The Kill is the second volume in Zola’s great cycle of novels, Les Rougons-Macquart, which chronicles French society during the 19th century. I haven’t read the series in order & I’m not sure it matters but it would have been useful to have read the first book, The Fortune of the Rougons, to get some background on the families involved in this saga. I have the book on the tbr shelves but I was reading The Kill for my 19th century bookgroup & didn’t have time to read the other book first. I did read Desperate Reader’s comprehensive review which was the next best thing.
The Kill takes place in Paris during the period of the Second Empire. Napoleon III is Emperor & Baron Haussmann is transforming Paris from a medieval city of alleyways, rackety apartment buildings & slums to a modern city of boulevards & spacious buildings. There is plenty of room here for speculators & fraudsters to make money & the story concerns one of these men, Aristide Saccard. Saccard arrives in Paris with very little. His brother, Eugène, has a certain power in the government but he’s reluctant to help his brother too much. He gives him a leg up but tells him that now he’s on his own & if Aristide fails, he won’t put out a hand to save him.
Saccard chafes at the menial job he’s doing. His wife soon dies & he sends his children, Maxime & Clothilde, to live with his family in the country. Saccard’s widowed sister, Sidonie, gives him his chance. Sidonie is a woman who knows many secrets. She arranges marriages, hushes up scandals & knows where the bodies are buried. She arranges a marriage between Saccard & Renée Béraud du
Châtel, a young girl of nineteen who is pregnant after being raped by a married man. To avoid scandal, she must be married as soon as possible. Her dowry will give Saccard the capital he needs to start his career of speculation. The match is soon made. Renée miscarries her child soon after the wedding & the couple settle down to a life of luxury as Saccard’s schemes take off & he builds a mansion on the proceeds.
Some years after this, Saccard brings his son, Maxime, to live with him in Paris. Maxime is a beautiful, effeminate young man who is soon best friends with his young stepmother & an accepted member of her inner circle of friends, society women as bored & vapid as herself. Saccard ignores his wife & she has begun taking lovers. Her greatest pleasure is buying extravagant dresses at Worms (based on Worth, the famous couturier) & driving along the Bois de Boulogne with Maxime, commenting on the dresses & equipages of everyone else. She spends hours dressing for dinner & enjoys the sensation she creates with her blonde beauty & increasingly daring costumes.
Renée & Maxime drift into an affair that gradually consumes Renée entirely. Maxime is initially piqued by the intrigue & the sin of incest. His father is planning a marriage for him with Louise de Mareuil, whose dowry will make up for the fact that she’s consumptive & has a hunchback. Maxime, however, enjoys her company & treats her as a friend, enjoying her malicious gossip which is so at odds with her pathetic appearance. Renée enjoys her secret affair, knowing that incest is the one taboo that her circle of friends would never dream of breaching.
Saccard, meanwhile, has been enduring the ups & downs of the speculator’s career. He has taken control of Renée’s money & is enmeshed in so many schemes that any one mistake or piece of bad luck will bring the whole house of cards tumbling down. Several times he saves himself from the brink with another piece of sharp dealing but eventually he needs Renée’s signature on a deed which will allow him to sell some of her property. To achieve this, he decides to resume marital relations & this frightens Renée so much that she begins to become erratic & hysterical. She is desperate to keep Maxime but afraid to reject her husband & increasingly frightened that he will discover her affair, especially when he begins to suspect that she has a lover & sets his sister, Sidonie to discover what’s going on.
The Kill is the story of a group of completely amoral people without a redeeming quality between them. Pleasure & the love of profit is all that matters. Zola dwells on descriptions of luxury in a way that almost overwhelms the reader. The set pieces of the dinner party at the beginning of the book & the costume ball at the end are magnificent. It’s a picture of decadence with no moral centre at all. Zola equates the sexual promiscuity of Renée’s circle with the financial promiscuity of Saccard & his partners. The city of Paris is built on dishonesty of every kind, emotional as well as financial & political. Zola kept my attention throughout the book even as I was repelled by the characters & their thoughtless escapades. The only character with any self-respect is Renée’s maid, Céleste, who watches in silence as her mistress falls deeper into despair & resigns one day because she has achieved her goal. She has saved five thousand francs to set up a shop in her home village & she ignores Renée’s pleas to stay. Renée ends the book in a pitiable state. She really had no chance to be anything other than what she became. Maybe she’s an example of the contaminating effect of money & luxury but, by the end of the book, she’s learnt a lesson at great cost.