Selasa, 22 April 2014

[Review] The Kill

If you think I am going to review a thriller/mystery book, you are mistaken! The Kill is a novel by Émile Zola; the second in his Les Rougon-Macquart series, and there is no murder act in this novel, whose original title is La Curée. From the Introduction (I read Brian Nelson’s translation from Oxford World’s Classics): “la curée denotes, literally, the part of an animal fed to the hounds that have run it to ground.” From the title, we immediately recognize the first naturalism trace on this novel.

The Kill depicted the vulgar political spoils and financial gain during the Second Empire of France. Aristide Rougon arrived in Paris with the hunger of a huntsman. Thanks to his brother who was a minister in the Second Empire, Aristide got his first job as a clerk in city planning office, and changed his name to Aristide Saccard. From the beginning Saccard was a scoundrel; and with his cunning eyes he saw how Paris was transforming itself into a modern city by building new boulevards over the existing houses. He began his ambition with property speculation—buying houses that would soon be demolished, and later on claimed a high compensation to the city. His loyal wife suddenly died in the right time; as the only way to get huge capital money for his ambition was by marrying a rich girl.

Renée was a dynamic woman, and living glamorously in her mansion bored her very much. So, when Maxime, Saccard’s son from his late wife, moved in the house, the mother and the stepson soon began their (half) incestuous love affair. And these two moral corruptions grew eagerly in the Saccards’, and in the end Renée became the victim; she had lost the battle, just like a quarry finished by its hunter.

This novel appeared to not containing enough conflict to make it enjoyable. After the background story of Saccard and Renée, the plot becomes rather flat. Yes, like all other Zola’s novel, the character(s) would have their downfall, but in The Kill, the process is rather too tedious. Zola went describing the interior of buildings in long and detailed passages, that at the end you cannot imagine anything at all. The only comfort comes from the detailed description of Renée and Maxime’s excursion to Bois de Boulogne. As always, Zola’s painter-side could brush his words beautifully onto the pages, as if you are watching lines of paintings on Bois de Boulogne in a gallery. When comes to nature description, Zola is great.

In relation to the Rougon-Macquart series, The Kill pointed out the greediness in gold and women (lust for money and for pleasure); moral corruption which Zola found on the Second Empire of France.

Three and a half stars for La Curée, it’s not my favorite Zola, but the naturalism theme—and his writing style, as always—is still beautiful.

Kamis, 17 April 2014

Bois de Boulogne in The Kill

This second novel of Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series turns out to be very picturesque; as if Zola wants to explore his painter-side by describing in micro-details almost every landscape and building interior. As Bois de Boulogne becomes one important aspect of the story—and he ‘paints’ them a lot—I dedicated this post to stretch my imagination about Bois de Boulogne, especially in 19th century. Of course, most of them might not express the exact details from the book, but at least they help our imagination.

After comparing the pictures and the passages, you might agree with me, that Zola’s description is much more beautiful than the pictures. He might not be a successful painter, but Zola is one of the greatest novelists who could ‘paint’ such beautiful, powerful, and touching prose.

The sun was setting in a grey October sky, streaked on the horizon with thin clouds. 

On the right, copses and low-cut trees with russet leaves and slender branches passed slowly by; at intervals, on the track reserved for riders, slim-waisted gentlemen galloped past, their steeds raising little clouds of fine dust behind them.” 

 “…in the avenue leading to the lake, the roads had been watered, the carriages rolled over the brown surface as over a carpet, amid a freshness, a rising fragrance of moist earth. 
[p. 257]

And as the lake came closer, the chairs on the side paths became more numerous, families sat with quiet, silent faces, watching the endless procession of wheels.”

Then, on reaching the open space in front of the lake, there was an effulgence; the slanting sun transformed the round sheet of water into a great mirror of polished silver.”


On approaching the waterfall, while the dimness of the copses was renewed on one side, the islands of the far end of the lake rose up against the blue sky, with their sunlit banks, the bold shadows of their pine trees, and the Chalêt at their feet, which looked like a child’s toy lost in a virgin forest. The whole park laughed and quivered in the sun.” 

“…in the presence of this broad daylight, of these sheets of sunshine, she thought of a fine dust of twilight she had seen falling one evening upon the yellow leaves.” 

She remained frozen when she evoked the image of that winter landscape, that congealed and dimmed lake on which they had skated; the sky was the colour of soot, and the snow had stitched white bands of lace on the trees, the wind blew fine sands into their faces.” 

