Monday, May 21, 2012

Its literary and scientific aspects seemed to be so poorly understood - Zola's The Kill

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).


  1. Hello,

    Thanks for the link, Tom.

    Excellent billet. "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," Absolutely.

    I wrote about the hunting metaphor. You're right, I could have written several entries about this book.

    I found the explanations of the financial schemes fascinating but didn't dig further.I would love to find a book about 19thC finance in literature.

    I didn't develop the sex side of it. I think the descriptions are rather explicit. The scenes in the winter garden are x-rated for the time.
    I think that's why this novel isn't so known. Can you imagine this in Victorian England? Can you imagine the giggling in a today's highschool class?

    It's also a wonderful look at what happens in the elite in case of a change of regime. It has a Balzacian tone for this. A new ruling class appears, not educated enough and really greedy. They are corrupted.

    And last but not least, it would be interesting to think about what this book means for Zola in his time: it rejects the Second Empire to promote the young Republic. It criticizes this regime to make a point: the new one is better.

    Looking forward to your other posts on this.


  2. Absolutely! Zola is King of Stuff in all his novels. You should read the ones which feature Paris's first department store. By the time he gets here, the Stuff has literally become stuff, endless pages of description of just about everything under the sun. You're quite right too that the word 'scientific' means nothing - but this is probably as much due to the 1870 understanding of what science was and could be.

    My take on the money and sex plotlines, is that Balzac was the first to roll out novels based on these axes, only money was essential to buy and sell at both the real and figurative level. Women were commodities for exchange unless, as some do in his novels, they managed to exchange their sex for money and become players in the game for a brief while. So Balzac makes those lines work; his characters are aware of the marketplace that functions at the heart of each and every plot. In Zola, everything collides to its detriment. Sex and money big each other up, until they implode. I would love for you to read his novel Nana, but I realise that's a bit much to ask.

    Oh and I agree with everything Emma says!

  3. The Rougon-Macquart series was in its entirety a remarkable scientific experiment in which Zola took a disparate group of individuals (some rich, some poor) and followed them through several generations, observing the common character traits of these families and firmly demonstrating that character traits are in fact transmitted through blood.

    What he forget in all this, however, was that he was just making it all up.

  4. "What he forget in all this, however, was that he was just making it all up."

    Very astute observation.

    I've read several of Zola's more familiar works, so I'm glad to hear of another title. I shall add this to my search list.

  5. If only I knew how to repeat this experiment - to have thoughtful commenters assemble material for future posts for me. So: metaphors, hunting and so on, definitely something about that. The winter garden sex scene - the gender switching and animalism, very promising. I do not know enough to pursue the political question.

    Stuff - I am definitely going to write more about all of the amazing stuff. The plants, the carriages, the decor, the clothes, for pity's sake, the clothes. I obviously must not skip the department store novel.

    Maybe I should have started with more famous Zola - Nana, definitely, or Germinal - but Emma put this one in front of me and I was not able to resist.

    The money side of The Kill is very much like Balzac, derivative, even. The "feminine" side of the story breaks free of Balzac and moves somewhere new. So it seems to me now, at least.

    Scientific - As litlove suggests, Marx was scientific, Freud was scientific. Their "scientific" was not ours. But Zola's version is particularly egregious, for the reasons obooki gives.

    I want to keep alive, though, as I read more Zola the possibility that Zola knows full well he is making it all up and thus invokes science for a particular rhetorical purpose. I have not read enough to say what it is.

    Fred: Oxford World's Classics, and some other publishers, too, are making an effort to replace all of those century-old translations, some of which (including this one) were severely bowdlerized. The size of "Zola in English" has changed recently. And this one in particular is well worth a look. For one thing, it is short.

  6. Why not read the five Lantier novels: L'Assommoir, which is about the parents, and their descent into dissolution and deprivation; and then the four children and how the same inherited traits led them to all come out slightly different: The Masterpiece (artist), Germinal (union activist), La Bête Humaine (psycho-killer), and Nana (whore). Although L'Assommoir is, in my opinion, boring as hell (the worst Zola novel? though many say the best?).

    Like many a novelist, I think Zola like to theorise about literature, and then write novels which didn't in the slightest bear out those theories.

