Spent: Émile Zola’s The Kill

Keith and I continue to make our way through Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series. You can find his take on The Kill here.

The Kill is a great book, light-years more compelling than its predecessor, The Fortune of the Rougons, which Keith and I wrote about not so long ago. You could absolutely read this without having read the earlier book. In fact, I think Kill is the perfect entry point into Zola’s work.

The book is at once a miniature and an epic. It’s short—well under 300 pages—with a small cast of major characters. It has thematic density and coherence: its three great subjects—financial speculation, urban modernization, and the equation of spectacle and desire—are different iterations of the same dynamic and destructive energy. And its style is similarly uniform: the book is composed mostly of fabulous blocks of descriptions that show how significant and yet destabilizing appearances can be. An early description of the Bois du Boulogne—the vast new park that is the setting of the opening and closing scenes—is larded with the language of artificiality: what seems natural is anything but (conversely, what seems contrived is, in the Paris of the 1850s, understood as quite natural): a grouping of evergreens is “theatrical,” its foliage “like the fringe of curtains”; the landscape is “like a newly painted piece of scenery” manifesting “an air of entrancing artificiality”; the walks that wend their way through the park are lined with iron hoops “in imitation of rustic woodwork.”

I’ve already written a little about Zola’s yes of description in my post on The Belly of Paris, but there’s still more to say, not least about his use of similes—are these another instance of the insatiable drive of a capitalist economy (which of course doesn’t spare the arts) to transmute one thing into another, to take something solid and turn it into air? Or are these similes the very method by which the controlling entity that is Zola’s narration reacts against, even acts as a check on, capitalism’s headlong and glib transformations? To say more, I feel the need to read Lukács’s famous essay on narration and description. As I understand it, he posits description as a reactionary force (because committed to keeping things the same, by telling how things are) opposed to the progressive potential of narration (which is about change). If that’s right, all I can say is that Lukács must not have read Zola. (Surely he did—but what on earth did he make of him?) The power of Zola’s description might not fall neatly into the progressive/reactionary distinction, but I can’t see how anyone could read Zola and think description was committed either to keeping things the same, or neutrally observing what exists.

If anyone has ideas about this, I want to hear them. I’ll keep thinking about the issue as we make our way through more of the cycle. For now, though, tempted as I am to simply cite long chunks of the novel, I want to consider some of the moments that ruffle the novel’s clarity. These moments often concern secondary characters. Although unimportant to the plot, and perhaps even to its themes, these characters are what give the novel a pleasingly unruly and capacious quality. They are hints of bagginess in an otherwise controlled exercise.

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As its title suggests—and Keith gives a lovely explanation of the connotations of the original—this is a turbulent, even violent book. Often that violence concerns financial speculation and chicanery. In this regard, the book is only too relevant to our own gilded age. But the book’s violence is often less abstract and more corporeal. And invariably women are the ones who suffer from that violence. It’s as if the economic machinations—which are concerned with making something out of nothing (as when Saccard inflates the rents of his buildings in order to increase the payout when he is compensated for their expropriation)—need a physical analogue; the bodily version of making something from nothing is the ability to reproduce.

So we have Renée’s rape, resulting in her pregnancy, leading to her desperate marriage to Saccard. It tells us a lot about the cultural acceptability of rape that Saccard has no scruples about pretending to have perpetrated the act. In the end, she miscarries (an event uncannily predicted by Saccard’s sister, the mysterious and cutthroat Madame Sidonie, in a brisk and businesslike way that makes me wonder if she had some kind of hand in it). That might be for the best, given the fate of children (especially girls) in this novel. Saccard, for example, pawns his daughter from his first marriage off on his brother, Pascal (the doctor I discussed in my post on Fortune), although given what we’ve seen of the latter’s kindness, she might be better off with him.

