Monday, March 30, 2015

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.   

“LA CUREE” by Emile Zola (first published 1871-72; variously translated into English as The Spoils or The Kill)

Three times before on this blog I have given you accounts of novels in Emile Zola’s 20-volume series Les Rougon-Macquart [look up Emile Zola on the index at right and find my reviews of Le Ventre de Paris, La Conquete de Plassans and Son Excellence Eugene Rougon]. Three times I have told you of my long-term project to read all the Rougon-Macquart in the original French and how I am still only halfway through that project. So this time, as I deal with what may possibly be Zola’s most paradoxical novel, I will not repeat myself, nor will I give you my standard judgement on Zola as the purveyor of melodrama and an inadequate Naturalist philosophy, but nevertheless as a great descriptive writer and somebody who could keep a narrative moving. And I will try not to give you one of my notoriously overlong plot summaries.
This time, I’ll stick to the point.
First, the title of this second entry in the Rougon-Macquart series. La Curee means “quarry” in the sense of the quarry in a hunt – the animal that is slaughtered. Specifically, it refers to that part of the dead prey that is thrown to the hunting dogs. Understandably, therefore, the novel has never been translated into English with that title, as to most English-speakers the word “quarry” at once means the place where rocks and gravel are dug up. Instead it has been translated as The Spoils, in the sense of loot being shared out, or The Kill, in the sense of a “killing” on the stock exchange.
The novel has this title because it is set in Paris at the time in Napoleon III’s Second Empire (the 1850s) when the old city is being systematically torn down and rebuilt under the direction of Baron Haussmann. The city swarms with property speculators and investors hoping to make a “killing” in the process of buying up properties, demolishing buildings and then having them rebuilt for profitable sale.
Zola’s plot concerns one such fabulously wealthy speculator, Aristide Saccard (a member of the series’ Rougon family), who lives in palatial style in a Paris mansion with a huge hothouse attached. As we might expect in a Zola novel, he has made his fortune in a very devious way. He is fawned upon by people who wish to use his influence with corrupt government ministers. He has grandiose plans to redesign Paris. His wife Renee, who is about 30, is much younger than he is, and he has married her for her very large dowry, which is in fact one of the things that sustains his business career. She is the source of much of his investment capital. She is his second wife, and he has children by his first marriage. His son Maxime is in his early 20s.
Maxime lives with his father and his stepmother. Repeatedly described as feline and feminine in his manners, Maxime is nevertheless a rascal with women who once got a girl pregnant and had her discreetly sent away. Both father and son pleasure themselves with various women in fashionable brothels. But, partly because of her husband’s neglect, Renee falls into an incestuous relationship with her stepson, who is much nearer to her own age than her husband is. Renee sleeps repeatedly with Maxime. Zola attempts to make this both exotic and animalistic by describing to us in great detail the soft, luxurious settings of her bedroom and bathroom after they first slip into such a relationship and also by staging much of their liaison in the hothouse attached to Aristide’s mansion, where the imagery of wild jungle plants is presumably meant to function as a metaphor for hot jungle passions.
It all unravels in the last three of the novel’s seven very long chapters. Aristide’s business affairs go bung. Needing more of money from his wife, he suddenly becomes a solicitous and apparently loving husband to Renee. She, believing him to be sincere, rejoices that she has a real marriage at last and she breaks off her secret liaison with Maxime. Her conscience has already been pricked anyway, after she has been to the theatre with Maxime and seen a performance of Racine’s Phedre, with its tragic depiction of an incestuous relationship of stepmother and stepson. Maxime, meanwhile, willingly enters into a wealthy marriage.
Renee is psychologically tormented when (by various plot twists which I won’t bother recounting) she discovers how purely mercenary her husband’s interest in her is, and how easily Maxime has left her behind. In effect, she realizes that she has been used as a convenience by both father and son. The last straw is when her maid Celeste, whom she thought her faithful servant, leaves her and goes back to the country, saying that she only stayed around long enough to save the wages that she had always intended to save. She had no other motive for being there, and certainly not loyalty to her employer. Renee consoles herself by going to the Bois de Boulogne, driving in the places where she once drove with Maxime – but here she happens to overhear, unseen, Aristide and Maxime as they walk arm-in-arm and Aristide tries to convince Maxime to use the money he now has (through his marriage of convenience) in ways Aristide wants. The clear implication is that the incest (about which Aristide now knows) has not in any way lessened the relationship between father and son, and Aristide is less concerned with it than he is with making more money. Renee was always just a bargaining chip in this game. Perhaps she ultimately was the “quarry” – the tormented animal killed and thrown to the dogs after being hunted.
It is at this point that the emperor’s carriage drives through the Bois and he is applauded by the wealthy people there – Napoleon III being symbolically the focus of the skewed morality Zola is condemning. In the very final scene, Renee returns to her childhood home, filled with nostalgia for the simplicity of childhood and for what had seemed certain before she encountered the corruptions of Paris. The final paragraph tells us she died the following winter and her debts were paid off by her father.
Thus the raw plot (greatly simplified by me) of La Curee. I should add that, rubbing in the theme of a corrupt private morality, Zola includes a scene in which Renee’s sister-in-law Sidonie speaks of her in such adoring terms that a lesbian attraction seems implied. Sidonie later attempts to persuade Renee to take a wealthy lover to cover her husband’s debts. At another point, Renee’s maid Celeste hints that the apparently haughty footman Baptiste was having a homosexual affair with Maxime during the time of Maxime’s affair with Renee. At all times, sex is simply a diversion or a means of controlling others in the households of these arriviste capitalist venturers.
