When I complained about the vagueness of the scenes and the lack of furniture in James’s The Spoils of Poynton, I was actually complaining about the unbelievable, even ludicrous, excess of furniture in Zola’s The Kill. This was all very subtle; undetectable, in fact.
The Kill practically begins with an auto expo. Barouche, chariot, “smart victoria and pair,” “an enchanting light-brown cab,” brougham, landau. Perhaps Zola is simply looking at the Wikipedia page for “Types of horse-drawn carriages” like I am. But no, I suspect he means something by this precision.
The novel actually begins with a high society traffic jam in the newly hip and refurbished Bois de Boulogne. Much of the cast of the novel is paraded past us – or I guess I am moving, since they are stuck – placed in the appropriate conveyance that perfectly signals their status and wealth. None of it is at all memorable on the first pass through the book, even though as I look back I can clearly see how much of it reappears later.
The heroine’s clothes might be memorable: a mauve silk gown, a white coat with mauve lapels, “a man’s double eyeglass with a tortoiseshell frame, and, on a “warm October day,” a giant bearskin. A polar bear, apparently, since it “filled the inside of the carriage as with a sheet of silky snow.” A different bearskin appears 150 pages later, but a black (“inky”) one, now the setting for literally steamy hothouse sex (“The hothouse was heated to such a point that he fainted on the bearskin,” Ch. IV, 157). That “he” was driving the bearskin-filled barouche back on page 3. I am not convinced that The Kill is written with the care of Madame Bovary, but it is not simply slapped together.
The hothouse is given an elaborate description at the end of Chapter I, when the narrator abandons his heroine (she is busy eavesdropping on that driver and future lover) for a two page botanical tour. Cyclanthus, dwarf fern, a banana tree, Abyssinian euphorbias. Precision threatens to turn into a mere list, but each plant is also given an identifying detail or metaphor so that alsophilas look like “large pieces of porcelain made specially for the fruit of some gigantic dessert” and “deformed prickly cactuses” are “covered with hideous excrescences, oozing with poison.” As you can see, the omniscient narrator often describes things in ways that make me fear for his sanity. The flowers of a hibiscus:
resembled, it might have been imagined, the eager, sensual mouths of women, the red lips, soft and moist, of some colossal Messalina, bruised by kisses, and constantly renewed, with their hungry, bleeding smiles. (38)
The passive voice is amusing – “might have been.” This may be the smuttiest passage in the history of Wuthering Expectations, and thus it leads the narrator’s attention back to Renée who, surrounded by tropical plants, suggestive statuary, strange lighting effects (“glaucous masses with monstrous outlines”), and especially “[a]n indescribable perfume, potent, exciting… coarse and pestilential, laden with poison” has some sort of sensual epiphany which remains unfocused until she overhears her venal husband forcing the money plot into the sex plot (“’But in my share you valued each metre of frontage at two hundred and fifty francs.’”):
Renée, her mind wandering, her mouth dry and parched, took between her lips a sprig of the [venomous] tanghin tree that was level with her mouth, and sunk her teeth into one of its bitter leaves. (40)
And, cut. End of chapter. But we’ll return to the poisonous hothouse.
I became distracted by the carriages and plants. The Kill is also full of furniture. And dresses, unbelievable dresses. You should see the “Tahitian” number Renée wears near the end. But I have to move on.