This novel is so full of remarkable moments that I hardly know where to start.
Napoleon III puts in a few cameo appearances. At the end of Chapter Three, when the upwardly mobile Saccards are invited to their first Imperial ball, the emperor makes a formal entrance through the lined-up ranks of the guests. The beautiful, daringly attired Renée strikes him, and he stares at her in passing, with a rare gleam in his otherwise clouded and heavy=lidded eyes. He and his entourage buzz about her. The momentary encounter, we are told, was the high note of her life (“la note aiguë de sa vie.”)
Then he turns up right near the end of the novel. He is driven in his carriage through the Bois de Boulogne, coincidentally in the midst of the daily afternoon outing of the wealthy in their deluxe coaches. René observes him unseen from her coach
Renée trouva l’empereur vieilli. Sous les grosses moustaches cirées, la bouche s’ouvrait plus mollement. Les paupières s’alourdissaient au point de couvrir à demi l’œil éteint, dont le gris jaune se brouillait davantage. Et le nez seul gardait toujours son arête sèche dans le visage vague.While the socialites on there own landaus and berlines quietly and ironically gawk, Saccard, walking by on foot, cries out in his Provençal accent “Vive l’empereur !” The emperor turns in surprise, seems to recognize him, and salutes shim ad he rides away.
(Renée found that the emperor had aged. Under his large waxed moustache, the mouth was more softly opem. His eyelids had grown heavy to the extent of half-covering his dulled eyes, whose yellow-graty had become even more blurry. Only his nose still kept the dry ridge in his indistinct face.)
As much as Zola detested Napoleon III and as much as he satirizes the freed and stupidity of French society of the Second Empire, this passage has a surprisingly elegiac tone. The end seems in sight – for the day, for the emperor, for Renée Saccard whose point of view we are guided by, and for the triumph of the society of the Second Empire, symbolized by this daily excursion in landaus and barouches owned by the wealthy and idle through the recently refurbished Bois de Boulogne That cavalcade of conspicuous consumption frames the beginning and end of the novel.
Renée sees a kind of poetic rightness to this brief encounter near dusk.
Il lui semblait que l’empereur, en se mêlant à la file des voitures, venait d’y mettre le dernier rayon nécessaire, et de donner un sens à ce défilé triomphal.But for Renée, the sense of triumph is bitter and painful, as her empire, her triumph has all but faded.
(It seemed to her that the Emperor, in mixingc in with the row of carriages just gave the last, needed ray, and to give a meaning to this triumphal parade.)