Throughout the novel, Zola compares Saccard and Maxime. Although they superficially seem quite different—the father a ruthless speculator, the son a languorous dandy—the end of the book intimates that the son might be ready to follow the father into a life of speculation rather than simply gliding along as he has. (In the novel’s memorable formulation, “he usually remained at the bottom of whatever pit he fell into.”) We oughtn’t be surprised by that possibility, though, because we’ve already seen that Maxime is more than ready to ape the father when it comes to women. In fact, he does something even worse than his father. Whereas Saccard didn’t actually rape Renée—he only pretends to have been the man who did it—Maxime has no such scruples with his stepmother’s first maid. As the narrator wryly puts it, describing the way Renée introduces Maxime to the world of female sexual display by asking him to accompany her to her dressmaker: “The excellent education Maxime received bore early fruit.” The consequences of that fruit are much more serious for the maid than for him:

At seventeen the young lad seduced his stepmother’s maid. The worst of the affair was that the maid had a baby. They had to send her to the country with the brat, and give her a small annuity.

Zola’s judgmental language—“the worst of the affair,” “the brat”—isn’t just a ventriloquism of Maxime’s perspective. It’s the whole family’s, even the whole society’s. Saccard doesn’t care; he just pays out. But Renée is furious, yet not because of his abuse of his power over the young woman, but because of the girl’s social standing: “That he, whom she wanted to turn into a gentlemen, should compromise herself with a girl like that!” But she gets over her anger quickly enough, when she considers what a delightful scandal it would have been had Maxime in fact taken her advice to “have started off with a lady.” What the maid makes of it all or what becomes of her life: the novel doesn’t know or care.

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I suggested a moment ago that Maxime does what his father doesn’t—the son actually takes advantage of a woman, while the father only pretends to. But that’s only because the older man doesn’t have to. At two key moments in the book, Saccard is poised to hurt a woman, even kill her, but then something happens to stop him. One is an important scene Keith mentions, in which Saccard discovers Maxime and Renée’s affair, but is diverted from whatever emotional and physical outburst he is on the point of launching when he sees that his wife has signed over her property to him. (It is interesting that Renée is disappointed that nothing dramatic or drastic happens, as if the affair would only hold meaning if it did unleash trouble.)

The other is to my mind the most vivid scene in the novel. It describes the death of Saccard’s first wife, Angèle, whom he brought to Paris from Plassans. Angèle might be “an insipid, fair-haired person,” but she’s shrewd in her insight into the depth of Saccard’s desire to carve his fortune from the flesh of Paris, no matter what the cost. (There’s a great scene with them in a little restaurant overlooking the city, in which Saccard accurately predicts just where the new boulevards will slice through the city.) Saccard’s attitude to Angèle is deplorable; he thinks of her as “an inconvenient piece of furniture of which he was eager to rid himself.” And before long he gets his wish. She comes down with a lung inflammation that quickly worsens. It’s as the woman is dying in their cramped rooms—“death entered slowly into the hot, moist room, where the uneven breathing of the dying woman sounded like the spasmodic ticking of a clock running down”—that his sister comes to him with the proposal about marrying the disgraced Renée in exchange for money and property. Saccard is immediately tempted; he sends his sister to conclude the negotiations, leaving him to wrestle with whatever scruples he has:

