Monday, August 30, 2010

Emile Zola - The Kill

The third novel in the Rougon-Macquart Cycle is The Kill, a title that suggests an act of violence. However, while that connotation is certainly appropriate, the title is really a noun. A 'kill' being the spoils of a hunt. In this case, the 'kill' in question is all Paris. This is the novel where we really see Napoleon III's insiders cutting up France for their personal gain. If you are reading the books in the order Zola suggested, this will be the first novel that really gives you an idea of the kind of plotting and characterization Zola is capable of, as well as the tone of his realist approach. It is also the first you will read that is in a modern translation (by Arthur Goldhammer, who does a fantastic job as far as I can tell).

The Kill is readable, well-plotted, and has plenty of memorable (though definitely not sympathetic) characters. Eugene Rougon - the 'great man' and political power from His Excellency, Eugene Rougon - is back in power and appears to be in a stronger position than ever. He's really a background figure here though. The Kill is more about his younger brother Aristide, who figured somewhat prominently in The Fortune of the Rougons. Aristide has moved to Paris and reinvented himself as Aristide Saccard, a wealthy land speculator who's grafted his way to the top with the aid of his brother's blatant nepotism.

While Aristide is key to the novel, The Kill is most focused on his second wife Renee. Angele, Saccard's first wife and the mother of his two children, has died. In one sense, Renee is also a 'kill', for Aristide is slowly devouring her fortune to keep his own precarious financial situation afloat. Despite this, Renee generates little to no sympathy. Narrowly avoiding a scandal by marrying Saccard, she is as avaricious and predatory as the other vultures in his world. Living a life of luxury and waste, she is an insatiable consumer and engages in a sexual relationship with her stepson Maxime (Saccard's son through Angele). Brought up in Saccard and Renee's world, Maxime is an effete fop and represents the 'flower' of the society Zola is skewering. (Saccard's other child, a daughter named Clotilde, was dumped on his brother Pascal after Angele died). As a side note, there is a hint that Maxime has an anonymous illegitimate child whose existence was hushed up.

The three main characters - Aristide, Renee, and Maxime - are rendered with great psychological penetration and yet - in typical Zola fashion - offer no redeeming characteristics. They have tasted every pleasure and thrill and are now jaded and bored. They and their set are consumers that make a cloud of locusts look restrained. Despite possessing hundreds of thousands of francs and 'rivers of gold,' they always seem one wrong step from bankruptcy. The final lines of the book underscore the sheer waste these people's lives represent.

Another member of the Rougon-Macquart family drawn in this novel is Sidonie Rougon, Aristide and Eugene's sister who was only a footnote in the The Fortune of the Rougons. She seems to have benefited less overtly from the Empire. As near as I can tell, she's some kind of slimy grifter. How she profits by her activities is unclear. Whatever she is, she definitely needs a janitor mopping the slime off the floor behind her. The best example of her in action is when she arranges Saccard's marriage to Renee, a 'client' of hers, while Angele is on her deathbed in the next room and little Clotilde is playing with her dolls just out of earshot.

While these characters are very well drawn, the majority of the supporting characters in The Kill are little more than names and positions. This could be Zola's way of illustrating the shallow lives of these people, but it can also be confusing while reading the novel. Another fascinating - though sometimes frustrating - tool of Zola's in this novel is his tendency to render extremely detailed descriptive passages around furnishings and interiors. These passages also instill the sense of superficiality, but they slow the narrative. When they work well, however, these passages are fantastic writing. For example, Zola's description of Renee's bedroom and dressing room appears to be an indirect means of commenting on the psychology of her sexual relationship with Maxime. It's a brilliant device I've never seen used in any other novel.

Renee and the other characters in The Kill remind me of present day CEOs and executives behind debacles like the Enron scandal. These people are all seeking a sense of fulfillment they are morally incapable of attaining. I'm not even sure they have the moral compass necessary to understand the correct direction towards becoming fulfilled. As a result, Zola's depiction of the Saccard family is like turning over a rock and analyzing the squirming, slimy depravity of people obsessed with acquisition, consumers whose appetites are never satisfied. As is often the case, Zola's social criticism of the Second Empire speaks directly to modern American culture and its probable direction and fate. This book was a great read and is highly recommended.

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