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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Kill

Emile Zola

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To purchase The Kill

Title: The Kill
Author: Emile Zola
Genre: Novel
Written: 1871 (Eng. 2004)
Length: 305 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Kill - US
The Kill (OUP ed.) - US
The Kill - UK
The Kill (OUP ed.) - UK
The Kill - Canada
The Kill (OUP ed.) - Canada
La curée - Canada
La curée - France
Die Beute - Deutschland
La jauría - España
  • French title: La curée
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Arthur Goldhammer
  • Also available in the Oxford World's Classics-series in a translation by Brian Nelson (2005)
  • The second volume in the Rougon-Macquart series
  • Twice previously translated into English, as The Rush for the Spoils (undated, no translator named, but with an introduction by George Moore), and as The Kill (1895, translated by A. Teixeira de Mattos)

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Our Assessment:

A- : speculative and decadent excess in the Second Empire, effectively laid bare

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
TLS . 11/3/2005 Anthony Cummins
The Washington Times A 14/11/2004 Cynthia Grenier

  From the Reviews:
  • "Brian Nelson's tidy translation avoids Teixeira de Mattos's occasional awkwardness. (...) His lean prose suits Zola well. " - Anthony Cummins, Times Literary Supplement

  • "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." - Cynthia Grenier, The Washington Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Kill is a novel of a city being reinvented, and an unsettled society in rapidly changing times. It is a novel of excess and of scheming, with people as means to ends and personal relationships centred solely on personal satisfaction: what have you done for me lately -- or, possibly: what can you do to me tomorrow -- the deciding factor even among friends, family, and lovers.
       The setting is the French Second Empire (1852-1870). Paris is being rebuilt, and there is a construction boom. Many houses are also being torn down, to make way for the new thoroughfares and building projects, the government reimbursing the owners for their losses -- a system ripe for abuse, as speculators purchase property they know will be claimed, and then make inflated demands for compensation.
       One such opportunist is Aristide Saccard, described as coming to the French capital soon after the coup d'etat of 1851:

