Thérèse Raquin by Émile Zola was first published in 1867 and was Zola’s first real success. The story is quite simple and was based on a newspaper article, though F.W.J. Hemmings, in his book The Life and Times of Emile Zola, suggests that Zola took the story from a novel by an acquaitance who had used the original news story as source material. However, Zola changed many aspects of the original story to create his novel.
I’m not going to concentrate too much on the plot itself in this post but I shall give a quick outline for anyone unfamiliar with the book. There are four main characters; Madame Raquin, her sickly son Camille, Camille’s friend Laurent and of course Thérèse Raquin who was adopted by her aunt Madame Raquin. Early on in the novel it is decided that Camille and Thérèse will marry and that the family will move to Paris to open a haberdashery whilst Camille works as a clerk for a railway company. Everything runs along smoothly for a while with the shop and Camille bringing in steady money, the Raquins make some friends and hold a weekly ‘get together’ where they chat and play dominoes. One week Camille comes home with an old schoolfriend, Laurent. In no time at all Laurent and Thérèse are having a passionate affair. No one suspects anything but Laurent and Thérèse soon decide that they are fed up with having to sneak around and that the only solution is to kill Camille. They do this with relative ease whilst out boating on the Seine although in the scuffle Laurent is bitten on the neck by Camille. This is about a third of the way through the novel, the rest of the novel is a fascinating and tortuous account of the mental anguish that Laurent and Thérèse go through following their crime.
I read a Penguin edition translated by Leonard Tancock in 1962. This edition also included Zola’s highly entertaining preface to the second edition in which he defends his book from the cries of disgust from ‘certain virtuous people’. It is believed that Zola himself helped to whip up this storm of moral indignation to help sales. Here’s a quote from the preface to give a flavour of Zola’s style:
The critics greeted this book with a churlish and horrified outcry. Certain virtuous people, in newspapers no less virtuous, made a grimace of disgust as they picked it up with the tongs to throw it into the fire. Even the minor literary reviews, the ones that retail nightly the tittle-tattle from alcoves and private rooms, held their noses and talked of filth and stench. I am not complaining about this reception; on the contrary I am delighted to observe that my colleagues have such maidenly susceptibilities.
In this preface Zola also lays out his intentions both for this book and naturalism itself. He states that in
Thérèse Raquin my aim has been to study temperaments and not characters…Thérèse and Laurent are human animals, nothing more…There is a complete absence of soul.
He then makes the claim that his novel is a scientific study of the psychology of the characters, or rather that character type. When people wish to criticise Zola they often concentrate on his claims that his novels were scientific studies and it must be admitted that Zola’s claims are quite absurd. In this preface he states that while he was writing the book he was just ‘copying life exactly and meticulously’ implying that Zola, the artist, had no involvement in the process whatsoever. I can’t really believe that Zola actually believed in this himself and I largely dismiss it from my mind when reading Zola’s works as the modern reader doesn’t need this pseudo-scientific baggage to justify them as works of art.
I really would urge anyone who has read anything by Zola to read this preface as it’s entertaining, funny and instructive and shows how Zola could write great polemical journalism as well as literature. I find it amusing that Edward Vizetelly, in his preface to the 1901 English translation, calls Zola’s preface ‘a long and rather tedious reply to the reviewers of the day’. Vizetelly is completely wrong, it is only seven pages in my edition and it is highly entertaining. I suspect that by 1901 both Zola and Vizetelly may have been a bit embarrassed by it and probably considered it no longer relevant as it had already served its purpose.
Following the murder of Camille the novel is concerned with the mental anguish of the two lovers, Laurent and Thérèse. It was whilst reading this section that I realised that Zola can be very sadistic towards his characters; he doesn’t let them off the hook but just keeps cranking up the pain and misery for all. He also does this with many of his other characters in other novels, such as L’assommoir for example, or The Masterpiece. When it works, as it does with Thérèse Raquin and L’assommoir it can be fascinating but when it doesn’t it can just be depressing; I would probably put The Masterpiece in this group.
Zola said that Laurent and Thérèse are just ‘human animals’ without a soul, and it’s true that at no point in the book do they ever express any regret or moral scruples over their murderous crime even though they are plagued with nightmares and hallucinations and they are witnesses to the pain that Camille’s mother experiences over the loss of her son. Laurent’s condition is described by Zola:
His remorse was purely physical. Only his body, strained nerves, and cowering flesh were afraid of the drowned man. Conscience played no part in his terrors, and he had not the slightest regret about killing Camille; in his moments of calm, when the spectre was not present, he would have committed the murder over again had he thought his interests required it.
So, the murderers have no qualms about their crime and at no point does anyone suspect them of murdering Camille but they still come to a sticky end. After the murder Laurent and Thérèse are bound to each other, they can’t escape through fear that the other will reveal the crime to the police and they can’t enjoy being together. In the end Madame Raquin becomes aware of their crime but she is unable to do anything about it – you’ll just have to read the book to find out more.
As always with Zola there are many brilliant scenes in this novel. The visits that Laurent makes to the morgue are particularly gruesome (see Dagny’s Exceptional Excerpt) as well as the honeymoon scene involving Camille’s portrait. The final page was excellent as well; after all the misery of the last two-thirds of the novel it ends with a bang! All wrapped up neatly! I actually laughed at the end as I thought it a very comedic ending, specifically when Laurent and Thérèse turn round and look at each other. Did anyone else find it funny?
Finally, I had no intention to get involvced with translation comparisons when I started reading Thérèse Raquin but when I was at the end of chapter 12 something made me look at the Vizetelly translation as well and I was astounded at the difference. Here is Leonard Tancock’s translation of the last paragraph of chapter 12. Laurent has returned home following the murder of Camille:
He was really a little stupified, for his limbs and mind were heavy with fatigue. He went home and slept soundly, but during his sleep slight nervous twitchings passed across his face.
And the Vizetelly translation:
At the bottom of his heart, he was a trifle hebetated. Fatigue had rendered his limbs and thoughts heavy. He went in to bed and slept soundly. During his slumber slight nervous crispations coursed over his face.
Er…what!? Apparently hebetate means ‘to make dull or blunt’ and crispations means ‘any slight muscular spasm or contraction that gives a creeping sensation’.
To be fair I read a few paragraphs of chapter 13 and noticed that the Tancock version had this sentence:
The authorities had not been able to take official cognizance of Camille’s decease.
Whereas the Vizetelly version seems more readable to me:
The decease of Camille had not been formally proved.
This post was cross-posted on my Intermittencies of the Mind blog.
Please note that Lisa’s review can also be found here.