  7. Two thoughts I am loving here - that 'the 'feminine' side of the story breaks free of Balzac and moves somewhere new.' Oh yes! And that Zola 'invokes science for a particular rhetorical purpose'. Such a fascinating thought. Really, I am so interested to see where you will go with these lines of investigation.

  8. I see - that set of novels is about an entirely separate branch of the family. That explains a few things.

    Absolutely right on the theorizing. Maybe that is why Henry James is an important critic - his fiction actually has a close relation to his critical writing.

    I do not know where to go with the "science" question - a Subject For Future Research - but I am going to try to say a little bit about the the novels Balzac / Flaubert split. The money plot is Balzac, the sexual plot Flaubert. I am being facile, but that's the idea. I was worried they would not join well, but I was wrong.

  9. Fascinating discussion.

    I always thought the "scientific" aim of Zola's novels a tag of his time. After all, science was booming and discoveries happened at a high pace at the time. I also wonder if he liked the scientific tag as opposed to Romanticism and also as a way to link his work to 18thC great men of the Enlightenment. He lives in a brand new Republic, emerging from the cinders of La Commune de Paris and the war lost against the Germans. This Republic had to win its legitimity, fighting against monarchists and wanting to go back to the beginning, 1789. It's just my opinion though. The French Revolution was sort of glamour for some (think of Anatole France and his father's book store)

    I'd like to point out that in French you don't call Nana a "pute" (whore) but a "courtisane". It's not the same. Btw the last scenes of the book are gore, there's no other word for it. And Zola is good for gore description, typing a description about vomit in L'Assomoir made me queasy.

    Au Bonheur des Dames (the one with the department store) is fantastic. If you now the Printemps or Galeries Lafayette located Boulevard Haussmann in Paris, you'll see Au Bonheur des Dames in you head. (although the model was more the Bon Marché, I think). It's fascinating to read about the beginnings of consumer society and marketing tricks.

    Germinal is definitely a masterpiece.

    Zola's novels are excellent because they show the turning point of a society: industrialization and unions(Germinal), Paris (La Curée, Le ventre de Paris), consumer society (Au Bonheur des Dames), social issues like alcoholism (L'Assomoir)

    I think that women in Zola are more positive characters than in Balzac. Balzac sounds chauvinistic and there is no middle ground between courtisane or saint. I haven't read the whole Comédie Humaine (I'm lazy, I'll pick the good ones according to Guy's reviews) but Mémoire de deux jeunes mariées is the only one I have read that shows the terrible situation of women at the time.

    PS: And I agree with everything Litlove said!


  10. The "science" business predate the Republic, though. The hilarious preface of Thérèse Raquin is full of it, too, three years before the Siege and all that. He is certainly being au courant in some way, you are right.

    So, the gore - I wrote about this back with TR, so I was ready for it. I was worried, actually, because of the "hunt \ kill" metaphor that Renée, the prey, was going to suffer a rather more gruesome end. But you are saying Zola saves that for a later novel? Super. Just great. Ick.

    Not having read the entire Comédie Humaine is a long way from lazy.

    I will suggest that obooki's use of "whore" was a comic - not exaggeration - a comic simplification.

    I appreciate the Zola rundown, by the way.

  11. Doctor Pascal, which is the last volume in the Rougon-Macquart series, seems to be a summation of the scientific nature of the work (I've not read it, maybe it will be next). On the back Zola calls it "a scientific work, the logical deduction and conclusion of all my preceding novels." - There's a chapter in it, called "The Genealogical Tree", where Doctor Pascal pulls out a lot of papers related to his family and then goes through them - in effect, reprising and drawing together the meanings from all the other works in the series. (At least, that's what it looks like, without having read it).

  12. A footnote informs me that a minor character abandoned in The Kill is a major part of Doctor Pascal, 18 novels later. It may not be science, but it is impressive organization!

  13. It is a very impressive organization. Perhaps not experimental science but more like the descriptive and observational science of a naturalist, hence naturalism.

    In case this is of use to anyone, I have put together an outline that shows how all the parts of Rougon-Macquart are related.

    This chart may be particularly helpful.