Re-reading your literary classics at 48 is quite good. Especially when it comes to French writer Emile Zola and his literary monument “the Rougon-Macquart”, written between 1871 and 1893, imbued with pessimism (because optimism is not serious for a Zola who wants to methodically condemn this Second Empire that he loathes).
Especially if we are talking about the three novels of the saga that he dedicated to the upper world: politics with “His Excellency Eugène Rougon”, stock market speculation with “Money” and real estate speculation with “The Kill”.
To evoke this last novel “The Kill”, a 48-yo-maturity and a perfect knowledge of the district evoked in the novel help to a great extent.
Let me explain the background: through his “Rougon-Macquart” saga, Emile Zola wishes to write a work that would mirror Balzac’s “Human Comedy”, which he greatly admires. His ambition is to write the naturalistic saga of a family over five generations, to measure the weight of heredity by examining, novel after novel (a total of 20) the impact of the particular social environment where each of the offspring of the matriarch, Adélaïde Fouque will have landed.
Let’s leave aside the naturalistic study of heredity because it is not worth much today.
The sociological study by Emile Zola of each social environment of his time is fascinating from a historical point of view, even if the objectivity of the author is subject to caution in view of his deep detestation of Napoleon III and of the Second Empire.
The Rougon-Macquart saga sail – according to the novels – from the world of mines (“Germinal”) to the political circles of the Second Empire (“His Excellency Eugène Rougon”) passing through the department stores (“The Ladies’ Paradise”), the universe artists (“The Masterpiece”), the peasantry (“The Earth”) or even the industrial revolution with the railway (“The Beast Within”) and so on.
The whole saga is captivating, especially since Zola heavily documents his research before embarking on writing and each character in the novel concerned is only the barely hidden avatar of an existing public figure of his time.
In this respect, “The Kill” juggles with the remarkable names and places of that time. Let’s start with the famous names.
The novel, which takes place approximately from 1852 to 1858, follows the social ascent of Aristide Saccard, a poor man who makes his fortune by speculating on land at the time of the great Haussmann works.
Even if he lives in misery with his wife Angèle Rougon and their two children Clotilde and Maxime, Saccard quickly understands that his obscure position at the town hall of the city of Paris can offer him fortune. As he knows the route and design of the future Haussmann avenues, he buys land and buildings at low prices which will soon be bought at high prices by the city of Paris in order to carry out the development of the Haussmannian Paris. Saccard’s fortune is soon made, out of the ashes of the misery of all the duped inhabitants.
Angèle dies very opportunely and their children are sent away, which leaves the field open to Saccard to afford a beautiful name. He marries the young and rich Renée Béraud du Châtel, from the old and respectable nobility of the Saint-Louis island and who must see her reputation saved because she is pregnant following a rape. The child dies prematurely and Saccard now enjoys an opulent lifestyle with his young and respectable wife in their no less opulent Monceau private mansion.
Renée, whose boredom rules her life starts an incestuous relationship with her stepson, the young Maxime, back in town. But Saccard is pragmatic – he will take advantage of this situation. In “The Kill”, human beings are trafficked in the same way as building land, and sex and money are intimately linked in this novel that Zola wanted “of gold and flesh”.
All this little world is rotten with vices and Saccard is the symbol of the debauchery of the ruling classes of the Second Empire, whether in opportunism, greed, stock market speculation, appetite for power or lust.
What is called the “imperial feast” (and French people immediately know, when this term is used, of which Empire we are talking about between that of Napoleon the Ist and Napoleon III) hides a dirty backstage, especially when the said Empire embraces its time and its revolutions which are so many financial opportunities, be it political governance, urban development or industrial revolution.
Written in 1870 while its action takes place fifteen years before, the novel “The Kill” develops a plot which symbolizes and mirrors the glory and the fall of the Second Empire.
The kill of the novel’s title refers to the prey which is butchered at the end of a game or a hunt (yes, it’s very old regime, a nobles’ cruel pleasure) and, as a mirror, to an old Paris butchered by the brutal transformations and the opening of new avenues imposed by a few greedy speculators.
We cannot talk about “The Kill” without mentioning Napoleon III and the Duke of Morny. Napoleon III may have become President of the Republic in 1848, but the ban on running for a second term led him to foment a coup in December 1851, thus giving birth to the Second Empire. Napoleon III becomes Emperor.
The Duke de Morny was part of the coup and assumes the Home Office, then the presidency of the Legislative Body during the Second Empire. His political career and his direct access to the first circle of power allow him to speculate and invest in many businesses. To put it simply, Morny builds his fortune on insider trading, which did not yet exist in French law at the time.
Beyond a Napoleon III who is ultimately uninteresting, the one who is gifted with an ardent intelligence is indeed the Duke de Morny, who happens to be… the Emperor’s adulterine half-brother.
The family history of Morny is beyond romantic and I must obviously mention Queen Hortense here : what an incredible destiny this woman from the small colonial nobility of the French carribean islands will have known: thanks to her mother Joséphine de Beauharnais who married a Bonaparte hungry for power, Hortense soon finds herself adopted by her father-in-law who has become Emperor of the French and becomes, through her marriage to one of the Bonaparte brothers, Louis, the Queen of Holland and the mother of the future Napoleon III.
