The Kill – Émile Zola

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.

The Murder of Halland – Pia Juul

I read about The Murder of Halland on Savidge Reads earlier this year & was immediately intrigued. I haven’t read much Scandinavian crime fiction as I have an impression that it’s quite brutal & edgy, full of serial killers in remote locations & I like my crime a little softer than that. However, Simon’s review was so enticing that I was quick to get hold of a copy. I am a fan of Danish television though & loved The Eagle, Unit One &, more recently, Borgen.

Pia Juul is a prize winning writer in Denmark. The Murder of Halland won the Danske Banks Litteraturpris in 2009. The prize is given to an established writer & Pia Juul has been published for over 30 years, writing poetry & short stories as well as novels.

The Murder of Halland is the story of Bess who wakes one morning to be told that her partner, Halland, has been found murdered in the square just outside their house. Bess is initially suspected of the murder as Halland’s last words, heard by the man who found him, sounded like “My wife has shot me”. Detectives arrive & soon seem to discount Bess as the shot was from a rifle fired some distance away. Bess is numb & uncomprehending as she had spent the night working in the study & had fallen asleep at her desk. Halland was leaving the house early anyway & what Bess thought was the bang of the front door as he left was actually the shot that killed him.

Bess & Halland’s relationship is gradually revealed as Bess sits in the house trying to comprehend what has happened. Bess had left her husband, Troels, & daughter, Abby, after meeting Halland in a bookshop 10 years ago. He was older than she was &, although she loved him, she never felt completely comfortable in the relationship. She also regretted the loss of her daughter as Abby hasn’t spoken to Bess since she left. Bess feels like a guest in Halland’s house, even after such a long time. Her study is the only place she feels at peace, surrounded by her belongings.

Now that Halland is dead, Bess discovers that he had secrets. She discovers two keys on his keyring & has no idea what they are for. His laptop & a lot of his papers are missing & the detective, Funder, is full of questions that she can’t answer. Bess takes long walks & keeps bumping into a mysterious stranger who turns out to be staying with her neighbour, Brandt. Her other neighbour, Inger, is kind & leaves casseroles on the doorstep but Bess doesn’t seem to be able to make the appropriate responses to other people’s grief & questions. Halland’s sister’s foster daughter, Pernille, arrives. She’s heavily pregnant & reveals that Halland had been renting a room in her apartment for some time. Pernille seems more interested in who’s going to pay her rent now that Halland is dead but her arrival does solve the mystery of the keys & the missing laptop.

Bess drifts through the days, remembering the past & being pushed by others through the conventional stages of mourning – the funeral, the visits from friends, the emails & texts from colleagues & acquaintances. Everything is seen through her eyes so we only read about the murder investigation when she is involved, answering questions or deciding what to withhold. Bess’s decision to leave her husband led to estrangement from her own family. Her mother calls on the morning of Halland’s death to tell her that her grandfather in England is dying & wants to speak to her. In that one conversation we learn all we need to know of the distance between Bess & her mother.

This is a very economical book. Only 160pp long & all the narrative is from Bess’s point of view. Instead of leading the reader to sympathise with Bess, the narrative is so honest that it discourages such an easy response. Bess is taciturn, prickly, she doesn’t always respond in the “approved” way. She is terse with Pernille, partly because of her suspicions about her relationship with Halland, but she bullies her every step of the way. She drinks too much & goes to a nightclub on the night of the funeral. Bess realises how much she didn’t know about Halland & about their relationship. This isn’t a conventional murder mystery with the clues laid out & red herrings everywhere. We do find out the solution to Halland’s death & some of the other mysteries in the story but everything isn’t tied up neatly at the end. The subject of the book becomes Bess & her grieving rather than the investigation into Halland’s murder.

I found The Murder of Halland a compelling book. I read it in one sitting, in a couple of hours. I was drawn on by the short chapters, the elusive nature of Bess’s narration &, as the blurb at the beginning recommends, don’t skip the quotes at the beginning of the chapters.

Sunday Poetry – Sara Coleridge

Sara Coleridge was the daughter of Samuel Taylor Coleridge & Sarah Fricker. She was very much a part of the group known as the Lake Poets. She knew her father’s friends Southey & Wordsworth & was close friends with Wordsworth’s daughter, Dora. Sara was also a poet & published several collections. Her daughter, Edith, published a memoir & letters after her death.
Katie Waldegrave has written a biography of Sara & Dora called The Poet’s Daughters which I’m looking forward to reading.

The sun may speed or loiter on his way.
May veil his face in clouds or brightly glow;
Too fast he moved to bring one fatal day,
I ask not now if he be swift or slow.

