Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Emile Zola, La Curée (1872)

On, nonsequentially, through the Rougon-Macquarts: La Curée is second in the sequence. A thoroughly good read it is too: dripping with decadance, financial corruption and incest. The novel is broadly about the Haussmann redevelopment of Paris, or more particularly about the enormous financial bubble, greed and dishonesty this redevelopment entailed. Saccard is the property developer, wheeler-deelering in the multimillions; Renée is his bored, rather neurotic and oversexed young wife; Maxime is his grown-up son from his first marriage. Maxime and Renée have an affair; Saccard finds out about it and isn't too bothered because all he cares about is money-money-money. It is, in other words, a rather obviously inverted retelling of Euripides Hippolytus (or Racine's Phèdre); in the original myth, and despite Phaedra's claims otherwise, mother and stepson don't have an affair, and the (misinformed) father Theseus does care. But rather than go into a detailed critical reading, I'll note three things that, in particular, struck me.

1. Though his translation throughout is excellent, I don't see why Brian Nelson has rendered the title as The Kill. 'La Curée' means (I open my Collins-Robert) 'the scramble for the spoils', which is what the developers are doing with Paris in the book, and how Renée feels she is being treated. What's wrong with The Scramble for the Spoils as a title? Or if Nelson doesn't like translating a two word title with five, why not The Spoils?

2. More interestingly, I love that the novel contains two splendidly early mentions (possibly first ever mentions) of things. Here's Saccard drooling over the money to be made redeveloping Paris: 'His brain teemed with extravagant ideas. He would have proposed in all seriousness to put Paris under an immense bell-glass, so as to transform it into a hothouse for forcing pineapples and sugar-cane.' [98] The idea of a city underneath an enormous dome is, of course, a standard trope for twentieth-century science fiction. Zola's novel appeared in 1872. Is this the earliest mention of this notion? Can anybody think of an earlier one?

3. Probably not the earliest mention for this, but again a little startling in a novel published in 1872. Our three main characters are at a society ball: 'under the electric light ... the guaze, the lace, all those light, diaphanous materials mingled so well with the shoulders and tights that the soft pinks seemed alive.' [213]


gail said...

This was the book that led me to the Roughan-Maquardt cycle, and I have been enthralled throughout.

gail said...
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