But trapped in an unhappy marriage, she lives a clandestine passion with the hidden son of the famous Talleyrand, Charles de Flahaut and secretly gives birth to a son, who is none other than the Duke de Morny, adulterine half-brother of Napoleon III.
Morny, placed in foster care, does not discover the identity of his mother until he is 18 years old. He saw his bastardy with great panache: “In my lineage, we have been bastards from mother to son for three generations. I am the great-grandson of a king, grandson of a bishop, son of a queen and brother of an emperor”.
The panache probably hides the intimate trauma of never bearing the name Napoleon or Talleyrand, but Morny will know how to create a name for himself, enjoying, behind the scenes, the famous “imperial feast”.
Morny, burned by the desire for revenge, is the power behind the power. Character of chiaroscuro, he speculates, accumulates, and in doing so, creates ex nihilo French cities like Deauville. The magic phrase “Morny is in” ensures resounding success for all the industrial and real estate companies in which he takes part with promoters and bankers such as the Pereire brothers or Jules Mirès. The Société Immobilière and the Crédit Mobilier of the Pereire brothers come to finance – with the money of individuals – speculative real estate and industrial investments and will eventually go bankrupt. Jules Mirès, another banker of that time who obtained a loan of 50 million from the city of Paris, will also go bankrupt despite Morny’s rescue, and will be condemned for fraud.
Zola’s Aristide Saccard, the archetype of the lawless speculator, is the sum of these Pereire and Mirès and Morny appears in “His Excellency Eugène Rougon” behind the name of M. de Marsy.
In real life, Morny will have used and abused all his talents and if there is an imperial feast, it is for Morny and the speculators with whom he is tied.
So much for the names.
Saccard, who navigates behind the dirty scenes of this imperial feast, buys a mansion on the Monceau park and it is amusing to guess in the long descriptions written by Emile Zola – a synthesis of the Emile Menier mansion and the Abraham de Camondo mansion (not the museum but the second private mansion that cannot be visited, 61 Monceau street).
The Menier mansion was completed in 1870, while the Abraham de Camondo mansion was not completed until 1875, while “The Kill” was published in 1871. The two mansions have Winter gardens – “this brand new luxury that are these salons-greenhouses” – are very richly decorated and I want to believe that the Saccard mansion takes a bit of both buildings to invent the Saccard mansion, located on Monceau street.
61 Monceau street seen from Nissim de Camondo museum
Gaston Menier mansion, with its Winter garden
When you know the place, it is easy to imagine Renée, the young and sensual wife of Saccard, fleeing at nightfall from her private mansion through the small gate which opens directly onto the Monceau park to join her horse-drawn carriage, waiting on a deserted Malesherbes boulevard and reaching the Café Riche on the Italiens boulevard.
The Monceau district of that time was not as urbanized as it is today. The city of Paris, in full expansion under Haussmann’s aegis, casts its nets on the still very rural suburb of the Monceau plain. Morny is maneuvering with the big names in real estate development – the Pereire brothers and Jules Mirès – who are acquiring building lands at a low price which they know will soon be bought at a high price by the city of Paris, because they are on the route of the future avenues designed by Haussmann.
What makes the uniform beauty of a Haussmannian Paris today makes the fortune, at that time, of land speculators without faith or law.
The Monceau park, which is one of the four parks developed by Napoleon III who admired a London city punctuated with green spaces, is the only Haussmannian park that offers a direct access from private mansions to the park itself.
Suffice to say that it was all the high society of Paris who settled around this green space: the industrial fortunes and the wealthy bankers of the time surrounded the Monceau park by having sumptuous mansions.
Aristide Saccard is the archetype of this imperial feast, so glorious in appearance, and yet so depraved backstage.
The magnificent mansions that can be guessed around the Monceau park are the fading echo of the imperial feast. Finding the names of their former owners requires some research, and the combination of all these illustrious names – the Pereires, the Rothschilds, the Camondos, the Reinachs, the Meniers, to name but a few – is dizzying.
Here is a guided tour of the Monceau park and its surrounding areas.
Hoche avenue, called Reine-Hortense avenue during the Second Empire (after the name of Queen Hortense, the mother of Napoléon III and the Duke of Morny)
Emile Meunier mansion, Van Dyck avenue
Emile Meunier mansion, from the Monceau park – The Winter garden is hidden by the trees
Another Meunier mansion (Henri’s), from Alfred de Vigny street
The same mansion, from the Monceau park
The Pereire mansion, from the Alfred de Vigny street
The Pereire mansion, from the Monceau park
The Reinach mansion (which happens to be my kids’ school)
19 Rembrandt street, Léopold Goldschmidt mansion, a German banker. James Stillman, a US fortune, buys the builing and transforms it into a military hospital during WWI
3 Ruÿsdael avenue – Auguste Dreyfus mansion
4 Ruÿsdael avenue – Gaston Menier mansion
6 Rüysdael avenue – Émile Bieckert mansion
55 Monceau street – Cattaui mansion, Egyptian bankers
63 Monceau street – Nissim de Camondo museum, from the park
Nissim de Camondo museum, from Monceau street
7 Velasquez avenue, Cernuschi museum, the former mansion of Henri Cernuschi, banker
5 Velasquez avenue, the Chauchard mansion
54, Lisbonne street, Emmanuel Rodocanachi mansion, historian
The charming Rembrandt street ends up with M. Loo red pagoda.
April 7, 2023