Let’s say I spend the week wandering around in an obscure Émile Zola novel, The Kill or La Curée (1871-2)? This book, early Zola, the second in what would become the twenty-volume Rougon-Macquart series, is obscure in the sense that the coincidental appearance of two new English translations in 2004 were the first since 1895.* I would not want to guess about the novel’s life in French.
The novel is not so obscure to readers of Guy Savage, who read and wrote about all twenty books and has moved on to Balzac (here is his early piece about La Curée), or Emma at Book around the Corner, who read it recently. They are both highly enthusiastic about the novel, more than I am, to be honest, so logically they each should have written two weeks of posts. I am not sure how they restrained themselves, because Zola packed The Kill with so much stuff. Maybe a little too much. But he gives a fellow plenty to write about.
Zola describes the novel as “the natural and social history of a family during the Second Empire” and attributes to it “the note of gold and flesh” (Preface), which characterize the parallel plots. Saccard is a real estate speculator, getting rich via a form of what we would now call insider trading, staying a step ahead of Baron Haussmann's construction of the great Paris boulevards. This is the money plot, the gold plot. Saccard stars in a later Zola novel that is simply titled Money.
His young wife Renée is bored out of her mind and, following the usual behavior of her social set, embarks on a series of sexual adventures, culminating in an affair with her effete, beautiful, useless stepson, Maxime. This is the flesh plot. Zola describes this strand as “the nervous breakdown of a woman whose circle of luxury and shame increase tenfold native appetites.”
The flesh plot needs money to operate, and the money plot needs sex, so the two lines eventually intersect with a smash, or more of a collapse, “the premature exhaustion of a race which has lived too quickly.” The characters, “three social monstrosities,” are simply specimens in Zola’s “work of art and science”:
If I feel that I must explain The Kill, this true portrait of social collapse, it is because its literary and scientific aspects seemed to be so poorly understood in the newspaper in which the novel was being serialized that I was obliged to stop its publication and suspend the experiment.
I have not yet left the Preface. I know that I should be reluctant to generalize, having read only Thérèse Raquin and this one, but two examples are enough to see that Zola packs a great deal of meaningful nonsense into his prefaces. Be on guard, especially, whenever he uses the word “scientific.” The Kill has no scientific aspects whatsoever, only literary, which is lucky for me, because that is exactly the sort of thing I may well understand with a little effort.
Emma, Guy, anyone – I will take requests. What should I write about?
* I am using the Brian Nelson translation, Oxford World’s Classics, which features a dry but clear social science-ish introduction and excessive endnotes, e.g. “the members of the City Council… were appointed by the Emperor for five years.” Who cares? Relevant to the story how? (No one; not).