She saw again the lawns soaked by the evening air, the darkened copses, the deserted pathways. The line of carriages drove then with a mournful sound past the empty chairs, while today the rumble of the wheels, the trot of the horses, sounded with the joyousness of a fanfare of trumpets.” 


It was almost night; twilight was spreading slowly like fine ash. The lake, seen from the front, in the pale light that still hovered over the water, became rounder, like a huge tin fish; on either sides, the plantations of evergreens, whose slim, straight stems seemed to rise up from its still surface, looked at this hour like purple colonnades, delineating with their even shapes the studied curves of the shore; and shrubs rose in the background, confused masses of foliage forming large black patches that closed off the horizon.” 


Behind these patches was the glow of the dying sunset, which set fire to only a small portion of the grey immensity. Above the still lake, the low copses, the strangely flat perspective, stretched the vast sky, infinite, deepened and widened. The great slice of sky hanging over this small piece of nature caused a thrill, an indefinable sadness...”


“…And from these palling heights fell so deep an autumnal melancholy, so sweet and heart-breaking a darkness, that the Bois, wound little by little in a shadowy shroud, lost its worldly graces, and widened out, full of the powerful charm that forests have. The wheels of the carriages, whose bright colours were fading in the twilight, sounded like the distant voices of leaves and running water. Everything was slowly dying away.”


Kamis, 25 April 2013

Jacques Lantier in La Bête Humaine

If we ignore the ‘human beast’ in him, Jacques Lantier is certainly an amiable young man. He was handsome, tall, with strong built muscles which his job as a train driver required. Despite of having born from poor parents, Jacques was well educated, and he was a skillful engineer and driver too. His manly appearance and his shy and polite manner attracted quite many women.

The most interesting side of our main character in this book (for me, at least) is his love for his train engine: La Lison (the name he gave ‘her’). Being that, Jacques could have been made example of man who really loves what he’s doing. Throughout the story Jacques was always discipline at work, and he disliked his fireman’s manner although he tolerated him as long as he did his job well. Unfortunately, Jacques had also a dark side; a compulsive behavior triggered by sexual passion that he could not control. It’s a pity, because he was genuinely a kind man.

I found Jacques was very attentive towards his aunt; he visited her whenever he was around, and he listened to her sorrows. No wonder, her poor aunty loved him even more than her only daughter. I was quite relieved by how Jacques could listen to his conscience when Séverine persuaded him to kill Roubaud. It only proved that Jacques was not a real murderer, he just had an illness, and could not control it when the seizure came.

In general, I think Jacques had a problem with his explosive passion, just like his brother Claude. So the cure would only be mildly taking everything in life and maintain the balance of his every aspect. It’s much easier to say than to apply in action, of course, not mentioning that Jacques was very attractive. In the end, there was not any good choices for Jacques’ future, and I think what Zola made him in the end is the best for him. Poor Jacques…..

Rabu, 24 April 2013

La Lison in Snow - from La Bête Humaine

If there is one thing I like most from La Bête Humaine—besides the story and what laid beneath it, of course—it is the beautiful way Zola wrote the passages about La Lison’s adventures. La Lison is the name Jacques Lantier gave to his locomotive. Jacques is an engine driver of a railway company, and for an engine driver, his career depends on how he takes care of the engine. Jacques always takes care of La Lison as if she is his lover. He would clean her, caress her, and look after her needs. Jacques knows her character—yes, from my experiences of working in a machinery trading company, I believe engine has its own character—and he loves her for those characters. Jacques can always trust La Lison to work together and give a magnificent output that helps Jacques become one of the most successful drivers for the railway company.

In one of the most thrilling parts of the book, Zola makes La Lison as if she is a woman. It is when La Lison and Jacques must get through a quite heavy snow to get to Paris from Le Havre. I was amazed by how vividly Zola portrayed La Lison here; the scenes I want to capture forever in my memory. Here’re just several of them depicting La Lison in her last journey….

La Lison stood puffing steam and smoke, coupled to a train of seven coaches…. The wind was blowing from the east, and the engine met it head on, lashed by its gusts… But in the darkness the brilliant beam from the headlamp seemed to be swallowed up by the thick, wan drapes of failing snow. Instead of being lit at a distance of two or three hundred meters, the track appeared through a kind of milky fog, from which objects loomed into view only at the very last moment, as if from the depths of a dream.”


