Home > 19th Century, Classics, French Literature, History of France, Zola Emile > Hunting high and low for money, pleasure or power

Hunting high and low for money, pleasure or power

La Curée by Emile Zola 1872   English title: The Kill

La Curée is our Book Club’s choice for March. It is the second volume of the Rougon Macquart cycle. Zola’s aim was to draw the ups and downs of a French extended family during the Second Empire. (1852-1870). In this volume, Eugène Rougon is a rising politician when his brother Aristide moves to Paris to become rich. Eugène manages to have him hired at the Hôtel de Ville, which means he’s a civil servant for the city of Paris. Aristide starts a new life then and changes his surname for Saccard.

Eugène and Aristide also have a sister, Sidonie, a spinster who runs an apparently honest shop, as a façade for her more shady business; she lives upon discreet services to rich persons who confide in her and rely on her for some of their dirty dealings. Knowing many secrets, she manages to marry Aristide to Renée, the pregnant daughter of a respectable and rich bourgeois. Aristide has been on the lookout for a juicy opportunity to launch a business. When he marries Renée, he has just discovered he could make a fortune on speculating on the houses and lands the Hôtel de Ville will have to buy out to current owners to change Paris according to the Baron Haussmann’s plans.

It works. Saccard is now awfully rich and lives as a parvenu. René, who had a miscarriage, launches herself into a life of pleasure made of soirees, gowns, jewelry and lovers. She befriends with Maxime, Saccard’s son from his first marriage. They are close comrades, sharing their love lives, hanging out together like too young men and they have no secrets for each other. One night, they have sex, putting an end to their friendship. And while Maxime sees it as an agreeable fling, Renée is more and more involved emotionally.

The title of the book, La Curée, refers to the moment when dogs kill the animal they are hunting. The hunt is the underlying theme of the novel.

The hunt is in Saccard chasing money, cornering people to have them into his schemes. He noses out Paris when he arrives, in an attempt to smell a source of wealth. He is on the watch for any opportunity at the Hôtel de Ville, hidden, waiting for the right moment to catch hold of his chance for wealth. Nothing can stop him once he has smelled money. He’s alternatively the hunter and the fox. He hunts down people when he needs them; his creditors can hunt him down any time his risky financial schemes fail. The master of the hunt is Eugène, who holds the whistle and can socially kill Saccard at the first faux pas or whenever he wants to end the game.

The hunt is in Renée, relentlessly pursuing pleasure. She too has two roles, the hunter and the bait. Maxime is her prey, she doesn’t hesitate to corner him. Saccard uses her as bait in his hunt for money. He takes advantage of her stunning beauty and of her social skills to attract people in his salons and push forward his business deals. Renée is a great character, abandoning herself to her senses, surrendering to her carnal desires, behaving on instinct.

The hunt is in Madame Sidonie, chasing after comprising information and useful secrets. Confidences are her weapon; she can be unleashed on someone on demand.

The hunt is also in the society. It’s the portrait of a time when the politicians, the nouveaux riches are sent like hounds on the old Paris, tearing it down, putting it to pieces, selling it to the wolves. It’s a strong criticism of the Second Empire. I’m not saying that Zola is inaccurate but the reader must remember that he was a fierce republican; that he wrote under another regime which loathed the previous one. I was interested in Saccard’s shady dealings, the mechanism used to increase the values of the properties bought back by the city to cut what we now know as the Grands Boulevards. I also thought about Les Liaisons Dangereuses. All this sex, this debauchery, the alliance between Maxime and Renée, like Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil. It has a whiff of decadence and all oozes vulgarity, which can be heard in the protagonists’ name, Saccard. In French, the suffix “ard” (pronounce “ar”) is negative, underlying vulgarity.

I’d forgotten how descriptive Zola’s prose is and I thought it lacked dialogues sometimes. He talks to all our senses, describing the lights, the scents, the air, the fabrics, the sounds. I saw languid paintings by Manet or Ingres. The vivid descriptions of the atmosphere match with the characters’ feelings, especially Renée’s. The episode of the promenade in the Bois de Boulogne is a masterpiece. Renée is the only one who really questions her life, touches its limits. She suffers from ennui, knows her life is shallow. She’s a remarkable feminine character, as fascinating as Nana, far more interesting than Madame Bovary. If you still hesitate about reading La Curée, I recommend that you read Guy’s excellent review here. Like him, I wonder why this heroin isn’t more famous; she has everything to be a great literary character. Is it because the sex is rather explicit? Did that prevent to book from reaching high school classes?

