Monday, July 26, 2010

La Curée: the money plot

La Curée (The Kill, or better, Spoils of the Hunt) is the second novel in Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series, and it is, to my mind, an amazing novel. Structurally, it has two parallel plots, closely interlacing but quite distinct in style. It would not be far off to see he plots as centered around desire for money on the one hand and sexual desire on the other.

The money plot is a critique/satire of those who profiteered during the Second Empire exploiting Haussmann’s construction of the Grands Boulevards that tore up the map of Paris.

Central to that plot is the history of the second son of the Rougon family, who leaves the stagnation of the provinces and comes to Paris to pursue his fortune, like so many Frenchmen and French literary characters had before him, most notably in Balzac. But unlike Raphaël de Valentin , Eugène de Rastignac, or Lucien de Rubempré, he is no juvenile hero. He is already nearing middle age, is burdened with a wife and children when he arrives. Nor is he particularly handsome like those Balzac heroes or Julien Sorel – he is described as short, dark, and ferret-faced (chafouin), though he is pictures as having a certain “Southern” (Provençal) charm. . Nor is he an impoverished aristocrat (not even a pretender like “de” Rubempré ).

In real life, Zola, like Balzac, knew what it was to be the provincial come to Paris to make his fortune. And at this point in his life, Zola was still not a success, was still a starving artist in a cold city. Like the hero, he has come to Paris to conquer and has met discouragement and near-ruin.

But Aristide Saccard (né Rougon) is determined to conquer, even if he has to change his name so as not to embarrass his politically ascendant brother Eugène, and take a low-paying civil service job in the Paris streets department, thanks to his brother’s pull

Bitter at first, he gradually realizes is that, advance knowledge of the construction of the Paris boulevards gives an insider an opportunity to make a fortune. He learns the ropes in the department, and sets up a dummy company. He buys up properties that he learns in advance will be torn down, bribes the assessors, and gradually passes for one of the richest men in Paris. Meanwhile, his first wife conveniently dies, he marries almost at once Renée, the knocked-up daughter of an old and rich bourgeois family that is anxious to hush the scandal. In turn, Saccard gets as a dowry that serves as his stake so he can start buying up properties.

On one of the key scenes early in the book, Saccard envisions his future success. He takes his wife to a restaurant on the Buttes-Chaumont, with a window overlooking the city. Dazzled by a strange combined effect of a golden sunlight and fog, he exclaims:
Oh ! vois, dit Saccard, avec un rire d’enfant, il pleut des pièces de vingt francs dans Paris !
(Oh! Look, said Saccard, with a childish laugh, it's raining twenty franc coins in Paris.)

For Saccrd, that's as close as he ever gets to a poetic sentiment.
Looking down on the city, just like Rastignac does, at the end of Père Goriot, he see the very street grid of Paris as his toy.
j’ai bien dit, plus d’un quartier va fondre, et il restera de l’or aux doigts des gens qui chaufferont et remueront la cuve. Ce grand innocent de Paris ! vois donc comme il est immense et comme il s’endort doucement ! C’est bête, ces grandes villes ! Il ne se doute guère de l’armée de pioches qui l’attaquera un de ces beaux matins.

(I’ve said it, more than one neighborhood will be melted down, and gold will stay in the hands of those that heat up and stir the vat. Paris, this great innocent! See how immense it is and how sweetly it sleeps. How stupid, these big cities! It hardly is aware of the army of picks that will attack it one of these fine mornings.)
As often in Zola, the reality is far more difficult than the dream. We see Saccard’s machinations in some detail, managing to survive a world where the swindlers swindle the other swindlers, as well as the city. and while he gains the reputation of opulence and success, he is always just on the edge of bankruptcy.

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