Les Rougon-Macquart #2 – La Curée (1871-2)

AKA “The Kill”

The second book in the Rougon-Macquart series takes a secondary character from the first novel, and transplants him to a new place with a more flexible class structure, an even more flexible morality, extravagant opulence and opportunities to make huge amounts of money – Paris. Aristide was one of the more openly odious characters in The Fortune Of The Rougons. His cynical social climbing in that novel led to him running an ill-advised revolutionary newspaper, a scheme that almost ended in his ruin. In Paris he adopts a new name – “Saccard” – and a new wife, after the convenient death of his first. That his marriage to Renée is arranged for purely financial reasons is perhaps ironic, considering that her romantic passion ends up being one of the dominant threads in the novel.

While the book is superficially about Saccard, the tale of his ill-gotten riches ends up as the ‘B’ story to Renée’s ‘A’. In a sense this is a shame as embezzling is a more unusual topic than romance, but generally it’s a relief to get away from the descriptions of complex financial scams, which sometimes confused me as much as they did their victims. His main source of income is using his prestigious civil service job (provided by his brother) to find out about new boulevards planned in Paris, buy up houses due to be demolished to make way for them, then use his influence to gain huge amounts of government compensation for their destruction. Later on he opens a bank and an investment corporation and starts actually building mansions along the boulevards. As his riches multiply so do his extravagant outgoings, so by the end of the story he’s descended into the “one last scam to pay off my debts and keep me rich” trope, but the expected downfall never comes. His lust for status is topped only by his love of money, but his interests don’t seem to stretch beyond these goals. He hosts lavish parties, eats the most expensive food and lives in a gigantic mansion, but none of this truly interests him – all is just a route to higher status and more money. He even fakes an affair with a society woman to further these aims.

Meanwhile, the heart of the story concerns his new wife, Renée, and his son Maxime. These two pampered, selfish creatures elevate themselves to the heart of Paris society, where they are so successful that they have nothing left to do but have an affair with each-other. The descriptions of their parties, their clothes and their habits shows such luxury and excess that it starts to get tiresome fairly quickly. Perhaps the point is to make the reader feel as world-weary and jaded as the pair themselves, but this may be wishful thinking. Reading about opulence without squalor is like eating a bag of sugar – it’s pleasant at first but it’s going to make you sick rather than satisfied in the end.
It’s difficult to feel sorry for such pampered creatures as these, but that really is the point – they aren’t particularly sympathetic in any way. Zola said that his aim with this storyline was to show “the terrible social breakdown that occurs when all moral standards are lost and family ties no longer exist”, which indicates the real problem a modern reader has with this book. These days most educated people understand that moral codes change over time, and rather than take them without question we should try to think about why they are in place. The 19th century attitude that Zola expresses takes a very different tack – the life of luxury and decadence Renée and Maxime have wears away their morals and leads them into the moral crime of incest, which should be scandalous, but is it really incest? She isn’t his mother, her marriage to his father is a sham, she doesn’t know him during his childhood and their relationship is never anything like that of mother and son. Their crime is to go against the accepted morality of their time, but you can’t help but notice that they don’t actually do anyone any harm. A modern writer would have to confront this point, but here it just lies unaddressed. The idea that hedonism is morally corrupting has also been left behind in the 19th century, and it would be nice if a case could be made for it rather than it just being left as something we understand to be true. I can’t blame Zola for any of this, but it does make the book as a whole less enjoyable and less effective than it should be – a museum piece rather than something which can be enjoyed on its own merits.

Translation

“La Curée” literally means the part of the game thrown to the dogs to keep them happy at the end of a hunt. In the interests of brevity, therefore, it’s generally been translated as “The Kill”. I read a 2004 translation by Brian Nelson. He had a difficult task – lengthy descriptions of beauty and opulence are not suited to a modern taste, but cutting them down would result in being unfaithful to the intentions of the original text. It wouldn’t really be fair to pin the blame on him, but I found the style a bit heavy-going and ponderous.

Historical background

The events of the story take place during the early years of the French Second Empire. The new emperor, Napoleon III, allowed civic planner Georges-Eugene Haussmann to spend a huge amount of money knocking down most of Paris and building huge modern boulevards. All this money, coupled to the non-egalitarian effect of jumping back from republic to monarchy, led to the blossoming of a new “nouveau riche” upper class with extravagant tastes and little concern for the well-being of the general public. Zola was clear in stating that the characters were based on real people, asking “Should I give the names and tear off the masks in order to prove that I am a historian, not a scandalmonger? It would surely be futile. The names are still on everyone’s lips.”

Naturalism

The inheritance of greed and lack of qualms in the Rougon family is all too clear – beyond this personality trait, however, the principles of naturalism aren’t applied to the characters in any great way. What is clearer, however, is that naturalism here has more to do with reflecting the themes of the novel – immorality, gluttony, decadence – in the style of writing, and this is much more successful. I can’t help but feel jaded myself, and hope the next novel will deal up some squalor to help the opulence go down.

Film

Roger Vadim, director of ‘And God Created Woman’ and ‘Barbarella’, produced a modern-day version of La Curée in 1966, starring his then wife Jane Fonda. There’s surprisingly little in the way of information about it available on the internet, but I was able to find two short clips, here and here (NSFW). It doesn’t look like much cop really, and the reviews I’ve seem generally seem to agree that it looks nice but isn’t really worth the bother of watching.

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