- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 13, 2004

Hats off to Modern Library that has begun issuing new editions of great works from earlier ages. Earlier this year it brought out Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” which popped to the top of the bestseller list for a time. Now the publishers have selected “The Kill,” a novel by Emile Zola not translated for more than a century. The new translation by Arthur Goldhammer is sparkling, catching all the verve and fast pacing of the tale Zola set in the Second Empire (1852-1870).

The novel was banned when first published in 1871. French authorities may have felt Zola was coming much too close to the bone in his vivid recounting of that corrupt society that witnessed the growth of modern Paris with Baron Haussmann tearing down whole neighborhoods and cutting grand new avenues through the city. The Second Empire was a time of fast fortunes, cynical power grabs, and easy mores.

“The Kill” was the second of 20 novels devoted to the fortunes of the Rougan-Macquart family during a large portion of 19th century France. The title in French is “La Curee,” [accent on first ‘e’] whose literal meaning is the quarry — the entrails of game given to the hounds at the end of a hunt. A 1965 French movie of the novel directed by Roger Vadim starring his then wife Jane Fonda was released in the States under the title of “The Game Is Over.”

The story focuses on the rise of Aristide Saccard, who thanks to an older brother already moving up in government circles, becomes an immensely wealthy entrepreneur/financier whose fortune is built on shaky ground. Whole neighborhoods are torn up through his efforts, giving way to the splendid avenues that grace Paris today. Saccard concocts any number of deals to acquire properties, then re-sells them to the government.

While admirably re-creating this hot-bed of corruption and adventurism, Zola chooses to concentrate on Saccard’s lovely young wife Renee, a woman thoroughly bored with being the reigning hostess of the day who undertakes a love affair with her stepson, Maxime, a handsome androgynous youth ten years her junior.

The novel opens with a wonderful scene of Renee and Maxime, a bearskin rug over their laps driving in their caleche through the Bois de Boulogne at dusk in October, commenting on the other folk in their carriages. Zola was always a diligent researcher. Many of his novels read like reportage. The opening scene in the Bois is one such, apparently taken almost straight from a newspaper account of one such procession of carriages through that park, with only the names changed.

As they roll along, Renee complains to Maxime how bored she is. He retorts, “You spend more than a hundred thousand francs a year on your wardrobe, you live in a splendid house, you have the finest horses, your every whim is received as holy writ, and the newspapers discuss each of your gowns as if dealing with an event of the utmost gravity. Women are jealous of you, and men would give ten years of their lives to kiss the tips of your fingers?Come right out and admit that you’re one of the pillars of the Second Empire.” He concludes, “But good God, you have everything, what more do you want?”

Renee raises her head, her eyes aglow with unslaked curiosity. “‘I want something different,’” she muttered.” Zola tracks the ill-fated love affair, follows Saccard through near bankruptcy to additional millions, describing in one of the major scenes of the novel a grand evening party he holds for all the beautiful people and nouveaux riches of Paris. It’s a party that in its own way rather foreshadows the more recent grand excess of Tyco CEO Dennis Kozlowski’s notorious birthday party for his wife.

All of Zola’s descriptions are remarkably vivid and rendered admirably by translator Goldhammer. Consider Saccard describing the future of Paris where he will make his fortune to his first wife in a restaurant on the Buttes de Montmartre overlooking the capital: “The haze on the horizon had just begun to roll in from the heights, and in her imagination she heard distant cracking sounds from the darkening vales below, as if her husband’s hand really were making the cuts he was describing, slicing Paris up from one end to the other, smashing beams, crushing masonry, and leaving behind long and hideous wounds where walls had collapsed.

“‘There will be a third network,’ Saccard continued after an interval of silence, as if talking to himself. ‘That one is still too far in the future. I can’t envision it very clearly. I’ve picked up a few clues to where it will go. But it will be sheer madness, millions changing hands at a breakneck pace, Paris drunk and reeling.’”

In its own brilliant, pitiless way, Zola’s novel evokes our own age in its quest for glitter and success. Zola doesn’t moralize over the fate of the beautiful Renee Saccard who loved so unwisely although his last sentence is a thoroughly chilling comment on her life and the world in which she lived.

Readers unacquainted with Zola’s writing can benefit from the excellent analysis of “The Kill,” relating him to his place in literature by translator Arthur Goldhammer.

Cynthia Grenier writes The Mag Trade column for The Washington Times.

“The Lost Word” appears on the second Sunday of each month. In it, distinguished commentators remind us of interesting but often forgotten writers and books from years past.

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