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Evie

Emile Zola

Having been enthralled by The Masterpiece (L'Oeuvre) a few years ago, and having not read any other Zola (to my shame - me a French graduate too!), I decided recently that I would read more of the Rougon-Macquart novels.  I originally thought I would read them in order of publication, depending on what is available in English (also shameful for a French graduate!), but see that Zola himself had a reading order for them that was quite different from the order of publication.

However, since the first one is currently being translated (due this year), I decided to start with the second one, The Kill (La Curée), published fairly recently (2008, I think) by Brian Nelson, who has translated a number of the volumes for the Oxford World Classics series.  His is the first translation of this novel since 1895, amazingly, and the older translations are apparently problematic; but this was an excellent translation.

I found it a magnificent novel.  It is essentially the story of Renée Saccard, wife of Aristide Saccard, who changed his name from Rougon in order to give himself a better chance of making a successful career in Paris.  His first wife dies, leaving him with two children, and he marries Renee only because she is an heiress and is being sold to any respectable suitor who will marry her, because she has been raped and left pregnant, and the family want to avoid disgrace.  This really sets the tone for the whole novel - sordid lives and activities carried on beneath a veil of wealth and respectability.

Aristide initially has a job at the Hotel de Ville, and through his cleverness and subtlety manages to hear a lot of what is going on - the novel is set at the time when the Haussmannisation of Paris is beginning.  He makes a fortune through property speculation - even his marriage to Renee is brokered beside the deathbed of his first wife.  Aristide's daughter disappears from the novel, but his son, Maxime, returns from school to live with his father and new stepmother - Renee is only 20, Maxime 14, Aristide considerably older than his wife.  An extraordinary triangle opens up, with each of the three living as they want, with no one seeming to mind; indeed Parisian society in general is presented this way, with married women openly having affairs with other men, and the whole thing seemingly accepted, albeit tacitly.

The story, such as it is, is of the relationship between these three, a minefield of deception (on many levels) and sexual tension.  The sense of what is happening to Paris as a metaphor for what is happening to society is obvious yet subtly observed by Zola.  The title refers to hunting, the 'curée' being the part of the kill that is thrown to the dogs, and while it is obvious to see Renée as the hunted creature, she does her own hunting too, and the metaphor is rich and cleverly worked.

The real magnificence of the novel, for me, is in its structure and artistry.  The scenes spiral around each other, moving back and forth in time, sometimes coming to rest again in the place where the novel starts, just like a waltz; that was the image that came to my mind from fairly early on, and indeed at the climax of the novel, a waltz takes place at a lavish party thrown by the Saccards, which results in cataclysmic change for all three of the main characters.  There is an almost Modernist sense of playing with time and with the structure of the novel; it is this that makes an otherwise relatively slight plot completely mesmerising from start to finish.

Along with the plot is the richness of imagery - it is an extremely sensual novel, and the sensuality of the characters is enhanced by descriptions of soft furnishings, in particular, that become inextricable from the characters and their actions and feelings at times.  That sounds a bit crass, but it is exquisitely done.

The climactic scene - though not the end of the novel, which comes soon after it - is the party I mentioned, where Renée is dressed in an extremely daring dress that barely conceals her naked breasts through diaphanous material, and which comes to its full climax (pun fully intended) in the meeting of the three main protagonists, who have rarely been in scene together - Aristide, Renee and Maxime.  I don't want to give the whole story, but the most astonishing section in the book for me comes in this scene, where Renee starts to look at herself in the mirror, ashamed and appalled by her nudity, but asking the question in her mind, Who stripped me naked?  Her thoughts then go on for several pages - again, completely mesmerising stuff, despite it just being pages of her thoughts - with that refrain running through them, as she thinks back over her life, realising she has come to a point of no return - Who stripped me naked? - then realising that she knows - They had stripped her naked.  Again, this would not be out of place in a 20th-century novel - it is stunningly told, and stunning in its impact.  The deceit, primarily financial but also very much sexual, reaches its zenith here, and from then on, through the last chapter of the book, she is both defeated and freed, and her husband and stepson recede from her, though Aristide and his career remain at the forefront of the way the novel ends.  The ending itself took my breath away.

I have not done this novel anything like justice, but as I say, I found it magnificent.  In the two novels I have read by him, Zola has been a revelation - his observations on human behaviour, his evocation of 19th-century Paris, his humanity, above all his sheer artistry are sensational.