I have a region, bathed in joyous beams,
Where he hath never gilded fruit or flower,
Hath ne’er lit up the glad perennial streams,
Nor tinged the foliage of an Autumn bower.

Then hail the twilight cave, the silent dell,
That boast no beams, no music of their own;
Bright pictures of the past around me dwell,
Where nothing whispers that the past is flown.

Poirot and Me – David Suchet

Movie & TV adaptations of favourite books can be infuriating or wonderful, depending on the book & the adaptation. One of the best, most faithful adaptations of a series has been London Weekend Television’s adaptation of the Hercule Poirot stories by Agatha Christie. The series began in 1988 & ended in 2013. Every Poirot short story & novel had been adapted & everyone involved in the project could finally rest. The final episode in the final series, Curtain, has just been shown on television here in Australia & I think I’ve watched every episode over the years. My favourites will always be the early series of one hour episodes based on the short stories with the occasional two hour episode based on a novel. The production values were just superb & the opening titles are so wonderful that I can hear the music in my head right now. If you’ve never seen those opening titles with their gorgeous Art Deco styling, you can watch them here on YouTube.

Finding the right actor to play Poirot was the biggest challenge for the producers. David Suchet was a well-known but not famous actor when he took on the role. He played Poirot for 25 years & the role has come to define him in the eyes of many. He has now written a memoir about the series & about the way that Poirot has, in a way, taken over his life.

Suchet describes in detail how he prepared to play the role, from reading all the books to writing a long list of characteristics & attributes that he felt described Poirot. He kept the list with him always & referred to it at the beginning of each new series as he prepared to inhabit the little Belgian detective. The list is reproduced in the book along with many photos of the locations, guest stars & crew who often worked on the series for years. Suchet had a terrifying lunch with Agatha Christie’s daughter, Rosalind Hicks, when she told him that Poirot must never be laughed at. One of the accolades Suchet cherishes the most is that Rosalind & her son, Mathew Prichard, approved of his portrayal & thought that Agatha Christie would have approved as well.

Suchet says over & over again that, as an actor, all he wants to do is serve the author of the words he’s saying. He fought producers, directors & script writers over the years when they wanted him to do or say something that he believed Poirot would not do. Gradually he had the confidence & the clout to get his way & eventually he became an associate producer. The continuation of the series was never assured though & Suchet describes well the uncertainties of an actor’s life. After the first two series which were very successful, he heard nothing about a third series so took another role to pay the mortgage. Luckily, when a third series was commissioned, the producers were willing to wait for him to be available. Then, after a gap of several years, the series was resurrected with a new producer & an American company, A & E, producing the programs & then selling them to LWT. New producers wanted a new look so the wonderful Art Deco opening titles & music were gone & the one hour episodes replaced with ninety minute episodes. There was more money spent on the cast & locations but I’ve never been as fond of these later episodes. I enjoyed the ensemble feel of the first series with Suchet & the regular cast of Hugh Fraser as Captain Hastings, Philip Jackson as Inspector Japp & Pauline Moran as Miss Lemon.

Poirot and Me is definitely a book for fans of the series & David Suchet. I enjoyed it very much because I was fascinated by the details of the filming, the guest stars, anecdotes about the fans & the behind the scenes machinations that went on between series. Suchet also writes about other roles he’s played, such as Salieri in a stage production of Amadeus or Robert Maxwell in a TV film. If he seems to quote every glowing review he’s ever received, well, he’s rightly proud of them. However, if you’re looking for gossip or candid comments about his colleagues, you won’t find them here. Maybe he just doesn’t mention any guest stars that he didn’t like but everyone who appears in the book is praised, especially his regular co-stars in the early series & Zoë Wanamaker, who played Ariadne Oliver in the later series. He does admit that some episodes were better than others, because the source material wasn’t great or the adaptation lacked something, but, in general, this is an affectionate memoir about a role that could have buried his career but instead, made David Suchet one of the most recognisable actors of his generation – even without the moustache & the spats.

Under Another Sky : journeys in Roman Britain – Charlotte Higgins

Charlotte Higgins has written a fascinating book combining history, travel, archaeology & literature in a survey of Roman Britain. I’ve become more interested in Roman Britain over the years as my historical reading has moved further & further back in time. From the Tudors & the Victorians who fascinated me in my teenage years, I’ve gradually become interested in other periods of English history. Richard III took me to the medieval period, then I jumped forward to the Civil War & the 18th century & then right back to the Anglo Saxons. Finally I became interested in the Roman period, from the invasion by Claudius in AD43 to the withdrawal of the Romans in around 410.