Saccard went to the window and pressed his forehead against the icy panes. He forgot himself so far as to beat a tattoo with his fingers on the glass. But the night was so black, the darkness outside hung in such strange masses, that he began to feel uneasy and returned to the room where Angèle lay dying. He had forgotten her [!!!], and received a terrible shock on finding her half raised up on her pillows; her eyes wide open, a flush of life seemed to have returned to her cheeks and lips. Little Clotilde [the daughter who will soon be shipped south], still nursing her doll, was sitting on the edge of the bed; as soon as her father’s back was turned, she had quickly slipped into the room from which she had been removed and to which all her happy childish curiosity attracted her. Saccard, his head full of his sister’s proposal, saw his dream dashed. A hideous thought must have shone from his eyes. Angèle, terrified, tried to throw herself back in the bed, against the wall; but death was at hand, this awakening in agony was the last flicker of the lamp. The dying woman was unable to move; she sank back, keeping her eyes fixed on her husband, as if to watch his every movement. Saccard, who had dreaded a resurrection, a devil’s device of destiny to keep him in penury, was relieved to see that the wretched woman had not an hour to live [!!!]. He now felt nothing but deep anxiety. Angèle’s eyes told him she had overheard his conversation with Madame Sidonie, and that she was afraid he would strangle her if she did not die quickly enough. Her eyes also betrayed the terrified amazement of a sweet and inoffensive nature that discovers at the last moment the infamy of this world, and shudders at the thought of the many years spent living with a thief.

Jesus! This has to be one of the most cruel scenes in literature, up there with the end of Père Goriot and Brighton Rock. From the beginning the passage shows Saccard’s terrible selfishness: if we are expecting the first sentence to be an indication of his anxiety for his wife, or his guilt about what he is contemplating, we are immediately disabused: he’s pressing his forehead against the window not because he’s distraught but because he’s so excited by his future prospects that he beats a lively rhythm against the panes. (He’s practically about to burst into song.) Is Saccard ruthless enough to murder her? My sense is he’d really rather not but that if he had to, well, needs must. (His sister would do it in a second.) Think about how he describes the possibility that Angèle might recover: not as a blessed or fiercely-desired event, almost a miracle, but rather as “a devil’s device of destiny to keep him in penury.”

In the end, everything goes Saccard’s way. Angèle obligingly dies, and even gives mute signs of forgiveness. Clothide’s attitude here (and let’s not forget her doll: an important motif) is shown to be one of natural curiosity, a kind of childish fascination with death that could seem ghoulish but that the novel seems to present as innocent. But she’s paying attention to the wrong thing. The lesson here isn’t that bodies are mortal, but that men are bad, or, at least, that they are ready to use women for their advantage.

Throughout the novel, even in circumstances less grim than this one, women are trophies for men, pawns to be used to bolster their self image and to help them get ahead. There’s no difference between Saccard’s marrying Renèe for money and him giving her ostentatious jewelry that he requires her to wear at parties in front of his business associates. And there’s only a slight difference between these sets of exchanges and Saccard’s willingness to murder his first wife and Maxime’s casual seduction and abandonment of the maid.

So thoroughgoing is this attitude of violence to women that even scenes that could otherwise seem sweet become ominous. Late in the book there’s a vivid scene in which Saccard and some associates tour a building site. Renèe’s property, the one she in desperation signed over to her husband for pennies on the dollar, is to be torn down to make way for one of the new boulevards. As the men, dressed in their fine clothes, advance gingerly through a sea of mud, half-enviously, half-contemptuously observing the efforts of the myriad of workmen dismantling the site, they reminisce about the neighbourhood that was. One of the businessmen, who used to live there, sees his old rooms in a half-demolished building: “A breach in the wall showed it quite bare, already cut into on one side, with wallpaper with a pattern of big, yellow flowers, a broad strip of which fluttered in the wind.” The old man is overcome with emotion for his younger days, a time when he was poorer, perhaps more honest, and, it seems, a little happier, not least because, as his colleagues tease him, he was sowing his wild oats: “‘I still remember an ironing girl who lived opposite. The bed was on the right, near the window. Ah, my poor room, look what they’ve done to it.” Is the bed his or hers? Either way, they presumably slept in it. And what happened to the girl? The man doesn’t care, he’s on about his room. Hard not to read the description of the room’s violation as a hint at the fate of the woman.

