Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The eager, sensual mouths of women, the red lips, soft and moist - Zola describes things

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.


  1. This is funny, really.
    Have you been to the Musée des Frères Lumière when you were in Lyon? The winter garden room is gorgeous. I saw it stuffed with all these exotic plants when I read this passage by Zola. I rather agree with you : the description of the plants is as wild as the actual greenery.

    I thought the descriptionof the Parisian night when Maxime takes Renee out very detailed and so precise I could picture the boulevards.

    Oh! And the descriptions of food in Le ventre de Paris. Incredible.

  2. Yes, I did go to the Musée des Frères Lumière. It was a bit of a pilgrimage, actually, a visit to a shrine.

    The restaurant scene is very impressive, and a tempting subject. Also perhaps a little easier to write about than those huge party scenes.

    Le ventre de Paris is next in the sequence, so I bet that will be my next Zola. The food and market aspect is irresistible. The markets may be my favorite part of France. Ah, fear I am a glutton.

    1. I like Lyon for the names of its neighbourhoods like Montchat, Montplaisir. It's nice.

      Markets are a great place to get fresh fruits and vegetables.

      PS: I don't know where you're going in France but email me if you'd like to meet.

    2. And what about Les Halles de Lyon, the gourmet market - that was also a pleasing place to visit.

      Thank you for the kind offer to meet. It might take several guesses to pick where we are going this summer (hint and also answer: Perpignan). Perhaps our route to it will take us through Lyon.

  3. If it's descriptions of flowers you want, then you should really read The Sin of Abbe Mouret - it's got 50-100 pages of flower descriptions, with some trivial love story going on all the while in the background.

  4. I wonder how much I want them. It was startling to see that the entire hothouse description was only at most 4 pages long. It felt much longer after only a single page of nothing but tropical plants.

    The Abbe Mouret novel sounds insane. Useful, too - useful for demolishing any number of received ideas about Zola.

  5. I'm hoping I'm over them now though, and we can get back to the story. I imagine they are there to symbolise the super-abundant fertility of nature - the sheer animalism (plantism?) which Mouret's desperate religious doctrines aren't going to be able to withstand. - It's the sheer subtility of Zola's symbolism that amuses me.

    It's only really this novel that I've found his descriptions troubling - which, as I say, might just be because of my ignorance of plants (it's just a list of terms to me, I can't imagine any of it). The department store novel I enjoyed immensely.

  6. I feel that there is often a deterioration in Zola's descriptions from their initial attempt to describe something lovely and charming (or 'smart' and 'enchanting') to something more powerful and worrisome underneath, sexuality, violence, malevolence, greed, something a person might lose their head's over.

    There's a similar sort of rhythm at play in Zola's chapters (at least in the books I've read and I haven't read this one) where often we begin with optimism and hope, before weltering once again in disaster or misery. And overall the trajectory of the narrative is one from ambition to its disappointment.

    Alas, I've never got as far as figuring out what I think this all means. But I would risk saying that Zola did understand the consumer mentality - that wanting things, which might seem good and positive, originates from, and may end up back in, something violent and ultimately self-defeating, a kind of over-reaching.

    Wonderful choices for quotes, AR.

  7. That chapter (and overall) trajectory you describe fits The Kill perfectly.

    The heroine in this novel is sated by things, yet still yearns desperately for something else. What to do when you have bought everything already? She & Zola bring the consumer mentality to a state of crisis.

  8. I'm altogether late to commenting on your commenting on The Kill (which I read not long after the Goldhammer translation appeared), but have been following it with the same debauched delight I experienced when I read the novel ("...hideous excrescences, oozing with poison" seems to sum up The Kill itself pretty well). Oh, and I seem to recall mentioning this before, but the Musée Nissim de Camondo just off Parc Monceau in Paris struck me, when I visited it, as the perfect place for revisiting this novel in one's head.

  9. Ah, yes! By weird coincidence, most of The Kill actually takes place on the map I included in this Bolaño post, in or on or next to that exact mansion.

  10. The plants remind me of Huysmans's disgusting specimens in "A Rebours": flowers reminiscent of syphilis, wounded flesh, leprosy, etc. I wonder if Huysmans had Zola in mind?

  11. Good question. No way Huysman had not read it. They were even pals by the time A Rebours was written.

    The passage does seem like a close relative of the later decadents, doesn't it? I am going to try to address this tomorrow, but at a kind of slant angle.

  12. Zola was Huysmans's mentor; and "A Rebours" was Huysmans's break with Naturalism. Zola didn't like it. That makes the question of the flowers more interesting -- to me, at any rate...

  13. I see. So a deliberate parody of some sort. I did not notice a bejeweled tortoise in The Kill. (Am I thinking of the right book? - I haven't read Huysman).

    Honestly, if I did not know the timeline, based on the two Zola novels I have read I would think Zola was a "decadent" too.

  14. And I've read Huysmans, but not Zola... Most of "A Rebours" was apparently inspired by Robert de Montesquiou, including that poor tortoise; but I hadn't known there was a precedent for the flower chapter. Parody or imitation? Anyway, more overtones.

  15. Come to think of it I have read a version of the Huysman flower chapter since I have read Dorian Gray. I should read the real thing some time.