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Therese Raquin by Emile Zola (Oxford edition)Emile Zola (1840 – 1902) was among the foremost French writers in the school of naturalism, close cousin to realism and purveyor of scrupulous honesty, restoring the blood and guts to literature. Or something like that. Therese Raquin is generally cited as his first mature work and his most important prior to the start of the Rougon-Macquart cycle. It was published in 1867, raising a ruckus and getting condemned as pornography in spite of its rather obnoxiously conservative moral views. However, along with that was a deeper confusion that lives on today: people everywhere mistake Therese Raquin for a work of naturalism when it just isn’t. Zola may have intended it for an unflinching study of the human animal but he missed the mark by a mile.

Andrew Rothwell (in the Oxford World’s Classics introduction) made an elaborate defense of its naturalism, brave and well-argued and worth the read but it simply does not convince me. Therese Raquin is so over-the-top that it can’t be counted as anything but a failed attempt. I’m anticipating the Rougon-Macquart books to be more well-grounded.

Zola’s intention in his own words: I chose to portray individuals existing under the sovereign dominion of their nerves and their blood, devoid of free will and drawn into every act of their lives by the inescapable promptings of their flesh…. In a word, I had only one aim, which was: given a powerful man and an unsatisfied woman, to seek within them the animal, and even to see in them only the animal, to plunge them together into a violent drama and then take scrupulous note of their sensations and their actions. I simply carried out on two living bodies the same analytical examination that surgeons perform on corpses. Sure, it’s an interesting literary experiment. After all, realists were giving their characters such psychological depths of choice and consideration that they would someday culminate in Henry James-ish inscrutability. Zola meanwhile, sought to restore blood and guts, as I said. Unfortunately, D.H. Lawrence would prove able to do that far more effectively and he did so without removing his characters from the realms of psychological realism and without turning them into thoughtless beasts to be condemned at every opportunity.

Do read Zola’s preface though. It is a lofty, snobbish, derisive, defensive attack on critics and moral guardians, therefore a treat not to be missed. However, he was able to foresee the opinion of “real” critics: that the case he explored was just too extreme to mesh with his plan. And that is exactly its problem. Forget about the author’s intent. Read from that angle, it can’t help but look exceedingly silly. It’s a failure in one genre, but a triumph in another.

What Therese Raquin can best be compared to are the gothic thrillers of the 19th Century and the crime novels of the 20th. It is a crossover, with all the excessive emotions of the Romantic movement and enough ghostly hauntings, murdered cats, tormented paralytics and extremes of despair to satisfy Poe while on the other hand telling the exact story (passionate wife gets her lover to kill her husband) that James M. Cain would have a field day with in 1934. In fact, I can’t think of an earlier example than Therese of such a tabloid-worthy tale being told from the villains’ own viewpoints. It was the mid-1800s, after all. In that respect, Zola may have been a pioneer.

Quoting Zola reveals his complete lack of sympathy for the characters and thus the pureness of the story’s squalor, undiluted by a single ray of light. It separates him from the great Russians, for a start. The adulterers are shameless, their victim a moron, their crime carried off without a shred of remorse and their torment brought about not by guilt (he stresses that many times) but by some sort of internal combustion that leaves them too stressed to function. They are evil, Paris is a slum, and nominally good people are nothing more than simple, selfish fools. Thus Zola washes his hands of the lot.

Despite all that, I found myself surprisingly sympathetic toward Therese, a woman mad, violent and sensual under extreme repression and a warped childhood. Left with Madame Raquin by her father, raised as a companion for that woman’s invalid son Camille, forced to share all aspects of his life from medicines to sickroom, in the end to be married and live as his nurse. Her upbringing is horrendous; it destroys her and leads her to destroy the family who took her in. Her story is a tragic one and yet Therese is the object of the narrative’s most extreme contempt, treated always as a wild, hypocritical savage. It’s this punitive quality that most irked me while reading – Zola’s logic seems to say that if people act badly they automatically become animals. Zola even seems to think the adultery a worse sin than the murder: having escaped detection, Therese and Laurent are untroubled for over a year after the event, until they find desire flaring up again and then it’s all the way to hell in a handbasket… They had killed a man and played out a gruesome comedy so as to be free to wallow in constant sensual gratification, and now there they were, sitting stiffly on opposite sides of the fireplace, exhausted, troubled in mind, and utterly lethargic of body. After a while, they both began to feel that such an outcome was just too ridiculously horrible and cruel.

That quote gives the basic, unchanging tone of the whole novel, beginning to end. In my opinion you’d best read it fast, as a knockout punch of sickly despair in as few sittings as possible (only 200 pages, easy enough to do). It does rise to a crescendo of gothic heights. Laurent finally becomes a good artist after the murder, then discovers to his horror that all he can paint is Camille (whose corpse is gruesomely described during Laurent’s obsessive visits to the Morgue). His relationship with Therese collapses into pure violence in astonishingly lurid form:

Therese felt with her lips for the bite-mark on Laurent’s stiffened, swollen neck, and feverishly clamped her mouth to it, for that was the gaping wound in their relationship, and, once that was cured, the murderers could sleep easy. She realized this, and was trying to cauterize the scar with the fire of her kisses. But she burned her own lips, and Laurent pushed her violently away, letting out a low moan as he did so, for he felt as if someone had held a red-hot iron to his neck. Therese, half-crazed, came back and tried again to kiss the wound; she felt a bitter thrill in putting her lips to the place where Camille’s teeth had sunk into Laurent’s neck. The thought flashed across her mind of biting her husband in the same place, tearing out a great chunk of flesh and making a new, deeper wound which would take away all sign of the first one; she would no longer be afraid if the only imprint she saw was that of her own teeth. But Laurent protected his neck against her kisses; the smarting feeling was too overwhelming, so every time she brought her lips near he pushed her away. They continued fighting each other in this way, groaning desperately and struggling in their horrible embraces.

It’s no wonder when Chan-wook Park adapted this story he immediately made it about vampires. Thirst is so on my movie queue. Actually, what with Laurent’s scar, Camille’s drowned body showing up everywhere and Madame Raquin’s paralysis, there’s quite a lot of body horror on display here. Maybe David Cronenberg should give it a spin?

Madame Raquin’s fate also leads to something of a three-way abusive situation in the final chapters that’s really quite appalling and brutal. In a way, Therese Raquin is criminally off-balance, spending too much of its time on Therese and Laurent pre-murder when all the really queasy and arresting developments happen significantly later in the book…

Verdict: It’s pretty much a cold and over-the-top production, definitely the product of a young man’s brain. From my point of view, I had a similar reaction to Matthew Gregory Lewis’ The Monk, another bitter and deliberate attempt at a shocker that never quite came together in a satisfying way. Both of these novels lack gravity. Unlike Lewis, Zola went on to a long career and perhaps he wrote a Great French Novel later. Therese Raquin is morose, histrionic and effectively lurid but its entertainment value is limited by Zola’s misplaced attempt at a scientific survey. Want some Gothic fiction set in a Paris slum? Go get yourself a copy. It’s at its best as a genre blender. Of course, it’s just my opinion. Kate Winslet for instance found it “a barrel of laughs.”

I will indeed be checking out more Zola in the future (Germinal, perhaps?), but it might take a while.

Manet - Portrait of Emile Zola (1868)