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Happily, not every woman in the novel is abused. The prime exception is Céleste, Renée’s maid (presumably hired after Maxime disgraced the previous one). For most of the novel she glides almost unnoticed in the background. The most we learn of her is that she is “always methodical,: and arranges her mistresses dresses according to their dates, labelling them and “introducing arithmetic into [Renée’s] blue and yellow caprices. She kept this closet as calm as a sacristy and as clean as a stable.” These qualities inhere in all aspects of her life, it turns out: at the end of the book, she abruptly leaves Renée’s employ, the very day when she has saved the five thousand francs she needs to return to her village and set up a little shop. Renée, who has deceived herself that nothing can shake the woman’s devotion to her—to the point when she mawkishly imagines Céleste closing the eyes on her corpse—is shocked to find that the maid cares nothing for her, indeed has contempt for her whole way of life. Céleste refuses Renée’s entreaties, her promises of money: “‘You could offer me all the gold in Peru,I wouldn’t stay a week longer. You really don’t know me. I’ve been with you for eight years, haven’t I?’ … ‘I’ll go back home; I’ll buy Lagache’s house, and I’ll live very happily’.”

Céleste is the only character in the novel who doesn’t care about Paris, who doesn’t want more than she can have, who gets what she wants, and who doesn’t hurt anybody to do it. (Well, she hurts Renée’s feelings, but that’s because Renée hasn’t a clue about her.) Its interesting to compare her to Saccard’s valet, Baptiste, a figure who shares some of Céleste’s contempt for the family they serve, and is characterized by extreme rectitude. But Saccard fires Baptiste, and Céleste finally tells Renée why: Baptiste has for years been seeking out the stable boys. In the end, Baptiste differs from Céleste in that he continues to inhabit the frenzied world of Parisian high society—after Saccard fires him (rather than prosecuting him, because that would be to risk too much fuss), Baptiste ends up in the employ of another wealthy family. In stereotypical fashion, Baptiste’s homosexuality is expressed primarily through his contempt for women. In this way, he might not be so different from the novel’s other men, though they themselves would no doubt dispute it strenuously.

Out of this landscape of ruined, violated, abused women—I didn’t even mention Louise, Maxime’s tubercular wife, who dies within six months of being married off to him; Henry James would have written a whole novel about her: she is hunch-backed, and witty, and unflappable, but her knowingness doesn’t stop her from being taken advantage of, for Maxime only marries her for her money—the woman who suffers the most is Renée. There’s the rape, of course, and the abuse Saccard and Maxime put her to. There’s her father’s coldness to and disdain for her. And there’s her self-abuse, almost a kind of masochism, expressed in her need to feel her relationship with her step-son in a sin, even a crime. (In this regard, the novel shares her feeling: Zola repeatedly describes their affair as “incest,” which isn’t quite accurate, as if he feels the need to insist that what their relationship is deplorable.)

Keith finds her the only sympathetic character in the novel: I’d put Angèle in that role first, and Céleste second, but I see what he means. It’s hard not to feel for her, especially when she thinks of herself as a broken doll: “she had come to that, to being a big doll from whose broken chest escaped a thin trickle of sawdust.” In the novel’s final scene, she returns to her childhood home and makes her way to the room on the top floor where she and her sister spent their happiest times. The room is sadly denuded, deserted, silent, a shell of its former self. Among other bits of junk she finds one of her old dolls, “all the bran had flowed out through a hole, and the porcelain head continued to smile with its enameled lips, above the wasted body which seemed as if exhausted by puppet follies.”

Exhausted by its own follies—even in this offhand description the novel casts judgment on women and the figurines that symbolize them, as if the bran (or sawdust, in the earlier image) had run out through the fault of their own dissipation. But it would be more accurate to say that this enervation is the result of their abuse at the hands of men. If everything has to change so that it can stay the same—so that the rich can get richer, and the poor poorer—then we need to consider the role women play in this rapacious stasis. Almost without exception they comprise the spoils that the masters of speculation tear into in what Zola calls—and now we can see this is a pleonasm—“an orgy of gold and women.”