I will add further responses as I read more of the books.  I should say again how welcome Brian Nelson's superb translation is - and am glad to see that several of the others, including the forthcoming first volume, are translated by him, so I shall look forward to those, as well as others.  I know I still have the best to come!
TheRejectAmidHair

Thank you very much for that - that was fascinating. I haven't read this one yet (nor the other Zola novel you've read - L'Oeuvre), but, reading your account of it, it is unmistakable: even if you hadn't mentioned the author & title, I think I'd have guessed this to be Zola. The scene where Renée sees her reflection, even just reading your description of it rather than the real thing, seems stunning.

I've read a couple of Brian Nelson's translations (Au Bonheur des Dames and Pot Bouille. The others I read in the Penguin Classics versions (variously translated by Robin Buss, Douglas Parmée, George Holden, Leonard Tancock, etc) which are also very good. We are lucky to have so any excellent new translations of these magnificent novels.
Evie

Thanks for that, H - it's good to know that those other translations are good too - I started L'Assommoir in one of the older translations, as I think I said elsewhere, and found it unreadable!  So it's good to know there have been several more recent translations that do some justice to the original.

I remember you saying that one of the astonishing things about Zola's novels is that he maintains such a high standard.  Certainly the two I have read have been utterly wonderful, but I know, as I say, that the best is yet to come - a friend, a professor of French, told me not to start with Germinal because it is the best and the others might be disappointing in contrast - but I am now looking forward to it even more (along with the others, of course, including a better translation of L'Assommoir), as it must clearly be a masterpiece.  I did read that The Kill is considered by some to be the best of the pre-L'Assommoir novels, and certainly it deserves to be much better known - clearly not having a decent translation until this century hasn't helped.
TheRejectAmidHair

Germinal certainly is magnificent, but, while I am certainly not presumptuous enough to take issue with a Professor of French on this matter, I found myself equally impressed with L'Assommoir, Nana, and La Terre. And maybe a few others as well... But funnily enough, it was Germinal I read first. I was, I remember, a first year undergraduate at the time, and I couldn't quite believe what I was reading.

I remember the Baron reading La Terre and being absolutely bowled over by it.

I think I'll learn French properly. I did do an O Grade in it after all - so I have at least something of a start!
Evie

It was certainly his personal opinion rather than a professional one, so feel free to take issue!  I must admit La Terre is one that appeals a lot just from the blurb.  Great to have several to look forward to.
Mikeharvey

Over the last couple of years I've read GERMINAL, THERESE RAQUIN and THE BELLY OF PARIS and enjoyed them very much, especially Germinal. It's splendid to know that there are many other Zola unread titles waiting for me.
TheRejectAmidHair

Mikeharvey wrote:
Over the last couple of years I've read GERMINAL, THERESE RAQUIN and THE BELLY OF PARIS and enjoyed them very much, especially Germinal. It's splendid to know that there are many other Zola unread titles waiting for me.


And what books they are!

There are 13 or so novels of the Rougon-Macquart series currently available in good, modern translations either in Oxford World Classics or in Penguin Classics. (This doesn't include Thérèse Raquin, which is not part of the series.)

There's also a modern translation of Le Rêve, published by a small independent translator, that has received excellent reviews.

So, by my reckoning, there are only half dozen or so of the Rougon-Macquart series for which we don't have modern translations.
chris-l

To my shame, all that I have read of Zola is 'Germinal', in translation, and 'Thérèse Raquin'. I'm not sure 'enjoyed' would be my description of the experience, but I found both, and especially 'Germinal' immensely powerful and rewarding to read. I do have a 'Livre de Poche' copy of 'La Curée', which this post has inspired me to bring out into the light of day. I really must try to read it soon, but I do have quite a lot of books on the go already, so it may have to wait just a few months more!

In some ways, Zola seems to me to have some of the qualities of Dickens, in that he identifies social ills and writes about them in such a way that sympathies are engaged and sometimes action follows. Zola's journalism was one of the key factors in bringing very belated justice to Alfred Dreyfus and his novels often deal with more generalised injustices which the comfortable consciences of his readers might have preferred to ignore.
Evie

Yes, 'enjoyed' is not the right word really, I agree.  But both of the ones I have read have been immensely rewarding reading experiences...just not sure what word to use!