Under Another Sky is structured as a journey around Britain undertaken by Higgins & her boyfriend, Matthew, in a dilapidated van. Their aim is to visit all the Roman sites still visible in Britain, from the Antonine Wall in Scotland to Hadrian’s Wall & the sites of the magnificent villas in the south & the remains of Londinium, buried usually deep underneath the modern city. It’s also a book about how the British have thought & written about the Romans through the centuries. From Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th century to Camden’s Britannia in the 16th century, Thorneycroft’s monumental statue of Boudica & her daughters to Auden’s Roman Wall Blues in the 20th century.

In London, Higgins discovers traces of Roman Londinium in the most unlikely places. In the basement car park of the Museum of London there is a segment of the Roman wall, exposed during the Blitz & preserved  near Bay 52. It stands two and a half metres tall. There’s a photo of it in the book with motorcycles parked right next to it. Walking along Hadrian’s Wall, she discovers that the perception of the Wall among the farmers who live close by has changed even in recent times. Where once they resented ramblers wanting to walk over their fields to look at bits of broken wall, it’s now become a tourist attraction & a welcome source of income for those who offer accommodation.

Theories about why the Wall was built have also changed. Once historians thought it was a barrier to keep the Pictish tribes of Scotland out. Now, it seems to be seen as more of a trade barrier, regulating & taxing the traders as they passed through. Discoveries such as the Vindolanda tablets have excited interest in the Wall & the soldiers who were stationed there. The tablets, discovered in the 1970s, are slivers of wood which were used to send messages along the Wall & further afield. The most famous is an invitation from Claudia Severa to Lepidina, inviting her to a birthday party. Suddenly the soldiers, traders & their families living in the forts along the Wall became real people who wrote shopping lists & party invitations just like we do.

Higgins also meets some interesting people on her journeys. I loved the Woodward brothers, builders who decided to recreate the Orpheus mosaic, known as the Great Pavement, at Woodchester near Stroud in Gloucestershire. The mosaic was last uncovered in 1973 & Woodward was so mesmerised by it that he decided to create a replica as the original was too fragile to be exposed any longer. They learned, through trial & error, how to create the tesserae, researched the missing parts of the picture using 18th century drawings & working in libraries, reading about ancient mythology. The finished mosaic used 1.6 million tesserae & is as big as a ballroom.

As well as the stories of the remains of Roman buildings, villas & forts, we also meet the people. The Britons who resisted or accepted the Romans – Boudica, Cartimandua, Caractacus & the Romans who invaded & then sought to control Britain – Julius Caesar, Claudius, Agricola as well as the many nameless soldiers, traders & farmers. Higgins tells their stories & examines the ways in which historians, artists & writers through the centuries have depicted them. She also tells the stories of some of the antiquarians & archaeologists who have uncovered Britain’s Roman past.

Under Another Sky is a fascinating book. I loved the mix of history, travel, art & literature. It’s immensely readable & full of great stories. I only wish there had been more pictures. There are some black & white pictures in the text but I would have loved some colour plates of the locations & some of the art & treasures Higgins describes. Under Another Sky was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize & Higgins writes here about the experience of not winning. It’s an interesting discussion about literary prizes & the expectations that come with them.

Sunday Poetry – Emily Brontë

I’ve been reading the November 2012 edition of Brontë Studies which is a special edition with the papers from a conference held in 2011 on the Brontës & the influence of the Bible on their work. So far the most interesting paper has been by Patsy Stoneman on Charlotte’s use of biblical cadences & sentence structure in Jane Eyre. The translators of the Bible often used phrases connected by punctuation rather than a word such as “and”. Compare this from the King James Bible, “the Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want” to “My pulse stopped: my heart stood still; my stretched arm was paralyzed.” from the scene in Jane Eyre when Bertha cries out in the middle of the night. This way of constructing sentences is called asyndetic & Charlotte uses it much more than other Victorian authors. I feel as though I need to reread Jane Eyre especially to look out for this & the other examples that Stoneman describes, especially Charlotte’s habit of inverting words for emphasis. For example on the very first page, “dreadful to me was the coming home” instead of the more usual, “To me it was dreadful to be coming home“. This led me on to wanting to read something by one of the sisters so I’ve chosen Emily’s poem, Sympathy, this week as I’ve always loved Emily’s poetry.

There should be no despair for you
While nightly stars are burning;
While evening pours its silent dew,
And sunshine gilds the morning.
There should be no despair—though tears
May flow down like a river:
Are not the best beloved of years
Around your heart for ever?

They weep, you weep, it must be so;
Winds sigh as you are sighing,
And winter sheds its grief in snow
Where Autumn’s leaves are lying:
Yet, these revive, and from their fate
Your fate cannot be parted:
Then, journey on, if not elate,
never broken-hearted!