Excerpt from Emila Zola’s La Curée (The Kill), published in 1872:
‘…Maxime also brought these ladies photographs. He had actresses’ photographs in all his pockets, and even in his cigar-case. From time to time he cleared them out and placed these ladies in the album that lay about on the furniture in the drawing-room, and that already contained the photographs of Renée’s friends. There were men’s photographs there too, M. de Rozan, Mr. Simpson, MM. de Chibray, de Mussy, as well as actors, writers, deputies, who had come to swell the collection nobody knew how. A strangely mixed society, a symbol of the jumble of persons and ideas that crossed Renée’s and Maxime’s lives. Whenever it rained or they felt bored, this album was the great subject of conversation. It always ended by falling under one’s hand. Renée opened it with a yawn, for the hundredth time perhaps. Then her curiosity would reawaken, and the young man came and leant behind her. And then followed long discussions about the Crayfish’s hair, Madame de Meinhold’s double chin, Madame de Lauwrens’ eyes, and Blanche Muller’s bust; about the marquise’s nose, which was a little on one side, and little Sylvia’s mouth, which was renowned for the thickness of its lips. They compared the women with one another.
‘If I were a man,’ said Renée, ‘I would choose Adeline.’
‘That’s because you don’t know Sylvia,’ replied Maxime. ‘She is so quaint!…. I must say I prefer Sylvia.’
The pages were turned over; sometimes the Duc de Rozan appeared, or Mr. Simpson, or the Comte de Chibray, and he added, jeering at her:
‘Besides, your taste is perverted, everybody knows that… Can anything more stupid be imagined than the faces of those men! Rozan and Chibray are both like Gustave, my hairdresser.’
Renée shrugged her shoulders, as if to say that she was beyond the reach of sarcasm. She again forgot herself in the contemplation of the pallid, smiling, or cross-grained faces contained in the album; she lingered longest over the portraits of the fast women, studying with curiosity the exact microscopic details of the photographs, the minute wrinkles, the tiny hairs. One day she even sent for a strong magnifying glass fancying she had perceived a hair on the Crayfish’s nose. And in fact the glass did reveal a thin golden thread which had strayed from the eyebrows down to the middle of the nose. This hair diverted them for a long time. For a week long the ladies who called were made to assure themselves in person with the presence of this hair.’
Translated from the French by Alexander Teixeira de Mattos