Wednesday, February 22, 2012

La Curée (The Kill) by Emile Zola

The world’s greatest author’s worst book
First of all, let me say that I love the work of Émile Zola. I have read all twenty novels in the Rougon-Macquart saga, and I have to say that in my opinion this is the worst book in the series. The plot revolves around a love triangle between Aristide Saccard (born Aristide Rougon), his second wife Renée, and his son Maxime by his previous marriage. The story takes place in Paris, as Saccard is undertaking a series of shady dealings to amass his fortune. I’ve always felt that Zola’s brand of Naturalism, with its hyper-realistic accumulation of sensory detail, works better when he’s dealing with the lower classes than with rich Parisians. In this book his observational thoroughness takes the form of long detailed descriptions of elegant dinner parties and lavishly furnished mansions. All this opulence goes to illustrate the pervasive greed and decadence of the times, but its still rather dull to read through. I imagine the love triangle itself had some shock value for readers of its time, but not so for today’s audience. It’s hard to take an active interest in any of the three main characters, since they are all so unlikeable. By unlikeable I don’t just mean that they’re morally reprehensible; they’re also not very interesting. Renée is prone to tedious histrionics. Maxime is an ineffectual bore. Saccard is by far the most interesting of the three, but Zola doesn’t give him as much ink as the other two. Zola develops the Saccard character much more fully in the far better novel entitled Money (L’Argent). French history enthusiasts will be interested in Saccard’s financial endeavors. At a time when Napoleon III and Baron Hausmann are tearing down neighborhoods to make way for grand boulevards, Saccard uses insider information and a knack for wheeling and dealing to profit from all the destruction. I think this novel should only be read by those completists who want to read the entire Rougon-Macquart cycle. For anyone else, there are so many other far-better Zola books (Germinal, The Earth, L’Assomoir, The Debacle, Pot-Bouille, to name a few); don’t waste your time on this one.

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