“(The speed) was dropping fast, La Lison was laboring, and (Jacques) could feel the increasing resistance of the snow against the plough… The needle on the pressure-gauge had rapidly gone back up to ten atmospheres; La Lison was producing all the power of which she was capable…But it soon recovered, and the engine was snorting and spitting like an animal being driven too hard, rearing and jolting so much one could almost hear its limbs cracking. And Jacques bullied her along as if she were an old woman whose strength was failing, someone he no longer loved as once he had.”


 And indeed at that precise moment Jacques was repeating in exasperation: “She’ll never make it unless we grease her.” And he did what he had seldom ever done, he grabbed the grease-gun to lubricate her while she was running…. And La Lison, with this man clinging to her side, pursued her breathless path into the night, opening up a deep furrow of herself through the fast blanket of white.”


 Up on the plateu, La Lison did in fact make good speed, and without undue difficulty. But she was flagging nevertheless. The driver had constantly to keep opening the firebox door as a sign to the fireman to put more coal on; and each time he did, there rose above the somber-looking train—itself black against all this white and covered in a shroud—the blazing comet’s tail, boring into the night.”


La Lison had just entered a cutting where she should have to plough through snow more than a meter thick. She was now making progress only under the utmost strain, and her whole frame shook with it. For a moment she faltered, as though she might grind to a halt like a ship running onto a sandbank. What weighed her down was the heavy layer of snow which had gradually accumulated on the roofs of the carriages."


On they rolled, black against white along a furrow of white, with their white pall stretched out above them; while La Lison herself was merely trimmed in ermine, that clothed her dark flanks where the snowflakes melted into watery trickles. Once again, despite the weight, she freed herself, and through she went. And up on the broad curve of an embankment, the train could still be seen running easily, like a ribbon of dark shadow lost in a wonderland of dazzling whiteness.”


But soon there were further cuttings… Once again the engine was losing speed. She had run between two banks, and the final halt came slowly, without a jolt. It was as though she had run into glue and it was sticking to every one of her wheels, holding her tighter and tighter till her breath was gone.”


Oh, how could I not falling in love with the man who wrote it? As I have written in my review, It feels as if Zola has painted his idea into a canvas called novel, instead of writing it!

Senin, 22 April 2013

[Review] La Bête Humaine

In all human beings there is always the beast within. That’s what Zola wanted to remind us in La Bête Humaine (= the human beast). There’s always the animal side in us which lay side by side with the human conscience deep in our soul. In some people, it might perhaps never been unleashed, and so they would die honorably after living a decent life. However in most of others, this human beast could anytime leap out of them uncontrollably. The interesting question is, why some people can control it, while others can’t? Moreover, could it ever be controlled? And Zola took us to analyze these in this psychological thriller novel.

Jacques Lantier (son of Gervaise and Auguste Lantier—L’Assommoir; brother of Étienne—Germinal and Claude—The Masterpiece) is the main “human beast” in this story. He was an engine-driver of a French railway company; and was a handsome, educated and skilful worker indeed. From the first time Jacques had noticed that in time to time a kind of uncontrollable passion to kill a female would attack him; and when the seizure came, the passion would control his entire mind and body. For the time being he lived a healthy life as there was no female in his life, other than ‘La Lison’, his locomotive engine. But one day when he was visiting his aunt, Jacques was seduced by his cousin Flore who had been falling in love with him for a long time. Then and there the seizure came, and in his runaway of the scene, Jacques witnessed a man cutting another man’s throat in a fast-running train. As a witness in the murder case, Jacques came to the acquaintances of the murderers, Roubaud and his beautiful wife Séverine. When Jacques started to have passionate love towards Séverine, the beast was awaken there within the recess of his soul, waiting for the right time to once again control its master.

No wonder that La Bête Humaine was called the most brutal novel of Les Rougon-Macquart series. Before 60 earlier pages elapsed, we have been offered not less than three murder scenes or murder attempts by three different characters to three different victims. And the murders continued on till the end. Most of all were related to or caused by sexual passion, while others were moved by greediness. At first I was wondering whether the poverty was the root of these beasty passions; when human passion was imbalanced with their brains. However, the murderers came from both the intellectual workers and the uneducated ones, so it’s not that.

Moreover, Jacques was portrayed as an educated man, a dedicated worker with a polite manner. On several occasions, his education and his conscience prevented him to do such low-moral deed, and that’s why Jacques could not kill the man he ought to. But then, Jacques was not a real murderer, he won’t kill a man just because he needed to. When the urge to kill came, it was the ‘beast within’ which dominated his logic and conscience and took over his body. So, whence did the beast come, then? From the way Zola based the Rougon-Macquart series on scientific (taxonomy and physiology) point of view, the answer could be in the hereditary moral corruption. From Jacques’ part, he inherited it from his ancestors—whom were portrayed as ‘a cave man lifted his prey on his shoulder’—and especially from his drunkard parents. Now, did that make sense?

