The Kill, Paperback Book
4.5 out of 5 (2 ratings)


'It was the time when the rush for spoils filled a corner of the forest with the yelping of hounds, the cracking of whips, the flaring of torches. The appetites let loose were satisfied at last, shamelessly, amid the sound of crumbling neighbourhoods and fortunes made in six months. The city had become an orgy of gold and women.' The Kill (La Curee) is the second volume in Zola's great cycle of twenty novels, Les Rougon-Macquart, and the first to establish Paris - the capital of modernity - as the centre of Zola's narrative world. Conceived as a representation of the uncontrollable 'appetites' unleashed by the Second Empire (1852-70) and the transformation of the city by Baron Haussmann, the novel combines into a single, powerful vision the twin themes of lust for money and lust for pleasure.

The all-pervading promiscuity of the new Paris is reflected in the dissolute and frenetic lives of an unscrupulous property speculator, Saccard, his neurotic wife Renee, and her dandified lover, Saccard's son Maxime.

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I've read several of Zola's well-known classics, some of which constitute part of his 20 volume Rougon-Macquart series. Each novel in the series is stand-alone, and they do not have to be read chronologically. However, I decided to read/reread the entire series in order. I read the first volume last December and found it only so so. The Kill is the second volume in the series, and it is magnificent.The Kill (La Curee in French, which means something like 'the division of the spoils') focuses on Aristide Rougon, although his brother Eugene and sister Sidonie play prominent roles as well. Aristide has assumed the surname of his first wife, Saccard, and has come to Paris to make his fortune. Through his brother, he obtains a bureaucratic position as the assistant surveyor of roads for Paris. While initially disheartened by his nominal salary, he soon realizes that his position could enable him to make a fortune in real estate, as the boulevards and throughfares of Paris are just being platted and the property through which they will run is being acquired by the city at grossly inflated prices. However, he can't use his insider information, because he has no capital to invest.This problem is solved when he is offered the opportunity to marry a rich heiress (she is 'damaged goods'), even as his first wife is still on her deathbed. The Kill chronicles the rise and fall of Aristide as an unscrupulous, dishonest real estate wheeler dealer with his second wife Renee, an extravagant, selfish socialite. They flaunt their wealth in their obscenely opulent mansion, Renee's exquisite wardrobe (300,000 F dressmaker bills are not uncommon) and the lavish galas they host. Still, Renee is bored, and seeks something more to make her feel alive. She begins a love affair with her stepson, Aristide's son from his first marriage.This book ran afoul of the censors when it began appearing in serial form in 1871, for its outrage to 'public morals' and 'gross materialism.' Today, I think it is particularly relevant as we continue to feel the after-effects of our own real estate bubble and rampant over-consumption. Although not as comprehensive and wide-ranging as some of Zola's other books, this is also a great one.

Review by
The Kill is the second novel in Zola’s twenty-volume Rougon-Macquart cycle, which is essentially a family saga that follows three branches of the Rougon-Macquarts through the period of France’s Second Empire beginning with the coup d’état of Napoleon III in 1852 and ending with collapse of the empire during the Franco-Prussian War 1870-71. As an introduction to the series, The Kill is not a bad place to start — and perhaps finish — because Zola’s literary and sociological preoccupations are fully revealed. This novel, which stands perfectly well on its own, will tell the reader whether he or she wants to invest in any or all of the other books.If the history of Paris — in particular the Haussmann era — has particular appeal for the reader, The Kill will certainly whet the appetite for more. The massive redevelopment scheme launched by Napoleon III and his director of public works Baron Haussmann was carried out in an atmosphere of corruption and decadence. If Zola’s version of events is to be believed, everyone from the Emperor down to the lowliest lackey was morally corrupt and sexually perverted. No one rises from the pages of this novel unscathed.Zola was a realist in the tradition of Balzac and Flaubert. To illustrate his characteristic brand of realism, a particularly torrid love scene takes place in a palatial hothouse, and Zola uses the occasion to intertwine his description of the scene with a voluptuous exposition of the plants and foliage: The night of passion they spent there was followed by many others. The houthouse loved and burned with them. In the heavy atmosphere, in the pale light of the moon, they saw the strange world of plants moving confusedly around them, exchanging embraces. The black bearskin stretched across the pathway. At their feet the tank steamed, full of a thick tangle of plants, while the pink petals of the water-lilies opened out on the surface, like virgin bodices, and the tornelias let their bushy tendrils hang down like the hair of swooning water-nymphs. Around them the palm trees and the tall Indian bamboos rose up towards the domed roof where they bent over and mingled their leaves with the postures of exhausted lovers. Lower down the ferns, the pterides, and the alsophilas were like green ladies, with wide skirts trimmed with symmetrical flounces, standing mute and motionless at the edge of the pathway, waiting for some romantic encounter. By their side the twisted red-streaked leaves of the begonias and the white, spear-headed leaves of the caladiums provided a vague series of bruises and pallors, which the lovers could not understand, though at times they discerned curves as of hips and knees, prone on the ground beneath the brutality of blood-stained kisses. The banana trees, bending under the weight of their fruit, spoke to them of the rich fecundity of the earth, while the Abyssinian euphorbias, whose prickly deformed stems, covered with loathsome excrescences, they glimpsed in the shadows, seemed to exude sap, the overflowing flux of this fiery gestation. . . . And it goes on.Regarding the plot, it concerns itself with three protagonists: a man, soon to be widowed, who is involved in shady dealings to make money off the Haussmann redevelopment scheme using insider information gleaned from his job at city hall, i.e., the Hôtel de Ville; his second wife who was already pregnant but he married her for her dowry which provided capital to launch his various schemes; and his effete son by the first wife, who is morally and intellectually weak and pliable and thus capable of total moral degradation.As depicted by Zola, the frenetic pursuit of money and sexual pleasure by all of society seems over the top. “Sin ought to be an exquisite thing, my dear.” Despite the literary merits of Zola’s writing, I am not sure I want to wallow through nineteen more volumes of despicable characters in an atmosphere of total corruption. Surely Zola could have found someone admirable to depict in all of this. I believe his point was partly to marvel at the fact that so much was accomplished in a relatively short period of time in such a morally bankrupt atmosphere. And I agree, that is indeed something to marvel at.

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