 

 

 

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17 thoughts on “Spent: Émile Zola’s The Kill

  1. Pingback: The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors: Émile Zola’s The Kill (Guest Post, Keith Bresnahan) | Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau

  2. Dorian, thanks for this post; your analysis here is so smart on what’s going on in this book, who suffers (women), and who benefits from that suffering (men, mainly). I’ll try to offer a few more thoughts on this, in light of what I wrote in my own post, but also what I left out.
    Firstly, I’m in total agreement about the female characters here, who are treated as ciphers of pure exchange — something Renée points to in her comment about society women as prostitutes, traded on the exchange-floor of society: they are furniture, dolls, experiences, but never individuals, so far as the men are concerned. I was perhaps too hasty in declaring Renée the only sympathetic character; certainly I think this is true by the novel’s end, but obviously Angèle belongs in this category, too. The cruelty of that early death-room scene, as you point out, is harrowing. Her wished-for death is a mere expedient for Aristide to fulfill his personal vision of wealth. It’s no less an expedient for Zola, who needs to get her out of the way to progress the narrative, I suppose – but at least he uses her death to show us Aristide’s total lack of human feeling. And Céleste, too, though I couldn’t garner much feeling for her. I was much fonder of Louise, poor rich hunchbacked Louise, destined to die an early death; if there’s one character here whom I wish I could see featured in their own novel, it’s her. I disagree that she is taken advantage of by Maxime, though: I think she absolutely knows he’s only marrying her for her dowry (a million francs!), but she doesn’t care. Her reaction to discovering her fiancée’s quasi-incestuous affair with his stepmother is telling; a faint smile, not perturbed in the least, and then a sly joke about it later to Maxime, who is horrified. She’s totally unflappable. Zola’s rationale for this, of course, is weirdly genetic: her mother died of syphilis, and passed onto her infant daughter a head full of dissolute sexual experiences!
    I love your characterization of the ‘dynamic and destructive energy’ that runs through this novel — a great description of Haussmannization itself, this productive destruction that opened the city’s veins and let gold coins spill out — and which primarily destroys the women here, who are mere pawns or possessions. Aristide and Eugène’s sister Sidonie escapes it somewhat, but only because she is as ruthless and violent as the men at the heart of this story; Renée’s maid, Celeste, gets outside it all by having nothing to do with men, and remaining untainted by those around her. We’ll see what happens to poor little Clotilde, shipped off to live with her uncle Pascal, but I’m sorry to say the family tree hints at some darker times ahead: 20 years on, she seems to bear his child. Having just read The Conquest of Plassans, I’m mostly wondering how Marthe Rougon (dutiful, naive, religious) is at all related to this family…?

    • Thanks for the kind words, Keith, and the thoughtful response. I liked Celeste more than you, it seems, but part of what I liked was the way she simply left Renée, and revealed their relationship for what it was, a transaction rather than an intimacy. Which makes me wonder: is she like the men in the novel? Or is she the one telling everyone (by which I guess I mostly mean readers) how things really stand?

      Your analysis of Louise makes me rethink my sense of her. I see what you mean. I couldn’t help finding a deep sadness in her apparent knowingness and cynicism. I thought, in other words, that she was acting, and was in fact hurt by Maxime’s actions. But looking back on it I think I just wanted that to be the case; I’m not sure there’s really any evidence to support my wish.

      About Hausmannization: I’d love to hear more about this. For example, what do you make of the fact that the Paris we love and romanticize today is Hausmann’s? I was struck in reading the novel by the juxtaposition of its description of building practices (shoddy, hurried, marked at every point by graft and corruption) with our sense today that “they don’t make things like they used to”–heritage buildings must be preserved, etc. This is a dialectic Zola wasn’t in a position to see, of course. But how does our sense of Paris today as a kind of museum of a certain middle class whiteness relate to the depiction we get of the construction of that Paris in this novel?