Train dans la neige, 1875, Claude Monet
picturing La Lison, Jacques' train in La Bete Humaine

I’ve been thinking quite a lot after finishing this book. Basically I can accept Zola’s theory of the human beast, the savage ‘animal’ passion in human. However, I also believe in the human free will; the free will God had granted us since we were born. Physically, human kind had perhaps evolved like animals—as Darwin put it—but one thing is sure, God granted us first, the divine spirit in our soul (conscience) to fight the animal passion, and second, the free will to use or not use it.

In this book, Zola focused solely on the losers, those who failed to use their consciences when deciding the murders. Actually, I have had a very slight hope that Jacques would conquer the human beast somehow, but having been knowing Zola much better now, that would be in vain. I know that Zola always intended to capture the worst of human being in order to awaken us to not falling in the same gutter. Jacques, Roubaud, and several other murderers in this book became murderers because they had both the human beast AND the conscience within, but nurtured the former and shut up the latter. Let’s take Jacques for instance, he knew perfectly well why and when the ‘beast’ would show up in him, i.e. when he was sexually aroused by a woman. Jacques was intelligent enough to know that the only thing he must do to prevent the beast from showing up is to stop making up with women and focused solely his passion to his works. It would need a huge effort, but again, we always have the choices, and the free will to choose one. So, we could not put the blame only on the ancestors, as if some of us were doomed to have ancestors with bad moral, and so we can’t do anything but to accept it, no! We can always fight it. The only question is, would we?

Over all, Zola wanted to point out that the rapidly growing industry turned out not to be in line with overall human civilization. With the new century lurking, came the moral decadence; with the prosperity in some area, came the poverty in others. Zola pictured the irony as hundreds and thousands people rushed in express trains to welcome the modernization without ever realizing others around them who struggled with poverty and beasty passion; poor people whom they must have seen from their window for split of seconds, but whom were unrealistic for them. The cost of modernization was often the humanity!

"People go fast now, they know more... But wild beasts are still wild beasts, and they can go on inventing bigger and better machines for as long as they like, there'll still be wild beasts underneath there somewhere."

And the train of modernization would rush pass the humanity with its indiferrence and dignity; without recognizing that in the deep root of the humanity something would soon emerge; slowly and silently, painfully and terrifyingly....the human beast!

I must thank Zola for this brilliant and appalling book, which allowed me to think and reflect a lot. But besides that, I also loved Zola’s vivid portrays of the railway industry; the busy lives around the railways and the clanking and the hissy voices of train coming and going, leaving one civilization to another. But most of all, I loved how Zola personified La Lison. I was actually deeply touched at the ‘death’ of La Lison—imagine when I was weeping over a locomotive! But that’s just the genius in Zola. They are so vivid and so beautiful. Yes, only now I realize that engine can be feminine. The scenes of La Lison went through the snow will always be my favorite! If other writers 'wrote' beautiful passages, Zola beautifully 'painted' them in his novel as a canvas. I doubt if any movie director could even capture that scene into movie in the perfect emotion and feeling as Zola wrote it; only Zola can do it, in his perfect painted novel!

Five whole stars then—I’d love to grant more if I can—for La Bête Humaine. C’est tres bien, Monsieur Zola, merci beaucoup!

Kamis, 18 April 2013

Pierre Sandoz in The Masterpiece

This young novelist, Claude’s best friend in The Masterpiece, actually represented Émile Zola’s personalities which makes this book the most autobiographical in Les Rougon-Macquart series. Sandoz was portrayed as an amiable and enthusiast young man, loved socializing and was always attentive to his friends. He had a habit of inviting his artist friends to have dinner in his humble house every Thursday evening, and to have warm discussions—or rather debates—around arts and politics after the meals. He continued this habit even after marriage.

Sandoz was indeed the oldest of the gang, but it’s not the only reason that he appeared to have a fatherly quality. Despite of being one of the members of the revolutionary young artists, Sandoz had a proportional and healthy life. Unlike his maniac friends, Sandoz possessed the ability to balance his creativity and his personal life. He did confess that sometimes he would be carried away by his imagination, that he’d forgot everything surround him; he would be drowned into his works and ignored his family. Nevertheless, he still kept his marriage well enough, and he have never neglected the Thursday’s dinner for his friends! I should say that Sandoz was the ‘glue’ of the gang. I believe Sandoz was the wisest and most logical artist of them all.

