The Kill by Emile Zola – Classics Club Spin no. 18

The Kill cover

The book that I got in the Classics Club Spin is The Kill by Emile Zola which was first published in 1872 and it’s the second book in his Rougon Macquart series. I think this is about the fifth book in that series that I’ve read and it is the one that I’ve liked least. However it’s one of his earliest books and he obviously improved with maturity.

The setting is Paris 1852 and Aristide Rougon has gone there having left his native Provence. He hopes to get help from his older brother and eventually he does get a job with his help, he’s a surveyor of roads. It isn’t really what he was looking for but he realises that the work gives him access to important city planning decisions and this means that he can take advantage by buying up tracts of land that he knows will be needed in the rebuilding of the new Paris. He’ll make lots of money when the land is bought from him by the city.

Aristide is a born wheeler dealer and when his wife dies he marries Renee a young woman from a wealthy family. She is already pregnant and needs a husband. Aristide can use her money for his business dealings, but although Renee is much younger than Aristide and is very pretty, he isn’t really interested in her, she’s just a business deal as far as he is concerned. They both have affairs and Renee eventually ends up having an affair with Aristide’s son by his first wife. She spends a fortune on her clothes and has to borrow to pay some money towards her debts. Meanwhile Aristide realises that he isn’t such a brilliant businessman as he thought he was.

The subject matter of massive greed, waste and infidelities didn’t appeal to me and the book is very overwritten. I like descriptions but there are far too many of them in this book – too many adjectives, too much purple prose.

They say that writers should always write about what they know but Emile Zola was writing about a society that he knew little about and he apparently got all of his information from the society pages of the Paris newspapers. Of course they described the dresses and jewellery that were worn at balls and Zola must have felt the need to do the same. I got to the stage where I was thinking – ‘please – no more satin, lace and bows!’

I’ll definitely be continuing with this series though.

Classics Club Spin – it’s NINE

classics club
The 18th Classics Club Spin number is 9 and that means that I’ll be reading The Kill by Emile Zola before the 31st of August.

I’m very happy about this as apart from anything else my copy of The Kill only has 271 pages, very short for Zola I think, it looks like it’ll be a great read too.

This book is part of Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series and the blurb on the back says:

A great wave of redevelopment is bursting over Paris when Aristide Rougon arrives from the provinces in 1852. Fortunes are being made and lost by those with the nerve to speculate and to swindle on a grand scale. To some, Paris is disappearing in a cloud of plaster dust: All Aristide can see is a shower of gold.

I’m really looking forward to reading it now.

The cover of my copy shows a detail from the painting Foggy day near Madeleine by Jean Beraud.

If This is a Man/The Truce cover

Nana by Emile Zola

Nana cover

Nana by Emile Zola was first published in 1880 and it’s part of his Rougon Macquart series which I’ve been reading completely out of order. There’s a list on Goodreads which recommends the order they should be read in, you can see it here. I’m not sure if it makes a huge difference to the enjoyment of the books.

Bluntly, this book is about prostitution and the part it played in French society of the Second Empire, particularly in Paris. Nana is the main character and in the beginning she’s a new girl in a theatre, her first experience on stage didn’t go well at all, she couldn’t sing, but she had the wit to realise that a lack of talent wouldn’t be a problem for her, she had a great figure and she was more than happy to show it all off, with just a very thin gauze veil for cover.

The men are agog, so are a lot of the women, and Nana goes from being a penniless unknown to being the toast of Paris, in some circles anyway. She’s a manipulative and totally dishonest tart who as time goes on becomes more and more out of control. The wonder is that the men involved with her were happy to put up with her nonsense, but there’s nowt as queer as men when it comes to sex it would seem!

Apparently Zola did a lot of background research for this book and he even managed to get a peek at a very ornate and expensive bed of a famous Parisian courtesan, and he based Nana’s bed on that one. As ever Zola’s descriptions light up the book but I didn’t enjoy it as much as the others of his that I’ve read. Zola wanted to compare Nana’s destructiveness with that of the French Empire’s disintegration which came in 1870.

Zola did set out to show how hereditary weaknesses affected various members of the families in this series and Nana’s personality is completely out of control, self-centred and destructive. She’s a nutter, one of those women who should have ‘dangerous to everyone’ stamped on her forehead. She’s smart though, much wilier than everyone else and has the unusual (for that society) tendency to kindness when others are in despair.

This one was on my Classics Club list.
Have you read Nana? What did you think of it/her?

The cover of my Penguin Classic shows ‘Nana’ painted by Edouard Manet.

Guardian links

I had intended to do a blogpost about the books that I got at Christmas but, there are so many of them and I still have to take photos, so I’m just doing this quick post to interesting articles in the Guardian Review section.

