Za-Za-Za-Zola!

Finally, my Zola day on the Classics Circuit Tour is here! I’ve been a fan of 1860s Paris ever since I learned about Napoleon III in a university history class, so I’m very eager to talk about Zola and the time period he wrote in.

I first heard about Zola in connection with the Dreyfus Affair (read more about that at Bibliosue’s post on the Tour), also in my history class, and thought he must be a boring author to be so involved with politics and journalism. I didn’t pick up any of his books until last year and then proved myself very wrong with La Curée, which has been translated as The Kill, the second book in his twenty novel sequence Les Rougon-Macquart.

La curée literally means the portion of the hunt given to the dogs to eat afterwards and this novel is about the nouveau riche high society folks who profitted from Napoleon III’s takeover of France. Louis Napoleon, as he was known then, was elected president in 1848 and then before he could be voted out, pushed his way in to become Emperor in 1851… just like his uncle, the original Napoleon. He felt he had a destiny to do this (his father was Napoleon’s brother and his mother was Hortense, Josephine’s daughter from her first marriage) and live up to the family name, but many people made fun of him, with Victor Hugh calling him Napoleon le Petit. Napoleon III did manage to rule the Second Empire of France for almost 20 years and his most lasting legacy of the time period was to rebuild much of Paris, modernizing all the old medieval city streets into the grand boulevards of the city we know today.

In The Kill, one of the main characters, Saccard, makes all of his money through financial speculation during the rebuilding of Paris — he finds out ahead of time which streets and houses will be demolished to make way for the new and then buys them up cheaply, puts the title deeds in someone else’s name, has them revalued at a much higher rate, then sells them to the government at very inflated prices. Not too different from some of the financial schemes going on today…? So for him, the appearance of having a lot of money means people will continue to invest with him, although he doesn’t have a solid source of money, it’s all a show. Here’s his ridiculously huge new house:

It was a parade of wealth, a profusion, an embarrassment of riches… Seen from the park, looming above its neat lawn and the polished leaves of its gleaming shrubbery, that huge edifice, still brand-new and quite pale, had the wan face and rich, idiotic self-importance of a parvenue, with its heavy slate chapeau, its gilt railings, and its facade dripping with sculptures. It was a scale model of the new Louvre, one of the most characteristic examples of the style Napoleon III, that opulent hybrid of every style that ever existed. On summer nights, when the sun’s slating rays lit up the gold of the railings against the white facade, people strolling in the park stopped to stare at the red silk curtains hanging in the first-floor windows. Through windows so large and so clear that they seemed to have been placed there, like the windows of a great modern department store, to display the sumptuous interior to the outside world, these petit-bourgeois families caught glimpses of the furniture, of the fabrics, and of the dazzlingly rich ceilings, the sight of which riveted them to the spot with admiration and envy.

Meanwhile, his second wife Renée is desperately bored with her rich lifestyle and wants something more daring. She eventually starts an affair with her stepson Maxime (echoing the story of Phedre and Hippolyte in Greek mythology and in the play by Racine), but their story is a moral satire instead of a tragedy.

One thing I absolutely love about Zola’s writing is how descriptive and sensual it is. He may be criticising these rich people, but oh, the clothes and the balls and the dressing rooms and hothouses! As a journalist, Zola took intensive notes on every aspect of life he wrote about, from the poor to the rich. His Paris is so vivid and distinct.

It was the hour when the hounds were ardently devouring their share of the spoils… The appetites that had been unleashed at last found contentment in the impudence of triumph, in the din of crumbling neighborhoods and fortunes built in six months. The city had become an orgy of millions and of women. Vice, come from on high, flowed through the gutters, spread across ornamental basins, and spurted skyward in public fountains, only to fall upon the roofs in a fine driving rain. And at night, when one crossed the bridges, the Seine seemed to carry off all the refuse of the sleeping city: crumbs fallen from tables, lace bows left lying on divans, hairpieces forgotten in cabs, banknotes slipped out of bodices — everything that brutual desire and immediate gratification of instinct shattered and soiled and then tossed into the street. Then, in the capital’s feverish sleep, better even than in its breathless daylight quest, one sensed the mental derangement, the gilded voluptuous nightmare of a city driven mad by its gold and its flesh. Violins sang until midnight. Then windows went dark, and shadows fell upon the city. It was like a colossal alcove in which the last candle had been blown out, the last vestige of modesty extinguished. In the depths of the darkness there was now only a great gurgle of frenetic and weary love, while the Tuileries, at the water’s edge, reached out its arms as if to embrace the vast blackness.

The other interesting thing about this novel, is that although it is set in the early 1860s, it was actually written by Zola in 1871-ish, right when the Second Empire had fallen apart due to the war with Prussia and eventually, the siege of Paris by the Prussian Army. Zola had begun his big novel cycle partly in critique of the Second Empire (and partly copying Balzac’s even bigger collection of novels, La Comedie humaine, but only limiting it to one family, instead of to everyone in France), but soon after he began writing, it fell. So obviously, a heavy dose of foreshadowing got to join his other writerly techniques (such as the use of symbolism to show Renée’s falling morals with her falling bodices)! The characters discuss at one point how their children will pay for the cost of rebuilding Paris, but in the meantime, they are happy to destroy and loot it. For them, money means even more than sex and Zola shows how this ill-gotten wealth pollutes their sexuality.