  1. obooki
    March 29, 2012 at 2:22 am

    The Kill is definitely one of my favourite Zolas. Sometimes his descriptions get a bit much though: the one I’m reading at the moment, La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret, has endless descriptions of flower arrangements. This is more frustrating than usual, since I don’t know much about flowers, so I can’t picture at all what delights it is he’s trying to describe.


    • March 29, 2012 at 11:13 pm

      Perhaps Zola had a real interest in flowers.
      In The Kill, the description of the winter garden are beautiful and really precise. I could picture it very well. It may also come from the image I have of the winter garden in the Musée Jacquemart André or in the Musée Lumière, which are both settled in former hôtels particuliers. (town houses)


  2. March 29, 2012 at 2:33 am

    I think Madame Bovary is a tremendous novel, but I don’t understand why The Kill didn’t appear instead of Madame Bovary in university courses somewhere… I can see why perhaps it’s not picked in high school but in university it should have an honoured place as it’s a tremendous novel. Plus everyone talks about Therese Raquin but I think the Kill is a far superior novel. Just don’t get it. One novel seems to be selected for the canon and then that becomes the prevailing opinion and the prevailing novel.

    As for Abbe’s Mouret’s Transgression, it wasn’t one of my favourites–although I did get the idea of an Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden and all those lush flower scenes helped.


    • March 29, 2012 at 11:21 pm

      It’s strange that it’s not more famous, I agree. It’s better than La Dame aux camélias, for example. I suppose it sounds more immoral (greed, incest, homosexuality, infidelity without love and just for sex,…)
      The marriage between Saccard and René is a business arrangement. It’s all so cynic. I suppose great heroins must either be silly or madly in love to be in popular canons. Or perhaps school programs have more influence than we think on building canons.

      I remember I loved Thérèse Raquin when I read it. Stunning, but I don’t remember much about it. I don’t know if I’d respond the same way now, I read this in high school.


  3. March 29, 2012 at 7:42 am

    I agree with all te comments. Thérèse Raquin is by far one of the most accessible 19th century books, almost like a crime novel. I guess that’s part of it. It’s a good book though but his other novels are denser, I think. I’m not very familiar with him.
    This is a book I would like to read but I have some of his other novels and will read those first. (Le Ventre de Paris, L’assommoir, Nana).
    I got the impression it was far more about the transformation of Paris.
    I like the Caillebotte cover. More than the French one.
    Thanks what winds me up when I see all these Classics Club lists – the only two French novels on them are Mme Bovary and Thérèse Raquin.


    • March 29, 2012 at 11:29 pm

      In my opinion, La Curée is far better than Le Ventre de Paris. Nana is great.
      I haven’t read L’Assommoir yet, but typing some passages made me literally queasy, I’m a bit worried about my response to it.

      I like the Caillebotte cover too. Strangely, I thought about his paintings when I read a particular scene in the book when Renée observes the streets in Paris at night from a balcony.


  4. March 29, 2012 at 7:43 am

    Thanks meant That’s


  5. March 29, 2012 at 4:43 pm

    Thank you for this – just what I needed to propel me back into Germinal, which I began a while back and then laid aside (nothing wrong with it, just other reviews to write). I really like Zola, even though he can be bleak and depressing. When he shows his characters going after the things they want, he is masterful. And he’s brilliant at creating the showpiece scenes. I’ll never forget the opening of Nana, with her appearing naked on the stage. I haven’t read La Curee, but I see I do have a copy of it. I will have to get to it one of these fine days!


    • March 29, 2012 at 11:33 pm

      Well, the ending of Nana was rather striking too, wasn’t it?

      Germinal is fanstastic, just don’t watch the film version with Depardieu and Renaud, it’s not worth it.


  6. March 29, 2012 at 8:38 pm

    Emma: You have to read Money (L’Argent) to read the further adventures of Aristide and his son appears too.
    Caroline: Yes the transformation of Paris is in the book, but it’s the backdrop rather than the main plot.

    I have an old film version of Nana that I’ll have to dig out.


    • March 29, 2012 at 11:31 pm

      I think I’ve never read a 19thC British classic with demimondaines characters. Do you know one? Books with characters like Valérie in La Cousine Bette or Laure in this one or even Odette in Proust. Do you know one?

      I want to read L’Argent (I’m glad to know Aristide will be back) and La Débâcle.