There’s an article here about six women writers, by Alex Clark: Beryl Bainbridge, Angela Carter, Elizabeth Jane Howard, Molly Keane, Jenny Diski and Anita Brookner. Some of my favourite writers although I haven’t read anything at all by Jenny Diski. Have you?

Just when you thought that all the books about Elizabeth I of England had been written – up pops another one by John Guy called Elizabeth: The Forgotten Years.

Last but not least, if you enjoy Emile Zola’s books as I do you’ll be interested in this article about his time in London in 1898.

The Ladies’ Paradise by Emile Zola

 The Ladies' Paradise cover

The Ladies’ Paradise by Emile Zola was first published in 1883, but it’s set in the 1860s when Paris was undergoing a huge rebuilding. It’s part of the Rougon-Macquart series and features Octave Mouret as one of the main characters. The Mourets are an illegitimate branch of the family.

Octave Mouret is an ambitious young widower who sets about building up the biggest department store in Paris, The Ladies’ Paradise, at a time when shoppers were served by hundreds of small independent shops. He employs the sort of marketing devices which we see today, and they have the same effects now as they had then. The small shop owners are unable to keep up with the cheaper prices which The Ladies’ Paradise can market the goods at and eventually they all go out of business. Silk fabric is used as a loss leader to entice the ladies into the department store. Mouret manages to sell it so cheaply only because he drives such a hard bargain with the silk manufacturer that they end up going out of business.

As you would expect from Zola the descriptions of the merchandise on sale are seductive, the lace department is a favourite with the ladies, some of whom are completely intoxicated by it and end up shoplifting.

The main character is Denise, a young woman who has travelled to Paris with her two young brothers after the death of their parents. It’s a shock to the youngsters who are used to rural life and they are having to stay with an uncle and his wife temporarily, under sufferance. The uncle’s business is already being damaged by the setting up of the department store across the road from his shop. But Denise is fascinated by the new store and is on the side of Mouret as she thinks anything which means that the public can get cheap goods is a step in the right direction.

The book details how Mouret’s business ideas developed and how his shop rapidly became a place where the women of Paris could go on their own, the only other place which they could do that was church and his store became a cathedral to commercialism. The smell of such a mass of women in the store was at times overwhelming (the mind boggles).

Store managers are still employing exactly the same principles when setting up departments in stores, with goods being changed around constantly, meaning that the shopper has to trail all over the place to find what they want, obviously the owners hope that you will pick up other things on the way to find whatever it is you wanted to buy in the first place. Zola was writing a history of French life through his fiction and he undertook a huge amount of research.

I thought of the farmers in the UK who have been put in the position of having to sell their milk at below cost price because they have been bullied by the supermarket to do so, many of them having been put out of business because of it, nothing much seems to have changed in our capitalist world.

I wasn’t at all sure about this book to begin with because the subject matter wasn’t too exciting to me, but after about 100 pages I really got into it. I believe that the BBC serialised the book last year as The Paradise but I didn’t watch it so I have no idea how well it was done.

I read this book for The Classics Club, another one ticked off, but in fact I didn’t have this book on my list, it was a random choice from the library.

The Belly of Paris by Emile Zola

The Belly of Paris cover

The Belly of Paris by Emile Zola was first published in 1873. I’ve only read two of his books prior to this one and of those Germinal was my favourite, but this one is running it close.

It’s the story of Florent, a young man who had been caught up in the Paris street riots of 1853 and although he was innocent of any wrong-doing he ended up being transported to Devil’s Island, just because he had got blood on his hands. After years of starvation and bad treatment on the prison island he managed to escape and travel back to Paris and that is when the book begins, with a half-dead Florent entering Paris which he doesn’t recognise as there have been so many changes since he has been away.

A huge market place has been built near the area where he had previously lived, Les Halles as the market is called provides what amounts to a feast for all the senses as Zola describes everything he sees there. This is not always good, you definitely won’t be keen on reading this book if you are a vegan or even a vegetarian, the descriptions of the fish market and meat and poultry was sometimes a bit too over-powering. The fruit and flower markets feature too, easier on the mind’s eye as you might imagine, but the cheese market was definitely more than a bit whiffy!

Most of the market workers are women and very strong willed and Les Halles is full of gossip, mainly completely made up, people like to think the worst of their neighbours.

Florent ends up working as a fish market inspector which pushes him into close proximity to the women who scare him. He had intended to go back to his old work – teaching, but he couldn’t get a job. Lisa his very business minded sister-in-law persuaded him to take the market job, which is really like working for the government, something which he swore he wouldn’t do. Florent ends up getting mixed up in politics, which you know is only going to end in tears.

