La Curée  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

La Curée (1871-2) is the second novel in Émile Zola's twenty-volume series Les Rougon-Macquart. It deals with property speculation and the lives of the extremely wealthy upper classes, against the backdrop of Haussmann's reconstruction of Paris in the 1850s and 1860s. Roger Vadim updated the setting to modern-day Paris in a movie adaptation by Jean Cau, starring Jane Fonda, Michel Piccoli and Peter McEnery, in 1966. The film was released in English-speaking markets as The Game is Over.



Vastly different from its predecessor and prequel La Fortune des Rougon, La Curée - literally the portion of the game thrown to the dogs after a hunt, usually translated as The Kill - is a tightly-focused character study centred on three distinctive personalities: Aristide Rougon (renamed "Saccard")--the youngest son of the ruthless and calculating peasant Pierre Rougon and the bourgeois Félicité (by whom he is much spoiled), both of them Bonapartistes and consumed by a desire for wealth--, Aristide's young second wife Renée (his first dying not long after their move from provincial Plassans to Paris), and Maxime, Aristide's foppish son from his first marriage.

Although the novel was translated (very poorly and with many bowdlerisations) and reissued by the Vizetellys in the 1880s and 1890s under the title The Rush for the Spoil, a far superior translation was undertaken by the poet and critic Alexander Texeira de Mattos, first published in a limited edition of 300 deluxe copies in 1895. This translation, titled The Kill, became the standard English text of the novel for over a century. In 2004, two brand-new English translations appeared within a few months of each other, done by Arthur Goldhammer and Brian Nelson; both versions were received with great acclaim.

Plot summary

The book opens with scenes of astonishing opulence, beginning with Renée and Maxime lazing in a luxurious horse-drawn carriage, very slowly leaving a Parisian park in the 19th century-equivalent of a traffic jam. It is made clear very early on that these are staggeringly wealthy characters not subject to the cares and difficulties faced by the everyday public; they arrive back at their enormous mansion and spend hours being dressed by their legions of servants prior to hosting a banquet attended by the richest and most powerful people in Paris. There seems to be almost no continuity between this scene and the end of the previous novel, until the second chapter begins and Zola reveals that this opulent scene takes place almost fourteen years after the end of the first book. Zola then rewinds time to pick up the story practically minutes after La Fortune ended.

Following Eugene Rougon's rise to political power in Paris as mentioned in La Fortune, his younger brother Aristide - featured in the first novel as a talentless journalist, a comic character unable to commit unequivocally to the imperial cause and thus left out in the cold when the rewards were being handed out - decides to follow Eugene to Paris to help himself to the wealth and power he now believes to be his birthright. Eugene promises to help Aristide achieve these things on the condition that he stay out of his way, and change his surname to avoid the possibility of bad publicity from Aristide's escapades rubbing off on Eugene and damaging his political chances. Aristide chooses the surname Saccard, and Eugene gets him a seemingly mundane job at the city planning permission office. The renamed Saccard soon realises that, far from the disappointment he thought the job would be, he is actually in a position to gain insider information on the houses and other buildings that are to be demolished to build Paris' bold new system of boulevards and wide avenues. Knowing that the owners of these properties ordered to be demolished by the city government were compensated handsomely, Saccard contrives to borrow some money in order to start buying up these properties before their doomed status becomes public knowledge, and then raking in the compensation for massive profits.

Saccard is at first unable to make much headway because he cannot lay his hands on the money to make his initial investments, but then his wife falls victim to a terminal illness. Even while she lies dying in the next room, Saccard - in a brilliantly written scene of breathtaking callousness - is already making arrangements to marry a rich country girl, Renée, who is pregnant with the child of a local labourer and whose family wishes to avoid any scandal by offering a huge dowry to any man who will marry her and claim the baby as his own. Saccard accepts this role, and his career in property speculation is born. He sends his youngest daughter back home to Plassans in the south of France, and packs his older son Maxime off to a Parisian boarding school; we meet Maxime again when he leaves school several years later and meets his new stepmother Renée, who is only a couple of years older than he is.

The flashback complete, the rest of the novel takes place after Saccard has made his enormous fortune, against the backdrop of his luxurious mansion and his astounding profligacy, and is concerned with a three-cornered plot of sexual and political intrigue. Renée and Maxime begin a semi-incestuous love affair, which Saccard suspects but appears to tolerate, perhaps due to the almost purely commercial nature of his marriage to Renée in the first place; at the same time, Saccard is trying to get Renée to part with the deeds to her ancestral family home, which would be worth millions to him but which she refuses to give up. The novel continues in this vein with the tensions continuing to mount, and culminates in a series of bitter observations by Zola on the hypocrisy and immorality of the upper-class nouveau riche.

A near-penniless journalist at the time of writing La Curée, Zola himself had no experience whatsoever of the scenes he describes in the novel. In order to counter this lack of first-hand knowledge he toured a large number of stately homes and gardens around France, taking copious notes on subjects like architecture, ladies' and men's fashions, jewellery, garden layouts, greenhouse plants (a very erotically-charged seduction scene takes place in Saccard's cavernous hothouse), carriages, mannerisms, servants' liveries and so on; these notes (many volumes of which are preserved amongst the novelist's papers) were time well spent, as many contemporary reviewers and observers praised the novel for its realism.

Key themes

Primary characters

  • Aristide (Rougon) Saccard, speculator
  • Renée Saccard, wife of Aristide Saccard
  • Maxime Rougon, dandy
  • Sidonie Rougon, entremetteuse
  • Eugène Rougon, procurer
  • Madame Lauwerens, entremetteuse
  • Louise, fiancée of Maxime, hunchback
  • Suzanne Haffner & Adeline d’Espanet, Renée's best friends, also a lesbian couple

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "La Curée" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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