Emile Zola’s ‘La Curée’ (1872), translated as ‘The Kill’, is an extraordinary novel of unbridled appetites, material and sexual, and of the moral decay and rottenness of unfettered capitalism. It shares a setting and many common themes with ‘L’Argent’ (‘Money’) and features the same central character of Saccard (Aristide Rougon). Brian Nelson’s excellent translation captures all the emotional charge and vivid imagery of Zola’s writing. It would make a great TV series and offers plenty of scope for sequels to be drawn from Zola’s other 19 Rougon-Macquart books.
Zola spares us nothing in his description of the wild speculation and profiteering which powered the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few on the back of the ‘Haussmanisation’ of Paris. The construction of straight new boulevards which transformed the city also fed a chain of expropriation and corruption from government and city officials to investors, developers and contractors. The urge to improve and modernize is not a bad one but here it has been corrupted to serve the wrong people. Saccard may have occasional constructive aspirations but he is essentially a financial parasite feeding off every transaction, manipulating the speculative bubble for his own gain and relishing the destruction of the old Paris.
“Paris slashed with sabre cuts; its veins opened… It will be sheer madness, an orgy of spending, Paris will be drunk and overwhelmed” says Saccard approvingly.
The fluid, destructive force of capital is graphically described:
“This fortune which roared and overflowed like a winter torrent… a frenzy of money… The appetites let loose were satisfied at last, shamelessly, amid the sound of crumbling neighborhoods and fortunes made in six months… The city had become an orgy of gold and women. Vice, coming from on high, flowed through the gutters and spread out.”
Zola captures the disorientations of modernity; the unsettling and destabilising experience of struggling to find your way around a neighbourhood you thought you knew, coming across the shell of a building you once lived in and losing your moorings; where only money rules. The forces of production are truly making ‘all that is solid melt into air’1 with human values melting away with it.
“On either side, great pieces of wall, burst open by pickaxes, remained standing; tall gutted buildings displaying their pale insides opened to the skies their wells stripped of stairs, their gaping rooms suspended in mid-air like the broken drawers of a big ugly piece of furniture.”
The story is located almost entirely in high society among the super-rich and powerful; the perspective of the working class is absent. How did ordinary people experience the displacement and social dislocation resulting from the wiping out of their neighbourhoods? Zola makes up for this omission in many of the other novels in the Rougon-Macquart series. But here, our characters are the beneficiaries, those at the top echelons of the second empire created by Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte following his fraudulent coup d’état of 1851. This nephew of Napoleon I ‘repeats tragedy as farce’2 as the emperor Napoleon III and reverses many of the democratic gains of the revolutions of 1789 and 1848.
The moral turpitude of Saccard with his financial chicanery and of his sister Sidonie with her intrigues is matched by that of his second wife Renée, and his dissolute son Maxime, from his first wife. Saccard and Renée’s marriage is a convenient transaction which has no basis in love or mutual respect but is at least sustainable. The transgressive affair between step-mother and step-son is based on erotic desire but is clearly doomed. What Brian Nelson describes as Zola’s ‘remarkable symbolizing vision, expressed in dense metaphoric language’ is at its most heady in the sensations which arouse Renée’s desire in the tropical greenhouse of the house in the Parc Monceau:
“Poisonous flowers… flowers resembling eager sensual mouths… hungry bleeding smiles… bent and twisted tendrils pushing in every direction… pungent perfume… strong acrid breath… disturbing organic rotting smells…”
Just as vice flowed through the Paris gutters, Renée and Maxime’s sin…
“…had sprouted as from a dunghill oozing with strange juices.”
And Renée is described as:
“a strange, voluptuous flower grown on the compost of millions.”
But when the chips are down, the men make the rules, and ‘La Curée’ is also a story of the powerlessness and exploitation of women in the Second Empire. Towards the end of the story, Renée sees herself in a mirror as she is, naked to the world. Despite having asserted her desires, exercised some freedom to make choices and dominating her lover (‘she was the man’) she is the one who has been violated and expropriated and the men just get away with it. They are guilty, their social and financial networks are guilty, the whole of Paris is guilty.
Beyond the depiction of the universals of greed and lust, Zola also offers us some very modern insights into the commodification of desire and celebrity. The way Renée obsessively scrutinizes the details in photographs of her friends and other society beauties in her album, looking for every blemish, seems to anticipate the image-conscious culture of social media. And when Sidonie takes the opportunity of a social call to casually promote a brand of soap or an elastic belt developed by some of her contacts, is she not acting as a nineteenth century ‘influencer’? The market will always find ways to shape our desires and our consumption.
Even Renée’s discreet maid Céleste is complicit, but her complicity is also a transaction. She is a sort of ‘anti- Renée’ avoiding any emotional bonds that could harm her and seeing money as a secure way to build her future, unbeholden to any man. Having saved up her target sum, Celeste has no further use for Renée or any need to pretend to any attachment to her. Her discretion was purely instrumental, getting her what she needed to achieve her goals.
Zola built the Rougon-Macquart series around some key concepts, one of which was a notion of the recurrence and persistence of inherited personality traits. But I think that in ‘La Curée’, he shows how the moral collapse of his characters is the results of a society that has got its values wrong. They are perpetrators but also victims, not principally of their heredity, but of a corrupt system which puts greed ahead of humanity.
- “All that is solid melts into air, all that is sacred is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.” Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, ‘The Communist Manifesto’ (1848).
- “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce… the nephew for the uncle…” [Louis Napoleon’s 1851 coup d’état for Napoleon’s coup on 18 Brumaire of the Year 8 (9 November 1799)]. Karl Marx, ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon’ (1852)
‘Unsheltered’ by Barbara Kingsolver (Aug 2019)
Primo Levi on work and education (May 2016)