There is a great contrast between L'Oeuvre and La Curee, in that the first deals with people in poverty (struggling artists - it's about the early Impressionists, and was the reason that Cezanne, who had been a friend of Zola's from childhood, broke with him), the latter with the wealthy elite.  But both have a huge amount of sensuality and a kind of lushness that I don't find in Dickens - of course there are many similarities, but they are also quite different writers, I think.  It struck me as I was reading La Curee that Dickens wouldn't (couldn't?) have written about the world of the wealthy in this exuberant, sparking way - if it is couldn't, it's not to do with literary skill, so much as that it seemed quite alien, to me, to Dickens' sensibilities as a writer.  Nor did Dickens ever create a character like Renee.

His involvement in the Dreyfus affair obviously gives me extra respect for Zola - he is, like Dickens, genuinely concerned with social injustice, and as you say, the novels of both men highlight such injustice in a way that did help to bring about action.  They are both brave writers, but also very literary writers, and that, I think, is where their greatness lies - in the combination of the two.  How they write is quite different from each other, and I think there is much less humour in Zola - there was a little in L'Oeuvre, but of a melancholic kind, and none at all in La Curee.

It is a fascinating comparison - we need Himadri to explore that further!  (He is in India for a couple of weeks, so we will have to wait!)
chris-l

I agree, Evie, they are very different writers. Zola, for instance (in my very limited experience)  doesn't have the grotesque characters who are so typical of Dickens. His method seems to be much more grounded in realism. But I think there are enough common elements to make the comparison worthwhile.

I do look forward to extending my knowledge of Zola's work: as you say, it is rewarding, if not always enjoyable in the most obvious sense. Moving and cathartic are terms that come to my mind, but I won't pontificate further until I have a firmer basis for any comments.
TheRejectAmidHair

Well, I may be in India, but I do have my iPad! I am typing this in a hotel room in Hyderabad. It's 6.40am local time: the flight landed a couple of hours ago, and I reckon if I try to ave a nap now, I won't be able to make it into the office. So I'm just killing a couple of hours, trying to keep awake...

Anyway, where were we? Zola and Dickens. They were very different writers, as you said. Zola depicted a far broader section of society than Dickens ever did. In Dickens, working class characters are always in supporting roles: they are never at the centre of the novel. And the one time he focussed on high society (the Veneerings' circle in Our Mutual Friend) he gave us an angry and vicious satire rather than a nuanced depiction.

Zola seems to me more obviously rooted in reality. Compare, for instance, Zola's depiction of the slums in L'Assommoir to Dickens' depiction of Tom All Alone's in Bleak House: Zola is precise, and depicts the physical details very clearly. In Dickens, on the other hand, there is hardly any physical detail at all: he uses instead a very flamboyant language, strewn with metaphor and with wild images, to give us a feel of the place. While Zola remains down to earth, Dickens' wild, untamed imagination seems to soar.

Zola could also be very sensual, as Evie says: that was never part of Dickens' armoury. And Zola enjoyed shocking his readers, often with an insistent focus on physical detail. But Dickens presented a more distorted and grotesque world, where physical detail is either not considered particularly important, or is distorted to suggest a sense of unreality. Zola's fictional world is far more solid.

You know what? I think I'll have that nap after all...
chris-l

Glad your trip has gone well so far, Himadri.

Yes, your points are pretty much seem to sum up what I wanted to say. My very limited knowledge of Zola's work means I am reluctant to generalise too much, since there is always the possibility that the little I have read is wildly untypical. I really must put that ignorance right soon. The more I read, the more I know I still need to read...

I hope you had a pleasant nap!
Apple

chris-l wrote:
Quote:
... Zola, for instance (in my very limited experience)  doesn't have the grotesque characters who are so typical of Dickens. His method seems to be much more grounded in realism. But I think there are enough common elements to make the comparison worthwhile.
My even more limited experience - I have only ever read Nana,(which I loathed) I would agree with that, everything is so realistic and shockingly so for its time (although not by todays standards) especially at the end when Nana gets her comeupance (when she dies and the death described in all its grisly detail) but then again on the other hand I thought Nana was a totally grotesque character, NOT a characture as such I think Zola just stopped short of that but she was over the top but in a different way, as I said in my review of the book back at the time, I just could not believe that she could have such an influence over the men she used, abused and discarded.

I also found your later comment
Quote:
The more I read, the more I know I still need to read...
interesting, as I say I loathed Nana with a passion, I did not get on with it at all, and normally when I get a book like that it will put me off that particular author, but I have heard so many good things about Germinal, and when I read up about it the description and write up appealed to me no end!
Mikeharvey

Hello Himadri,
Isn't the Internet marvellous? I was wondering how many weeks your message from Hyderabad would have taken to reach the UK in 1812.  
I'm jealous that you're in India.
Evie

Yes, Zola, in my experience of two novels, definitely more rooted in reality and also in the interior world of his characters.