This book is about the people of Paris, most of whom seem to be doing very nicely in the stable atmosphere of the Second Empire, and they have no wish to rock the boat. They are the fat people, only concerned with business and the getting of money. Florent is on the other side, the thin people who are more interested in building a fair society. Guess who wins in the end?!

Apparently Zola spent a lot of time in the area of Les Halles to capture the atmosphere of the place and the people, his decriptions of the area have been of use to historians as Les Halles were demolished and it’s only from Zola’s desciptions of the buildings that people know how they looked.

I read this book as part of my Classics Club challenge.

The Belly of Paris is one of the 20 books which make up Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series.

Therese Raquin by Emile Zola

This book is in my reading list for 2011, I was supposed to be working my way through the list of 52 books, at least one per week. It started out well but I’ve fallen way behind now.

Anyway, this is a quick read at just 196 pages and my copy of the book is a 1960 paperback. I suspect that there have been better translations since then, that’s the only thing I have against it, the word egotism/egotistic was overused and I’m sure mis-used when something like arrogance or selfishness would have been better I think.

I really enjoyed this book which Zola wrote after he had read Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. I wasn’t too keen on Madame Bovary because I really disliked Emma, I couldn’t find any redeeming qualities in her at all.

The book is about adultery, amongst other things, but Theresa has had a tough life really as she was farmed out to her father’s sister as a very small baby. She ends up being married off to her cousin before she knows anything about life and men, and let’s face it – it was never going to be a success given the fact that she had shared a bed with her cousin/husband as a child.

When Therese forms a liason with one of her husband’s work colleagues they take things too far and disaster ensues. The lovers are conscience stricken and racked with guilt they descend into horror.

I know, it doesn’t exactly sound like a barrel of laughs but it is a good read and I’m looking forward to reading the only other Zola book which I have at the moment – Nana, sometime soonish.

Germinal by Emile Zola

Germinal was first published in 1883 and at 536 pages I must admit that I thought I might have bitten off more than I could chew considering this was my first foray into French literature. However, the pages whizzed past and I must put in a good word for Roger Pearson who made such a smooth job of the translating. I especially liked the fact that he used the Scottish word ‘piece’ meaning sandwich.

I really enjoyed reading this book, although that does seem a strange thing to say because there certainly isn’t much joy around. Things just lurch from bad to horrendous.

The story begins with Etienne Lantier, an unemployed mechanic walking through the countryside on a freezing cold dark night, penniless and starving. When he reaches a mining complex he is interested in the lay-out of the place and hopes he might be able to find work there, which he does.

After his first shift he decides that the work is too hard and that he will move on, but when he realizes that the miners and their families are in dire straits, he decides to stay on, hoping that he will become a leader of the miners eventually.

Zola writes very realistically of the bitching and gossiping which goes on in a small close-knit community. You can’t help thinking that the French workers don’t seem to have benefited at all from the French Revolution. The contrast between the miners and the mine owners is vast. Zola seems to be a sort of French version of Charles Dickens, highlighting the appalling working conditions of the common man. However M. Hennebeau is lonely in a loveless marriage with an adulterous wife and can’t help envying the miners their ‘free-love’ lifestyle. The grass is always greener.

Things come to a head when the mine owners inflict what amounts to a pay cut on the workers, who already couldn’t make ends meet and the workers go on strike with Etienne as their leader.

I think Zola got the confrontational scenes with the army just right, showing how quickly desperate people lose control in a mob. The despised shop owner comes to a very nasty end at the hands of the women who are a rough bunch due to their circumstances. His depiction of the Chaval-Catherine relationship is so well observed and frankly depressing as the abused Catherine sticks to her abuser for fear of finding something worse without him and ending up a prostitute. Plus ca change – as they say.

At the end of the book Etienne is thinking of a future when the workers will organise themselves into unions and win the day.

I’m sure I would never have got around to reading Zola without the Classics Circuit, so a big thank-you again and I’ll definitely be reading more of his.

I’m going off at a complete tangent here.

Etienne couldn’t be expected to imagine having to contend with the likes of Margaret Thatcher, who in the 1980s decided to close down all the mines in Britain, and reader, she did it.

I had such a feeling of deja vu whilst reading Germinal because we live in what was a coal mining district and the conditions were terrible even in the 1980s. The mine which was about half a mile from us went under the North Sea and the workers had to crawl for about an hour before getting to the coal face. It was too cramped to stand up and of course they weren’t paid until they reached the coal face. Then they used pneumatic drills (jack hammers) so the noise was horrible. But still they fought for their jobs, they didn’t have to face the army as in Germinal. It was the police on horses. Soldiers wouldn’t have been as bad. We all contributed money to the strike fund but Maggie got her way in the end.