Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Kill by Emile Zola; and a painting by Edouard Manet


This weekend, while on a flight to our nation's capital, I finally finished my seventh book by Zola: The Kill, the second of his Rougon-Macquart series.  I have to admit, I was a bit disappointed in this book.  The last three novels I read by Zola were so well crafted and such great stories that I expected this to be just brilliant.

Here's the setup.  This is the story of a really unpleasant couple, Aristide and Renee Saccard, during the French Second Empire.  Aristide is in his fifties and is a frenetic, scheming financial speculator who is making money hand over fist by buying Parisian properties and selling them to shell companies.  He has all kinds of shady government connections and gets these properties to be massively overvalued; then, he cheats the government out of millions of francs by selling the properties to the government, because they're going to be knocked down in a frenzy of urban renewal.  (The government is about to tear down tons of old buildings to put up new ones and create the current grid layout of Paris with the wide avenues, etc.)  Of course, he's also living on the edge because he's constantly on the verge of financial collapse.

Aristide's wife, Renee, is twenty years his junior, and after the untimely death of his first wife, he married her upon the advice of his shrewd sister.  Renee was a young woman of good family who is in a fix, so to speak, so her father marries her to nasty Aristide with a huge dowry to save the family's reputation.  Aristide takes her money to start his career as a financial speculator.  Ten years later, she's shallow and bored, and things take a turn for the dangerous when she decides to take a new lover -- her handsome stepson who's only seven or eight years her junior.

Basically, the story is a whirlwind of parties, greed, and incest, and if you've read anything by Zola, you know how things are going to turn out.   It was an interesting story, and like most of his other books, the characters aren't particularly sympathetic, and their behavior is pretty shocking.  Last year I read three novels by Zola in pretty quick succession (Germinal, #13 in the series; Pot-Bouille (Pot-Luck); #10, and La Bete Humaine, #17).  It was pretty obvious that The Kill is a much earlier work.  I really found the plots and character development much better in the later books, and although the satire and political commentary is present in all of them, I thought it was much more masterfully done in the later works.  Zola kind of beats you over the head with it in The Kill.

Also, there are frequently awful characters in all the books, but in the later novels, the stories are so well crafted that I couldn't stop reading them.  In The Kill I just found them to be wretched people living to excess and not nearly as well developed as the later books.  It's still an interesting book, but it just made me want to read more of the later stuff.  (By the way, #3, The Belly of Paris, was my first Zola, and I liked it, but I think the best bits were the food writing.  It was a good choice for a first Zola since I wasn't able to start with #1, The Fortunes of the Rougons; a new translations by Oxford World's Classics will be published in August.)

And now for the Manet connection.  As I mentioned, I finished this book on a flight to Washington -- it was the end of Spring Break so I got to spend a couple of days with family in Maryland.  Yesterday, we decide to visit the National Gallery, and as I was passing through the French Impressionist rooms, I stumbled upon a group with a docent who was discussing this picture by Edouard Manet:

The Old Musician, 1862
Edouard Manet
It was painted by Manet during exactly the same period that Zola was writing about!  Apparently, it was controversial because it's a great big picture, about 6'x8', and it's not just a great painting, it's a social commentary.  At this time, the subjects of enormous artworks like this were always classical or Biblical.  These people are homeless and in the country, which would have been a shocking subject for that time period.  The girl on the left is probably an unwed mother, plus we have two street urchins, and the man on the right in the top hat is called the absinthe drinker because he's in another picture by Manet with that name, so we know he's probably an alcoholic.

Portrait of Emile Zola, 1868
Edouard Manet
Basically, all these people are homeless and in the country because of . . . . urban renewal during the Second Empire!!  So here is Manet painting a picture and making social commentary about the very same subject as Zola!  I mentioned Zola's book to the docent and she was familiar with it.  She also reminded me that Zola was friends with some of the Impressionists, including Manet, who painted Zola's portrait in 1868; and Cezanne, his childhood friend, who is the subject of Rougon-Macquart #14, The Masterpiece.   So there you have it, literature and art colliding.  My visit to the National Gallery was absolutely serendipitous and I think now The Masterpiece will be the next Zola on my to-read list.

11 comments:

  1. What an amazing coincidence, to come across that painting! I love that kind of connection between novels and real life (or history).

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    1. I would have kept right on walking if it hadn't been for the docent (and the comfortable couch right in front of it. It was really interesting -- she also talked about the influence of photography on art and the impressionists. I've always loved art history, I love how it reflects culture. I really need to read more about 19th century France to get more out of Zola.

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  2. That's really cool that you were able to experience both of those things at the same time! That's the only novel by Zola I've read and while I loved the descriptions of the gorgeous clothes, I did find it too dark. I also love Manet's paintings.

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    1. I'd completely forgotten about Manet's portrait of Zola, and I actually posted it on my blog when I wrote about Zola the first time. The Kill was okay but I think if you read more you'll find the others are even better. The Belly of Paris has amazing descriptions of food if you like that sort of thing.

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  3. We should read The Masterpiece together! I have that one! It would have to be after I'm back, of course. :)

    I'm sorry to hear The Kill wasn't as good. I think rather than it being early books versus later - remember how wonderful Therese Raquin was? - I think he just has on moments and off moments.

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  4. It wasn't bad, I just didn't think it was as good as the rest. A lot of it was descriptions of houses and parties and clothes. He did a lot of telling and not showing -- there wasn't much dialogue. I think he was trying to describe the excesses of the period and the frenzy that these people were caught up in. I hope the first book will be better.

    I would love to read The Masterpiece together! I also have The Ladies' Paradise, Nana, L'Assommoir, and La Terre. Any of these would be great also if you want to read them.

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    1. I also have The Ladies' Paradise. I'll let you know after I get back, and probably after the Fire and Hemlock readalong (assuming I can get my hands on a copy of that one in time).

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  5. Don't you just love it when art and life mingle? I like studying all about certain periods of history; what was being painted, written, composed, and lived. You can tell what the worldview is of a certain period by the art they produced. So interesting!

    I've never read Zola but intend to. I remember seeing him portrayed in a mini series on the Impressionists. He 'hung out' with them and was part of their group. I remember him arguing with some artist but can't remember just who. Degas, maybe?

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    1. I agree, I love how art and culture collide like that. One of my favorite classes in college was The Renaissance, which was team taught by a lit professor and an art history professor. It helps so much to understand history also when you read the books of the time and study the art.

      I've only seen the portrait of Zola by Manet but I'll have to look for more. I do want to read his biography someday, his life sounds fascinating. You might be thinking of Cezanne. They were childhood friends and Zola's book The Masterpiece was based on his life. Cezanne was so angry about the book he never spoke to Zola after that. Of course he could have infuriated a lot of artists, so Degas might have been mad at him as well!

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  6. "La curée" et "L'assommoir" sont les deux livres de Zola que j'aime le moins. Ils me sont tombés littéralement des mains.

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  7. I haven't read L'assommoir yet, but I hope to finish it soon. I've heard it's one of Zola's best works.

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