  7. March 29, 2012 at 11:52 pm

    After the Book Club meeting.

    The club was unanimous: great novel, lots of beautiful descriptions and the same lingering question: WHY IS THIS BOOK SO LITTLE KNOWN ? Why didn’t it reach the same fame as Nana or L’Assommoir?

    We thought the themes were very scandalous for the time (incest, explicit sex in the winter garden…)

    As French persons, we were all really interested in the transformation of Paris. As Guy said above, it’s in the background, but it’s still there and present. We took the work of the Baron Haussmann as granted but never gave a second thought to HOW all this miraculous transformation was done. We never realized that fortunes were built on that opportunity.

    La Curée is interesting for the business climate. Aristide is so full of energy, wanted to be someone, do something with himself, be successful. He exudes confidence, he’s not afraid.
    It was interesting to read about new businesses, a lot of new industries started in the 19thC, after the Revolution changed the rules. He has so much energy and the society, after this change in the regime, wanted to invest in business, in pleasure. They throw themselves in a new life.

    We had all read Zola in our teens and not much since. Our response to La Curée is very different because we are older and know more about literature, economy and politics. We understood the full force of the tricks Aristide plays to be rich and how unethical it was.


  8. March 30, 2012 at 5:07 am

    You would have convinced me to put this book on my list, if it were not already on my list.

    I do not want to say that there were no 19th century British novels with demi-mondaine characters – there are so many 19th century British novels – but there cannot be many. The publisher would have been prosecuted for obscenity.

    We all remember Guy’s outstanding piece on this subject, on the travails of Zola’s English publisher.


    • March 30, 2012 at 7:36 am

      Yep, V-Lit can be tame when you see what was offered on the continent at the time. My one criticism of the Victorians would be that there are just too many nice books with happy endings. Ridiculous 😉

      Consider this another one of my periodic ‘must-read-more-insert-famous-French-writer’s-name comments’ (I’ve only read ‘Germinal’, a long, long time ago…)


      • March 30, 2012 at 8:01 pm

        Ridiculous but consistent with the idea of a feminine readership who needed to stay away from reality. (or even be protected from reality.) I like these books anyway.

        Your must-read-French books pile is probably as high as the Eiffel Tower by now. 😉


    • March 30, 2012 at 7:57 pm

      I’ll be interested to read your response to it.

      Of course, there must be a British 19thC novel with demi-mondaine characters but it’s not as common as in French literature.

      Yes, I remembered Guy’s piece, that’s when I got almost sick just by typing Zola’s text about vomit.


  9. March 30, 2012 at 8:58 pm

    I read your review with a sense of real excitement. It sounds such an arresting novel. The fact you reference Liaisons is just the icing on the cake. This sounds tremendous.

    It does sound remarkable it’s not better known. Therese Raquin certainly has much going for it, but it’s basically a gothic novel with some fairly uneven pacing. The Korean vampire movie Thirst is based closely on Raquin and the problems with the film are all essentially problems in the novel.

    Guy, do you have a view on translations of this one?


    • March 30, 2012 at 9:24 pm

      Poor Zola, I’m glad he doesn’t know his novel was turned into a vampire movie.

      I think you’d enjoy it and I’d be very happy to read your review, to see what you get from it. Guy didn’t write anything about this 18thC feeling, I’m curious to discover if someone else sees it.


  10. March 30, 2012 at 9:00 pm

    Scratch that last question, there’s a Brian Nelson translation and Guy spoke highly of him in his piece on translating Zola. I’ll get that.


  11. March 30, 2012 at 9:25 pm

    By a very well regarded Korean director. It’s not utter schlock. It’s not the director’s best idea though either I admit.

    I should probably read Fortune first. I note there’s a Brian Nelson translation of that coming out in August this year.


    • March 30, 2012 at 9:28 pm

      One of my friends from the Book Club read La Fortune des Rougons before. She thought it was very good, with a clever construction. She also found very interesting the description of the shift from one regime to the other.
      She & I are very like-minded, you’ll probably like it too. Anyway, there’s a review on Guy’s blog, I presume.


  12. May 22, 2012 at 9:15 pm

    Fascinating reviews about The Kill at Wuthering expectations :

    Its literary and scientific aspects

    Zola’s metaphors, hunt, fire, gold and flesh


  1. July 11, 2012 at 4:36 pm
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  3. December 27, 2012 at 12:18 am
  4. May 5, 2013 at 11:38 pm
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