He is also very sexually explicit - not something I have come across in any British 19C author, let alone just Dickens.

It is still a fascinating comparison, I think, as you can't help thinking of Dickens when you read Zola (well, I can't, anyway!), and yet their shared concern with the world around them - and their use of two capital cities so brilliantly as so much more than a backdrop - is conveyed in very different ways.  This ties in a bit with your question about social commentary, I think, Himadri - part of the greatness of both lies in their ability to convey social concern with great impact, and the impact comes from their literary abilities, albeit of a different nature in each writer.
Apple

Evie wrote:
Quote:
This ties in a bit with your question about social commentary, I think, Himadri - part of the greatness of both lies in their ability to convey social concern with great impact, and the impact comes from their literary abilities, albeit of a different nature in each writer.
Yes I think someone made this point on the other thread, I thought that as well when I read through it.
TheRejectAmidHair

Hello Evie,

I am completely jetlagged right now and may not be articulating my thoughts very well, but the point I think I am trying to get at is this:

- If an author addresses a specific social issue of his or her times; and if that social issue has now been resolved; then is the writer's social concern a contributory factor to the literary quality of the book?

And the follow-up question:

- If it is true that the addressing of a social issue cannot be regarded as a literary quality once that social issue is no more, was it ever a literary quality?

We should possibly pursue this in the other thread and leave this one for talking about Zola, but I don't think these are very straightforward questions, and, as chris-l said in that other thread, they require more thought.

I must admit I haven't quite got my head around these questions yet. I suspect that social criticism in itself is not a literary quality, but I can't quite articulate my thoughts on it. Which means, of course, that my thoughts on this matter aren't very clear as yet.
Apple

TheRejectAmidHair wrote:
Hello Evie,

I am completely jetlagged right now and may not be articulating my thoughts very well, but the point I think I am trying to get at is this:

- If an author addresses a specific social issue of his or her times; and if that social issue has now been resolved; then is the writer's social concern a contributory factor to the literary quality of the book?

And the follow-up question:

- If it is true that the addressing of a social issue cannot be regarded as a literary quality once that social issue is no more, was it ever a literary quality?

We should possibly pursue this in the other thread and leave this one for talking about Zola, but I don't think these are very straightforward questions, and, as chris-l said in that other thread, they require more thought.

I must admit I haven't quite got my head around these questions yet. I suspect that social criticism in itself is not a literary quality, but I can't quite articulate my thoughts on it. Which means, of course, that my thoughts on this matter aren't very clear as yet.
I know this response was aimed at Evie but I would like to say something on it - as I have participated in the other thread about this subject.

Firstly there are few social issues which are ever totally resolved completely, they are still there under the surface in different forms even centuries later, poverty, racial prejudice etc.

A lot of the issues Dickens tackled are still there in society today but in a modern form and possibly not so in your face and polarised as they were in Victorian Britain. So having said that I think the questions you are asking cannot be answered in the context you are asking them, I think that a writers social concern is a factor to the literary quality of a book because how he/she puts across those concerns to the reader makes all the difference. The follow up question cannot be answered because as I said the same social issues are still there albeit in different forms.
TheRejectAmidHair

To return to Zola:

It's always difficult to pick a favourite Zola novel, partly because the novels, though recognisably by the same author, are all very different from each other, with each offering it's own delights; and also partly because he maintained a consistently high standard. But for all that, I think I'd nominate L'Assommoir as my favourite, with Germinal, Nana and La Terre there or thereabouts. What a wonderful body of works to have left behind!
Apple

As you want to get this thread back to Zola and have therefore ignored the comment I posted in response to the questions you subsequently posted, I have taken the liberty of copying it to the social commentary thread where we can discuss it in further detail, and allow this one to return to the subject of Zola, apologies for my part in derailing this Zola thread, but I was just responding to the comments you previously posted.   Smile
TheRejectAmidHair

I see new translations of Zola novels continue to appear:

https://twitter.com/OWC_Oxford/status/215372549113118722/photo/1

This one is The Fortunes of the Rougons translated by Brian Nelson. I guess it won't be long now till all 20 novels of the Rougon-Maquart series will be available in modern translations. I suppose I should be catching up now on the ones I haven't yet read.
Gul Darr

There goes my plan for a change of career Wink

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