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!