Zola is not a perfect author, his characters are often accused of not being that memorable and I was somewhat annoyed that he used the sexual depravity and decline of a woman to symbolize the decadent destruction of the Second Empire, but he’s also a very underrated author. (The Kill is much more exciting than Madame Bovary, for instance!) And he writes amazing crowd scenes and set pieces.

So if you are now all afire to read this excellent novel, I happen to have a spare copy of it! So if anyone is interested, please let me know and I’ll hold a draw or ship it out to the first person who comments (or maybe a draw for anyone who comments and actually wants it within the next 24 hours), I’m flying home in a day and a half and would rather have one less book with me on the plane!

(Note: the painting in this post is a portrait of Zola, done by Manet.) And also, the rest of the Zola Tour schedule is here!

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14 thoughts on “Za-Za-Za-Zola!

  1. Allie says:

    Wonderful review! I loved the Zola I read back in December (Germinal) and I already know I need to read more of him.

    If no one else has claimed it, I would love your extra copy!

    • afewofmyfavouritebooks says:

      Unfortunately, Germinal is one of his novels that made me think he was boring… a miner’s strike just doesn’t sound like my idea of a good time! But then, I didn’t think I’d be into financial speculation so much and it is interesting in The Kill. I’m sure I’ll be reading more Zola since I’m so interested in the time period.

      (Where do you live? At this point, I would rather only mail something to the US or Canada) And thanks for stopping by!

  2. Karenlibrarian says:

    Loved your review! Isn’t it fascinating how some books written a century ago still resonate today? I read The Way We Live Now about a year ago, and it was just like the Madoff scandal, which was a little eerie. I’m just finishing my first Zola for my review tomorrow and I’m really enjoying it.

    And I would love a copy of The Kill, it sounds excellent.

    • afewofmyfavouritebooks says:

      Thanks! I’ve been thinking of reading The Way We Live Now since I saw the miniseries of it a few years ago (and The Eustace Diamonds by Trollope too). Rereading Zola for this review (I first read it last year) helped me to get some distance from all the excesses of it and see the bigger picture, sometimes I get overwhelmed with all the dark sides of 19th century literature, even though I want to read them!

      (Where do you live? I’m only going to mail to the US or Canada this time.)

    • afewofmyfavouritebooks says:

      Hmm, I guess I would need to mail this book today, Sat, as I leave quite early Sun morning, so I need an address! Please email me at afewofmyfavouritebooksATgmail and I’m sorry this is so last minute! There are two of you asking for the book, so I guess I may have to go with whichever address I get first… 😦

  3. JoAnn says:

    What a great review! Zola is indeed a master of description. I was struck by the sumptuous, sensual descriptive passages in both The Ladies’ Paradise and Theresa Raquin. Was also surprised at the contemporary feel of the novels. The Kill will be added to my tbr list… glad to hear it’s more exciting than Madame Bovary.

    • afewofmyfavouritebooks says:

      Thank you. Madame Bovary is more of a character study with lots of slow and careful writing (the first half or so is verry slow), while Zola would I suppose be more focused on plot and social moralizing, wanting to develop a lot of ideas in a big hurry rather than in focusing in on just the perfect word like Flaubert did. I was interested to learn that Zola was actually the biggest selling author in France by the 1890s or so, even beating out Victor Hugo!

    • afewofmyfavouritebooks says:

      I started reading a historical novel set in the same time period as the Zola, about the painter Manet, and found its descriptions insipid and almost nonexistent in comparison, Paris was not the constant presence there that it is in Zola. It’s why I usually prefer to read a classic novel from someone who actually lived in the time period.

  4. Katrina says:

    Thanks for the great review. I’ve only read Germinal which I didn’t think I would enjoy but ended up loving it. Oh dearie me, I’ve just started Madame Bovary.

    • afewofmyfavouritebooks says:

      Oh, I definitely think Madame Bovary is ultimately the better novel, but it’s slow going for the first half or so and somewhat depressing, at least for me. The Kill is more dramatic. I’ll be interested to hear what you think of Flaubert!

  5. Amanda says:

    It’ll be interesting to see how I like Zola’s work when he’s talking about the richer classes. I loved Germinal, though! Can’t wait to read more!

  6. rebeccareid says:

    “their story is a moral satire instead of a tragedy.” It sounds like it still ends in tragedy…

    And yeah, I can see how it would be more exciting than Madame Bovary!

    • afewofmyfavouritebooks says:

      You’re right there about the tragedy. That’s my one complaint about it, that the men get off easier than the women. Although I recently found out that since this is part of his whole 20 novel cycle, some of the characters come back in later books, some of them scarred by what happened in this book, some of them still up to their same old tricks. It’s pretty fascinating, I only wish more of them were available in English!

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