Aristide Saccard swooped down on Paris immediately after the Second of December with the keen instincts of a bird of prey capable of smelling a battlefield from a long way off.
       His brother, Eugène Rougon, is already a powerful politician, but initially that seems of little help to Aristide. In this new world everyone can re-invent himself, and Eugène suggests that Aristide does so by changing his name (hence he becomes a Saccard, rather than remaining a Rougon). The post his brother arranges for him -- an assistant surveyor -- initially seems disappointing, but Aristide soon realises that it's a solid springboard for him to embark on an entrepreneurial career of his own. He collects information and cultivates friendships and soon has everything he needs except a stake (i.e. money) to get him going.
       When Aristide comes to Paris he has a wife and two children, a son and a daughter. The boy, Maxime, remains at school in the provinces, but wife and daughter accompany Aristide -- though he is more focussed on getting ahead then anything else. If it wasn't clear immediately what kind of man he is, confirmation certainly comes at his wife's deathbed, when he agrees to marry a young woman he has never seen who has gotten herself in a bit of a trouble and whose family is willing to pay a hundred thousand francs to avoid scandal. The woman, just nineteen at the time, is Renée, entirely too carefree and careless for her father. Aristide, on the other hand, couldn't care less: his wife brings money -- and, usefully, she also has some of her own, which he is sure he can swindle from her one way or another eventually.
       A few years after the marriage, Maxime comes to live with his father and step-mother. Still thirteen -- and she just twenty-one -- he is an effeminate little charmer. "He had vices before he had desires", and he's well-matched with Renée, a brother (or, almost, sister) to her, an intimate confidante with whom she can joke about the unreal Paris high society world she plays around in.
       The book actually opens with what must eventually happen, but it the goes back and traces the slow evolution in the relationships before allowing it to explode fully: eventually, however, Renée and Maxime become lovers. Among the many very good scenes is the one in which they finally come together -- remarkable in its build up, and then even more so in its consummation, as the actual sexual act (which would surely be the drawn-out centrepiece of such a section in any contemporary fiction) is entirely passed over. These are extremely shallow characters. One of the main reason Renée pounces is because Maxime is being pushed towards a marriage with Louise, who represents pretty much everything Renée can't stand: "Misshapen, ugly, and adorable, she was doomed to die young." Her greatest asset: a dowry of a million francs -- but though Renée spends money like there's no tomorrow, she doesn't really concern herself with it, or understand what must be done to get it. Father Aristide, in contrast, only cares about money, and doesn't care about the (human) cost of getting it, so he is thrilled about pairing Maxime with Louise.
       Zola describes the affair between Renée and Maxime in considerable detail. It's not a one time thing: Renée is thrilled with her new boy-toy, with that element of doubly forbidden love (adultery and incest, all wrapped up into one) being especially appealing to her. Maxime is glad to go along for the ride -- "Having once rolled in her sheets, he stayed because it was warm and because it was typical of him to abandon himself whenever he fell into a hole" -- and doesn't concern himself much with the consequences.
       Aristide expects Renée to have lovers (though presumably he would have preferred her to make a wiser choice in paramours); his own concern is entirely with money. Typically, he pretends to have a mistress (rather than actually troubling himself with having one), because he can thus create a situation in which he stands to gain financially. (His single-minded machinations, lovingly detailed by Zola, are among the book's most entertaining aspects.)
       Aristide uses Renée -- her standing in society, her showing off precious jewels, apparently all reflect well on him, and give the appearance of his being more credit-worthy than he actually is. He is representative of the new Paris -- gaudy show and rapid change, but all built on frail foundations:
Like Paris itself, he had enjoyed a rapid transformation, a time of feverish pleasure and blind expenditure. And like the city he now found himself faced with a formidable deficit, which had to be paid off in secret, for he would not hear of sobriety, economy, and a calm, bourgeois existence. He preferred to hold onto the pointless luxury and actual misery of the boulevards from which he drew each morning the colossal fortune that he consumed by night. As he moved from adventure to adventure, all that he had left was the gilded façade without the capital to back it up.
       Both Aristide and Renée hurtle recklessly (and needlessly) down near-suicidal paths. In Zola's dark morality-play he reflects cold reality rather than lofty ideals, at least in which of his characters pay for their sins, and which don't. Of the connected couples -- Aristide and Renée, Maxime and his intended, Louise -- two individuals survive, and two don't. And Zola won't let the reader forget that the god of the times is Mammon, who easily prevails over such trifles as the human heart.
       The outcome is devastating, and yet The Kill is not entirely a cynical novel. Zola shows little affection for any of his characters, but he does have some sympathy for them. Renée and Maxime are different sorts of shallow fools, yet Zola understands and accepts their weak characters. Similarly, the obsessed Aristide simply doesn't know any better (and it's hard not to admire his inspired conniving). Zola knows: this is what mankind looks like, and he's willing to hold up that mirror and let readers peer into the ugly (yet beautifully dressed up) visage that is the truth.
       More than a character study, The Kill is a remarkable portrait of an era. Rapid growth and radical change in the Paris of those years came at a huge cost (financial and, Zola clearly shows, moral), and Zola shows it in most of its facets. He also teaches a very modern lesson: those that were responsible for the worst excesses and corruption often got away with it. That's the way the system works, he emphasises at every turn.
       A die-hard naturalist, Zola offers a great deal of close description. Some of the early passages can be tedious: more than lists, the detailed descriptions of rooms and carriages and every little thing nevertheless seem -- compared to much modern fiction -- to bog the story down, all ornament rather than action. But, for the most part, it's fitting background filler, and often adds to the scenes.
       The story itself, between the illicit affair and Aristide's money-juggling, is a largely riveting one. Long stretches are absolutely gripping, and though it winds down somewhat anti-climactically it's a solid read, through and through. Zola's style gets a bit overwrought at times ("the fire in his eyes singed them from afar" (so much for naturalism)), but on the whole -- helped, perhaps, by the new translation -- this doesn't read like an old novel. Certainly recommended.

       Note: This review is based on Arthur Goldhammer's 2004 translation, but the book is now also available in the Oxford World's Classics-series in a translation by Brian Nelson (2005).

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The Kill: Reviews: Émile Zola: Other books by Émile Zola under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Émile Zola lived 1840 to 1902.

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© 2004-2023 the complete review

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