Friday 20 April 2018

La Curée (The Kill) By Emile Zola

La Curée is the second book in Emile Zola's Rougon-Macquart series of books set during the Second Empire in France. I read it this month in honour of Fanda's #Zoladdiction2018. I have many, many thoughts about this story - I'll start off in point form -
  • The translation of the title
  • Haussmann
  • the parks and avenues
  • the art - the images - the pictures
  • the excess
  • Phaedra
  • Narcissus
  • mythology and myth making
  • consumption & speculation
  • property bubble, creative accounting, deception, greed, avarice, materialism
  • construction - destruction
  • the cyclic nature of time/history
  • gender
  • the ailing Napoleon III
  • morality, desire, sexuality
  • Dynasty meets the Kardashian's
  • book worlds collide
The Quarry (La Curée ) 1856 Gustave Courbet - Museum of Fine Arts Boston
So, the title of the book in English. It has been called The Kill or The Game is Over in most of the book or movie versions that I've found so far. The painting above also gave another twist to the translation which is rather apt as well and fits in with the #Zolastyle theme that Fanda was running this year.

Haussmann was a fascinating character; Paris basically looks the way it does today because of what he did. He opened up avenues and boulevards to create light and space. Beautiful spaces, trees, parks and new buildings were designed to being communities the expense of ripping apart old neighbourhoods. The addition of sewers, fountains and aquaducts made huge improvements for all Parisians but at the time the demolition and construction works were controversial and traumatic.

Avenue de l'Opéra, Camille Pissarro (1898).
There is no doubt that Zola was a master of imagery.
I've already written a post about his descriptions of the Bois de Boulogne, but he also included many magnificent details about the clothing, architecture and the interiors of homes. The excessive materialism and decadent lifestyle has to be read to be believed.

Phaedra: though married to Theseus, Phaedra fell in love with Hippolytus, Theseus's son by another woman (i.e. her stepson). But Hippolytus rejected her. In revenge, she told Theseus that Hippolytus had raped her. What happens next to Hippolytus depends on which version of the myth you read, but the end result is that he died. Themes of rejection, denial, shame, guilt, despair and jealousy - the perfect play for Renee and Maxime to see, although Zola played around with the ending.

Phaedra 1880 Alexandre Cabanel
The Narcissus and Echo tableau vivant (living picture) that occurs in chapter 6 seems utterly bizarre to the modern reader (i.e. me!) What a curious way to host a dinner party. To dress up and pose scenes from well-known myths, stories and legends. The 19th century version of the selfie, I guess.

The excessive consumption and speculation boom that Paris experienced during this era reminded me a lot of what is happening right now in many Western countries. The crazy stupid property bubble that exists in Sydney and Melbourne at the moment is just as ridiculous and just as prone to shady deals and greed and corruption as the one in Zola's Paris.

The women come off badly in this story, especially Renee. Maxime gets to live a guilt-free existence whilst Renee is riddled with doubt and self-reproach. Her behaviour is frowned upon whilst Maxime gets a socially acceptable 'high five' from his dad. Although I like to think that Renee had a moment at the end when she realised how shallow, false and destructive her life style had become. Sadly this reflection didn't lead to any form of happiness, fulfilment or satisfaction for her. C'est la vie.

I hadn't realised how old and doddery Napolean III was by the end of his Empire. Zola neatly shows the Empire decaying and rotting right along with his ageing body.

I was surprised by how much sex there was in this novel. Having read numerous bio's and novels about the Royal families in France over the years, I knew that mistresses and sexual deviation was fairly par for the course at that level of society. It was fascinating to see the post-revolution nouveau riche picking up where the old courtiers left off.

La Curée had all the glitz, big hair and large shoulder pads of Dynasty (are you old enough to remember the 80's TV show)? Combine the Ewing's obscene wealth with the self-conscious, over the top spectacle that the Kardashian clan make of themselves and you'll get some idea of the fake, shallow world inhabited by Zola's characters.

I love it when book worlds collide: as many of you know, I'm doing a chapter a day LesMis readalong. Yesterday's chapter was Vol 2 Book 5 Ch 1 - Twists and Turns. Every now and again, Hugo inserts himself into the story. His most famous one is the 19 chapter diversion back in time to the Battle of Waterloo, but here he has done it again,
For some years past the author of this book, who regrets the necessity to speak of himself, has been absent from Paris. During this time the city has been transformed....But in the process of demolition and reconstruction, the Paris of his youth, of which he cherishes the memory, has become a Paris of the past. He must be allowed to talk of that Paris as though it still existed....
Those places we no longer see, perhaps will never see again but still remember, have acquired an aching charm; they return to us with the melancholy of ghosts, a hallowed vision and as it were the true face of France. We love and evoke them such as they were; and such as to us they still are, we cling to them and will not have been altered, for the face of our country is our mother's face.

Hugo was obviously feeling very nostalgic and sentimental about his home country from his exile on the island of Guernsey. Just like Zola his political views had forced him to leave his birth country (Hugo for 14 years; Zola less than 12 months) and just like Zola he juggled a wife and mistress for much of his adult life.

I love it when one book leads into and informs the next. Without La Curée I would not have known about the Haussmannisation of Paris and would not have know what Hugo was referring to in this section. Timing is everything or as the more romantic Hugo would say, 'some invisible presence was guiding' us!



  1. Wonderful review, Brona....Zola practically never disappoints!
    And...there great reading to come L'Assommoir (1877), Nana (1880)!!
    Poor René was not easy for her. She was happy only in the memories of her childhood.
    Zola describes Renée's uncle's house and I had to see it! L’hôtel Béraud on Ile de Saint-Louis was Zola’s inspiration. People must of thought I was crazy gawking at an old house!
    Special moments when books and worlds collide, I agree!

  2. Great review, I particularly liked your comparison with Greek mythology. Of course the guy gets off with a high-five from his dad, right? And I completely agree about the property bubble. We lost a lot of money because we bought a house in 2005 and had to move in 2008, it was a nightmare. What's that saying -- those who don't study history are doomed to repeat it?

  3. It's all very French. Parts of the book are very modern, or should I say - nothing changes. It's still a tradition in France for men to have a mistress as well as a wife, visiting them between 5 and 7 pm. I knew one woman who had been the mistress of the same man for over 20 years. It suited her as she never wanted any children, but I ouldn't help thinking how sordid it all was. There was no thought for the wife and family at all.

    1. As you say, it's all very French. The man gets to have his cake and eat it too, while the women have to chose to be either the wife/mother or the childless mistress.


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