Friday, May 25, 2012

A timely entrance in a society that was rotting - Zola's strange narrator

I have divided The Kill into Balzac pieces and Flaubert pieces.  One more piece.  Not sure what to call it.  The Hugo piece, maybe.  Hugo gone mad.

A sample of how Zola’s narrator sounds while discussing the affair between the stepson and stepmother:

They had given themselves to each other for years; the animal act was simply the culmination of this unconscious malady of passion.  In the maddened world in which they lived, their sin had sprouted as on a dunghill oozing with strange juices; it had developed with strange refinements amid special conditions of perversion.  (IV, 154)

If you are thinking “This could make a dang good audiobook,” I agree.  It would give the actor a lot to do.

These two sentences are enough to show what happens to Zola’s scientism whenever he chooses to employ it.  The “animal acts” and “unconscious malady” sound sort of scientific, or objective, if that word means anything.  But what about the “maddened world” and the “sin” and the vivid simile that I have a hard time reading as dispassionate description.

Victor Hugo’s persona in his fiction – in real life, I suspect – is a sage, a dispenser of knowledge and wisdom.  Bombast is one of his many rhetorical devices, and one could find a few similarly condemnatory flourishes in Les Misérables.  Zola’s narrator writes like this all the time, whenever he is not grounded by 1) a scene (Flaubert), or 2) an explanation (Balzac).

Admittedly, that covers most of the book.  The novel has only seven chapters.  Chapters I and VI, the big parties, are single continuous scenes.  The narrator is too busy describing the tropical flowers and costumes to pass judgment on anyone.  Those two chapters are almost a third of the book.  Now remove the restaurant scene, the fireplace scene, the construction site scene, and a couple of interesting scenes at Renée’s childhood home.  Next, all of the financial dealings.  I do not think there is much left.  What there is, though, look out:

In [Maxime] the Rougons had become refined, had grown delicate and corrupt…  he was a defective offspring in whom the parental shortcomings were combined and exacerbated.  The family lived too fast; it was dying out already in this frail creature, whose sex remained uncertain, and who represented, not greed for money and pleasure like Saccard, but a mean nature devouring ready-made fortunes, a strange hermaphrodite making a timely entrance in a society that was rotting.  (III, 103)

This whole paragraph is something else.  How about this part:

But his special characteristic was his eyes, two clear blue apertures, coquettes’ mirrors behind which one could see the emptiness of his brain.  These whorish eyes were never lowered…

Flaubert’s goal was to conceal the narrator even in passages not tied down to specific scenes.  His narrator would never simply say that society was rotting or condemn a character’s greed or sexual behavior.  Zola’s narrator is highly visible and gleefully tells his reader in the strongest terms he can just that.  Modern readers are likely to find themselves much less bothered by Renée’s supposed incest than the narrator is.

I have no idea to what extent the narrator’s pronouncements are meant to be taken seriously.  Since I did not take them, or The Kill, seriously I thought they were often hilarious.  I mean, just as an example, you cannot see what is behind a mirror, right?  That’s a joke, comic hyperbole.

I guess I should read another Zola novel and see what other modes he has.  Or someone can just tell me in a comment.

My vacation!  Zola has me so worked up I almost forgot.  I’ll be back Wednesday.  Maybe I will try to write about Robert Walser next week.


  1. Have a nice break!

    Very interesting article about the Narrator. I don't remember anything about narrators in other books by Zola. I don't recall him talking to the reader, for example.

    Here, he's prejudiced against the world he describes and it's obvious in the way he describes the characters.

    PS: I didn't read the first chapter in the Bois de Boulogne, I had it in an audio version. It was fantastic.His style is excellent for listening, the description are even more vivid.


  2. Prejudiced against the world - is he ever! It leaks out constantly - I should say oozes out. I will keep an eye on this as I read more Zola.

    Thanks, by the way, for directing my attention to this book.

  3. I'm intrigued by this part of your post: 'The “animal acts” and “unconscious malady” sound sort of scientific, or objective, if that word means anything.'

    It sounds like you're drawing close to something interesting only to move away from it again. I think that 'scientific' and 'objective' may be other kinds of rhetoric that Zola employs. So they do mean things, but perhaps not what they are always intended to mean in the world beyond Zola. Although that is true for a great deal of what happens in Zola! Perhaps it's a facet of his literary imagination that he is obliged to create a whole world, slightly to the left of the real one, in order to have events work out the way he 'scientifically' thinks things should.

  4. Ha, yes! My rhetoric is clear enough - that was definitely a retreat.

    The two parts you describe are necessary, aren't they? How does a concept ("science"), or an argument, work within the novel, and then, separately, how does the language connect to the "real" world. The in-world and out-world concepts likely differ in interesting ways.

    Your comment will help be with later Zola. The best reason for my retreat is that I have only read two Zola novels and had better be careful with my over-confident generalizations.

  5. I've read only one Zola--La Bete Humaine--and it was a slog. It was nothing like what you quote here which, if I didn't know better, I would be sure couldn't possibly be the same Zola. God, it's wonderful--disgusting and hilarious, like D.H. Lawrence having a nervous breakdown. I have this book. I think it just got much closer to the top of my TBR pile.

  6. "D.H. Lawrence having a nervous breakdown" - that's pretty good!

    La Bête humaine is almost twenty years later. A lot can happen to a writer's style in twenty years.

  7. That's true--twenty years is a long time. I fear Zola completely lost his sense of humour and joie de vivre in those twenty years.

  8. Is that an elaborate bibliographical joke? La joie de vivre was published six years before La Bête humaine.