      • I think you’re right about Celeste; this is what gives that scene its poignancy, almost the final blow to Renée’s ego; she’s thinking, well, at least I have my faithful servant, even if all these others have abandoned me, and Celeste cuts it short, making clear that she was just biding her time. I don’t think she’s like the men, in that she’s not really exploiting Renée, and might even feel sorry for her, but she clearly sees their relationship differently. Like many of Zola’s provincial domestics, she has plans to return to the country, and never really loses sight of this goal, never allows herself to be dragged down either by male attention (not that this was always a choice), or getting involved in the intrigues of the house. Zola will give us another side of Parisian domestic servants in Pot Luck, which is really more of an upstairs-downstairs tale. In part, this might fit with Zola’s frequent contrasts between Paris as a pit of decadence, the centre of dissipated morals in the Second Empire, and the robust, or naive, provincials who get caught up in it – or avoid doing so?

      • I wonder if Zola is channeling Cezanne in these depictions. As I understand it, he was much less taken by Paris than Zola, and, when he returned to the provinces, kept the company of the kind of people someone like Celeste might be based on.
        I’m really looking forward to Pot Luck!

      • Re: Haussmannization, I’ve come to see The Kill as the great novel of this process (though tbh I’m having a hard time thinking of others; suggestions, anyone?). We see the new city, the city of boulevards and new six-storey buildings, cafés and parks, the Paris of Impressionism, in its guise as a pleasure-ground for Renée and Maxime; but mostly we see it through the lens of the unscrupulous planners, speculators, and builders milking this urban renewal project for all it’s worth – and behind it all, barely glimpsed, the labouring masses who make it happen. And I do think it puts the lie a bit to this wondrous fantasy-production of “Paris,” this bourgeois, modern city, the Paris of Impressionism, of café-bars, or museums, that we all love (and which is absolutely, still, the city of Haussmann’s vision).

        It’s not that we see the suffering this occasioned; on the contrary, as I mentioned in my piece, we don’t really see the urban poor here, who were notoriously pushed out of the new city-centre by the processes of expropriation and demolition (this still remains the case, even if they now live in tower-filled banlieues rather than Montmartre and Belleville). In part, I think this is a strength of Zola’s novel: we don’t see them because they don’t matter at all to those getting rich off of Haussmann’s urban renewal program: the whole urban revolution reshaping the city, the “making of modern Paris” is, for these wealthy denizens, *only* a matter of the profits to be made. No-one seems to really bemoan the loss of the old city, or what it’s doing to its displaced citizens? The only scene I can recall where we see any nostalgia attached to the demolished quarters is the one you note here, with Saccard and his compatriots tramping through the mud of a demolition site, and reminiscing about youthful days in rented rooms (and the sowing of oats with working-class girls). This is interesting in itself, because the idea of Paris becoming foreign even to Parisians is something we see elsewhere in the series – think of Florent in Belly, who is continually getting lost in the city after 7 years away (representing the transformations wrought by Haussmannization). And because we know that this sense of loss was shared by Zola’s peers; I’m thinking especially of that famous quote from the Goncourt journals, written in 1860:
        “My Paris, the Paris in which I was born, the Paris of the manners of 1830 to 1848, is vanishing.… I am foreign to that which is to come, to that which is, and a stranger to these new boulevards that go straight on, without meandering, without the adventures of perspective, implacably a straight line, without any of the atmosphere of Balzac’s world, making one think of some American Babylon of the future.”

        I do think the new Paris is Zola’s *other* great character in the Rougon-Macquart saga, and I’m interested to see, as we move on to some of the more working-class novels of the series (L’Assommoir, for example), how it figures; I’m assuming that these washerwomen, seamstresses, and barflies think of it quite differently, but who knows?