As always in Zola, many of the most impressive moments are not plot-developing activity, but descriptive set-pieces often of heavily-symbolic intent. In the sixth chapter, Zola presents a ball and entertainment at Aristide Saccard’s mansion. Renee and Maxime appear in a series of tableaux vivants, with fashionable women supporting them, as Narcissus (Maxime) and Echo (Renee), with the feminine passivity of the self-loving Maxime emphasised in his costumes and make-up. In the seventh and final chapter, there’s a scene where Aristide is walking through the streets of Paris with members of an official commission charged with working out compensation payments to people whose homes have been demolished in the city’s restructuring. There is an elegiac tone as they view the shells of demolished houses, their open walls, the bits of what were once either mansions or lowlier dwellings, with one member of the commission looking nostalgically for his own old home and with all of them stopping for quite some time in what was once a palace where grand parties were held. Symbolically, the new merchant speculators are now in a position to usurp the old nobility.
Now why, after giving you all this data, do I say this may be “possibly Zola’s most paradoxical novel”?
Zola’s targets and social perspective are fairly obvious. He detests the pushy bourgeois speculators who have made money out of demolishing and rebuilding Paris in the Second Empire. They are crass and vulgar people, whose marriages and personal relationships are sham because they are built solely on the profit motive. The flashiness and vacuity of their wealth is on display in the parties and balls that Zola describes in such detail – the gossip, the gorging of food etc. The purpose of attaching this to a reworking of the Phedre story (incest of stepmother with stepson) is again obvious enough. Personal relations are skewed in a false morality that worships money before all else. People are corrupted. The additional details on brothels, extra-marital affairs and homosexuality seem intended to emphasise the point. Yet, as so often in Zola, it is hard to see what, if anything, the author himself is affirming. If only because we get more internal analysis of her than of the other characters, Renee is the most sympathetic character in the novel. But she never develops as anything more than a victim with a longing for childhood simplicity. Zola’s symbolism (Phedre; the masque of Echo and Narcissus; the jungle atmosphere of the hothouse plants; Aristide Saccard re-designing the city in his mind from the viewpoint of Montmartre; the two appearances of Napoleon III) is heavy-handed to say the least.
The big paradox in all this is Zola’s inadvertent self-revelation. As more than one commentator has noted, his account of pushy capitalist enterprise is in fact half-admiring. They are bourgeois arrivistes, they are morally corrupt, they destroy things – but look how lovingly Zola lingers on their ambitious plans. Look how much he suggests their forcefulness and the fact that they alone, surrounded by faded gentryfolk and minor aristocrats, actually have ambition and know what they are doing. Look, in effect, how they are changing the world while others are stagnating.
A few quotations to close, simply because they amuse me.
Here, from Chapter One (and with my word processor not allowing me to insert accents) is Zola’s overheated description of the hothouse, to which he will return later in the novel when the incestuous couple bonk there:
            “Mais ce qui, de tous les detours des allees, frappait les regards, c’etait un grand Hibiscus de la Chine, dont l’immense nappe de verdure et de fleurs couvrait tout le flanc de l’hotel, auquel la serre etait scellee. Les larges fleurs pourpres de cette mauve gigantesque, sans cesse renaissantes, ne vivent que quelques heures. On eut dit des bouches sensuelles de femme qui s’ouvraient, les levres rouges, molles at humides, de quelque Messaline geante, que des baisers meurtrissaient, et qui toujours renaissaient avec leur sourire avide et saignant.”
Here is Aristide’s grandiose ambition, as he stands on Montmartre in Chapter Three, telling his first wife how he means to transform Paris:
Son cerveau bouillait. Il eut proposer sans rire de metre Paris sous une immense cloche, pour le changer en serre chaude, et y cultiver les ananas et la canne a sucre.”
And here, from Chapter Five, is Renee, considering her incestuous behaviour as if it is simply a fashion statement for superior people:
 “Alors, l’incestueuse s’habituait a sa faute, comme a une robe de gala, dont les roideurs l’auraient d’abord genee. Elle suivait les modes de l’epoque, elle s’habillait et se deshabillait a l’exemple des autres. Elle finissait par croire qu’elle vivait au milieu d’un monde superieure a la morale commune, ou les sens s’affinaient et se developpaient, ou il etait permis de se metre nue pour la joie de l’Olympe entire. Le mal devenait un luxe, une fleur piquee dans les cheveux, un diamant attaché sur le front.”
Just thought this would amuse you.

Fatuous Footnote: To the best of my knowledge, La Curee has only once been turned into a film (apart from an ancient film of the silent era, now lost). This was the version made in 1966 by Roger Vadim, purveyor of soft porn to habitués of art houses. Known in its English-language release as The Game is Over, Vadim’s La Curee updated Zola’s story to the (1960s) present, and thus deleted all the social commentary that was Zola’s focus when he created the story in the first place. It starred Vadim’s then-wife the young Jane Fonda, who was at the time an aspiring commercial sex-symbol and had not yet developed into the Hollywood activist for fashionable causes and (later) the physical fitness freak. Much of it consisted of Fonda as Renee, in semi-nude poses (daring for 1966) circling around Peter McEnery (as Maxime), with Michel Piccoli (as Aristide) making noises off. In short, it was arty sensationalism, exploiting the incest theme. Hunt it out if you want, but don’t expect to find Zola there. And don’t say you haven’t been warned.

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