eventually learns of the affair he shrugs it off, to him it's simply further leverage to hold over Renee and Maxime (his son).

Zola's disgust for the excesses of the empire are inescapable, everything is corrupted (if you could smell this book it would have the scent of a rotten peach) in the quest for money and sensation. Renee and Aristide live in almost unimaginable luxury - though  Zola gives us a faithful inventory of it - but none of it is based on any real foundation of wealth. Aristide is a spider at the centre of a web but  however monstrous the portrait he remains recognisable. Renee's moments if self awareness damn her more than all her transgressions do - all the more unforgivable because they seem to bring so little pleasure, and if Maxime is a true child of the empire - well no wonder it's doomed.

The clean moonlight world that Silvere and Miette marched off into in support of the Republic is utterly foreign to this vision of Paris where nature has been tamed into parks, (though there are echoes of the rankly overgrown Plassans graveyard in Renee's hothouse). There's also a lot that sounds familiar - it would be easy to find parallels with today's London for example, but I guess that's the nature of a classic; it captures and preserves some fundamental truth about human nature in such a way that it simply does not stale.


  1. I started this some weeks ago, enjoyed what I'd read so far, then for some reason had to put it aside and never picked it up again. I absolutely must, as I loved Money (which I reviewed for SNB). What a great writer Zola is. Thanks for this excellent review.

  2. I'm really loving him too, I would say I'm sorry it's taken me so long to find Zola but maybe it's more a case that now is the right time for me to enjoy these books. What I found with 'The Kill' is that it feels exactly like the Paris I imagine the Victorians imagined when they thought of 'naughty' Paris. I can't think of a better way to put that into words, but there's something very familiar about it.

  3. I came to Zola late, too, given my interests. Maybe that is why I am a little skeptical of him, however much I enjoy him. The parade of carriages, those plants, Renee's "Tahitian" outfit at the end! That whole last, or I guess next to last chapter, with that crazy dance wandering through it - Zola, what a show-off. What fun!

    1. Lots of fun, I look forward to seeing what he has in store for me next. That Tahitian outfit reminds me of something I think I saw on a thing about Victorian something or others which I wish I could track down but can't find at the moment.