      • I guess we already see a little of this in Belly: the young lovers whose names I now forget join Lantier in a tour through the old winding alleys of the parts of the neighborhood that haven’t (yet) been demolished.
        That quote from Zola is wonderful! I was especially interested in the reference to Babylon, since I recently read Alfred Doblin complaining about *his* city as a Babylon. I guess that’s the go-to trope for everyone facing urban modernization.

      • Re: Cezanne, that definitely could be. Paris in these years was filled with newcomers from the provinces – Zola was one himself, coming to the city from Aix at age 18 to seek his career. Which might also account for the way these novels so often open with a figure returning or arriving in the capital for the first time. In the Plassans books, we see a good deal of small-town scheming, but in the Paris novels, the provincial characters often present as naive, innocent, or salt-of-the-earth? Not sure if this holds for all the books, but I think of Mme François in Belly, and her comments on Paris, and the idyllic day that Florent and Claude Lantier (ie., Cezanne) spend on her farm… I’d say Zola has a deeply ambivalent relationship to Paris?

      • Between 1800 and 1851 the population of Paris doubled, to around 1.1 million, due to broad demographic shifts from countryside to city (aka. modernization); in the next half-century it more than doubled again, adding some 1.7 million inhabitants. But the biggest push came between 1851 and 1856, i.e., the initial years of Haussmannization, when the city gained 250,000 new residents, including large numbers of construction workers and their families – some of whom went back home afterwards, but many of whom stayed and made lives in the capital.

      • And all this movement is really part of a broader trend in French history summed up in the phrase ‘Paris and the provinces’; I can’t think of another modern nation where centralization plays such a dominant role, or where the capital exerts a hegemonic influence over cultural and economic life to the same degree. Even the next largest city, Marseille (smaller by a long-shot) has often not even really been considered part of France in its history, but been seen as belonging more to ‘the South’, and to Africa and the Mediterranean. Not all internal migration in France is towards Paris, of course, but historically it’s been an immensely powerful draw.

  3. I’m not yet sure what to do about the description problem in these books, either: it’s clearly central to what’s going on here — and I agree with you that whatever it’s doing, it’s not doing what Lukács thinks description does.
    Zola would probably claim quasi-scientific objectivity (his famous description of art as “a corner of creation seen through a temperament”), but my sense is that description here does some heavy-lifting as a vehicle of social critique: Zola isn’t just showing things as they are, he’s giving us this overwhelming materiality that overrides narrative and just basically never lets up, pushing the larger context of the greed, suffering, dissipation, material excesses of the Second Empire right to the fore. Not that this critique is usually explicit, but whatever the object of description – architecture, or shop-window displays, or clothing, or whatever – it’s just too much, almost to the point of nausea/disgust, and I think there’s got to be something to that.

    In any case, we’ve got 17 more books to figure it out!

    • I’m interested in the nausea/disgust angle. Because I keep wondering if description is a tool (of critique, say) that Zola has control over, or whether it exceeds his control. Or, rather, I think it must be the latter. In which case disgust is an interesting emotion to think about, since it seems to partake of excess. But whose disgust? Zola’s? The characters’? Ours?

  4. Well, mine, for one! I’ve mentioned that I find reading these descriptions difficult: they’re long and absorbing, and they interrupt narrative flow, they arrest whatever’s going on; but they also literally push me to the point of nausea, these great piles of images and smells and textures and objects and colours and flesh that are just too much. And I wonder whether this is conscious, if Zola is trying to push us to that place beyond satiation, sensory exhaustion, and if so, why? Should we be disgusted by the excesses of Second Empire decadence and luxury? Or is the emphasis on materiality here just part of the naturalist goal of observing everything, presenting it flatly without comment?

    But also just super-weird, at times: Lisa’s pink flesh like boiled meat in Belly of Paris, or Renée in The Kill crouching naked in the hothouse like a great cat, “her wrists tense like supple, nervous hams.” I guess this is supposed to be erotic, or Zola’s just got a thing for ham.

  5. Pingback: the yes of description – essaying to be

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