Portrait of Emile Zola - Paul Cezanne, 1864

Among the young artists, Sandoz befriended Claude Lantier most closely. I think it’s because Sandoz’ fatherly quality perfectly matched Claude’s childish and trustful personalities. Sandoz understood Claude very well, he never laughed at his mistakes, not because he was afraid to hurt his best friend’s feeling, but more because he knew that Claude was very sensitive, and criticizing him openly just brought him down. Sandoz knew how to bring it softly to encourage his friend. And when Claude did not do Sandoz’ suggestion and failed, Sandoz never blamed him.

When Claude completely failed, unlike the others, Sandoz kept befriending him; he even worried about him and took great care of him and Christine. Sandoz was willingly to put his effort and time to take Claude on their strolls to break his despair. And finally, at the funeral, Sandoz faithfully defended his poor friend; and was one of few who attended the funeral and took dear old Claude to his last resting.

What a friend Pierre Sandoz was, and how lucky Claude for having such a good friend! I won’t talk about Sandoz’ novels, for Sandoz is Zola, and we all know how genius this French novelist and Naturalist is!

Rabu, 17 April 2013

Naturalism and Impressionism in The Masterpiece

During April I read two books from Émile Zola for my Zoladdiction event; one of them is The Masterpiece, which relates quite a lot about the turning of the century, or specifically pointing to the birth of Impressionism. Zola was one of several young artists in Paris who originated the new wave of arts. Having been saturated by the “dark and grim” Romanticism arts, these energetic young men (Zola, Paul Cezanne, Claude Monet and Edouard Manet were among them) introduced more natural, bright sunshine into paintings. I am quoting a few passages from the book, which I believe was Zola’s own thoughts.

…Courbet’s “black” painting is already beginning to feel rusty and reek of a musty studio where the sun never enters… Do you see what I mean? Perhaps that’s what we need now, sunlight, open air, something bright and fresh, people and things as seen in real daylight. I don’t know, but it seems to me that that’s our sort of painting, the sort of painting our generation should produce and look at. ~The Masterpiece, p. 37.

Claude Monet, Impression, soleil levant (Impression, Sunrise), 1872

Impressionist painting characteristics include relatively small, thin, yet visible brush strokes, open composition, emphasis on accurate depiction of light in its changing qualities (often accentuating the effects of the passage of time), ordinary subject matter, inclusion of movement as a crucial element of human perception and experience, and unusual visual angles. [wiki]. And Claude Monet with his painting “Impression” has inspired the name of the new style: Impressionist.

Not only in paintings, Zola believed that the naturalism and impressionism should occur also in other branches of arts: music, sculpture, literature, and architectural.

Surely all the arts were intended to march forward together, and the process of change which was taking place in literature, painting, and even music, was going to lead to a renewal of architecture too. If ever there was a century in which architecture should have a style of its own, it was the century shortly to begin, the new century, new ground ready for reconstruction of every kind, a freshly sown field, the breeding ground of a new people. Down with the Greek temples, down with the Gothic cathedrals; belief in legends was dead! Down too with the delicate colonades and the intricate tracery of the Renaissance, that Classical revival crossed with medieval art… What was wanted was an architectural formula to fit that democracy, the power to express it in stone, building which it could feel to be its own, something big and strong and simple, the sort of thing that was already asserting itself in railway-stations and market-halls, the solid elegance of metal girders, developed and refined still further, raised to the status of genuine beauty, proclaiming the greatness of human achievement.” ~The Masterpiece, p. 139.

The Card Players, an iconic work by Cézanne (1892)

Zola also emphasized the condition near the end of the century with a vast rebuilding scheme took place, which also touched the land prices and many people attracted in investments. In short, Zola portrayed the early decadence of the society at the end of the 19th century through The Masterpiece.

We are living in a bad season, in a vitiated atmosphere, with the century coming to an end and everything in process of demolition; buildings torn down wholesale; every plot of land being dug and redug, and every mortal thing stinking of death. How can anybody expect to be healthy? The nerves go to pieces, general neurosis sets in, and arts begin to totter, faced with a free-for-all, with anarchy to follow, and personality fighting tooth and nail for self-assertion. ~The Masterpiece, p. 359