I’ll knock Zola against Henry James again. James makes surprisingly little use of scenes. The kind of anatomizing of emotion in which he specializes can take place anywhere. Even conversations are often vague and floating – the characters are in the study or walking in the garden. What more do we need to know?
Zola’s answer to the question, in The Kill at least, is sometime the same as James’s. In particular, most of the financial details, all of Saccard’s schemes to flip Paris real estate, is delivered in a sort of summary, often full of metaphors (cash boxes pouring out a rain of gold, for example), but covering months of time and touching down in a dozen locations. Many of these passages seemed highly derivative of Balzac, whose novels are full of bankers and speculators cheating each other for impossibly large and ridiculously precise sums.
Zola’s other answer, though is “everything.” The reader needs to know everything. So the first forty page chapter is one long enormous scene, a ride in the park followed by a party, and Chapter VI, the climax, is another forty page party scene, including a three scene tableau of Echo and Narcissus with an inventory of every costume and what seems like a step-by-step description of a cotillion dance. The heroine has to continually dodge the dancers in order for the story to reach its semi-tragic end.
If the finance is from Balzac, the parties are from Flaubert, dazzling and original variations on scenes from A Sentimental Education. Eça de Queirós plays the same tricks in The Maias with his big choreographed chapter-long parties, although Eça is a purer Flaubertist. The parties let the writer show off.
Zola is at least as impressive on a smaller scale. The main plot pivot is smack in the center of the novel, just where it should be. The heroine makes her stepson take her to a courtesan’s party and then to a restaurant, all of which is vaguely indecent. How can the restaurant be indecent? This is the private room:
Besides the table and chairs, there was a sort of low slab that served as a sideboard, and a wide divan, as large as a bed, that stood between the fireplace and the window… But the curiosity of the room was the huge, handsome mirror, which had been scrawled on by the ladies’ diamonds with names, dates, doggerel verses, high-blown sentiments, and amazing declarations. Renée thought she saw something filthy, but lacked the courage to satisfy her curiosity… she derived profound enjoyment from the suggestive furniture around her… (Ch. IV, 125)
Maxime, the stepson, thoughtlessly orders “Wednesday’s supper,” whatever it was he had eaten the last time he had brought a prostitute to this room.
The mechanics of the dinner and the now inevitable seduction seven pages later should give a novelist plenty to do, but Zola sees the scene more fully. The activity in the room is constantly merged with the noise and life of the boulevard below: a crowd waiting for an omnibus, the posters on a kiosk, the party in the restaurant across the street (we know, and Renée does not, that her husband is there), the prostitutes waiting for customers, one in particular: “When her eyes had grown used to the dark, she saw the woman in the blue dress trimmed with lace standing in the same place, alone in the shadows, waiting and offering herself to the empty night” (133). This is just after the sex, and just before the waiter hands Renée the blue ribbon she had lost.
Well, sometimes the sculptor needs to get out the hammer and pound away for a while, right?
I am not convinced that The Kill adds up to much more than the sum of its parts, but the parts, the parts!