‘Thérèse Raquin’ by Émile Zola

Zola_Therese-Raquin_Penguin1-fcX-700pxThérèse 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.

Zola_T-Raquin-illustration-XBW-800pxFollowing 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.


Germinal by Émile Zola, translated by L.W. Tancock

Germinal (Wordsworth Classics of World Literature)There have been some shocking accidents in coal mines in my life time, including the 2010 Pike River disaster in New Zealand which killed 29 men. More scandalously, multiple fatalities occur regularly in China, where there are numerous illegal mines and regulations to protect the workers in legal ones are obviously lax. (There were 2433 mine deaths in 2010 in China, and as I write this there is another mine disaster there this week). So even though Germinal is set in the 19th century and (according to the Introduction by L.W. Tancock) Émile Zola was writing of an earlier period when conditions were worse than they were at the time he was writing, reading some of the sequences were enough to make me wonder why in the 21st century the lives of men are still risked in this way. Germinal is very evocative writing.

The story traces events in the life of Etienne Lantier, an intelligent but uneducated man, who arrives penniless and starving in the mining town of Montsou after a punch-up with his former employer. Through a stroke of luck he gets work in the mine, and becomes fond of Catherine, one of numerous children in the poverty-stricken Maheus family, all of them destined to work in the mine from childhood onwards, except for Alzire, who is crippled. Conditions in their home are appalling. Hunger is constant, and since they cannot possibly manage on what they earn, the mother must go begging from the indifferent wealthy in order to appease her creditors.

But if conditions above ground are bad, below ground they are atrocious. There are some very distressing scenes involving terrified pit ponies destined never to see the sun again, but the miners likewise have no choice but to endure the confined spaces, foul air, long hours and extremely dangerous conditions. Because of the way they are paid for what is brought to the surface, they cut corners when it comes to putting in timber props to stabilise the rock walls above them, putting their own lives at risk. Their wages are kept low through the owners’ tactics of auctioning off plots for the miners to work, so to get work, the workers’ teams must continually undercut each other. This doesn’t just keep them poor, it keeps them divided as well. There are constant savage arguments and abuse of each other, especially amongst the women.

It seems an intolerable life, and so it’s understandable that there is heavy drinking, and the young people take their pleasures where they may: in grotty shacks in winter, and in the cornfields in summer. There is no middle-class morality to disapprove; what makes the parents cross is when an extra mouth arrives to be fed, or even worse if the couple marry and the income the errant son or daughter had been bringing in goes elsewhere. Etienne is not among those who frolic in this way: he had his eye on Catherine but she is too young and not emotionally ready. the villainous Chavel, however, has no such scruples and has his way with her before long. With the resignation that characterises all of them to their fate, Catherine submits to his affections and they become a couple.

In respect of this relationship, it’s a bit like Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbevilles: the actual event is ambiguous. Does Catherine say yes, or not? It’s hard to tell whether it’s a case of the author being coy in a typically 19th century way about rape, used here to symbolise the way the system overpowered individuals, or whether Zola himself thought some women – or these women – liked a bit of persuasion through rough-love. After her initial reluctance in the cornfield, Catherine and Chavel are reasonably fond at first but soon the relationship is marked by constant kicks and beatings. To a 21st century eye Catherine’s submission to Chavel’s sustained violence looks like the defeated actions of a battered wife.

Anyway, for Etienne, it’s company down at the bar when he’s not working, and there, influenced by the amoral Souvarine, a Russian anarchist and political émigré, he begins to educate himself in political and economic philosophy, reading everything he can get his hands on. Soon he becomes part of discussions about that fellow Karl Marx and his ideas about improving the lot of working people, arguing about whether there should be gradual change or full-scale revolution to overthrow capitalism altogether.

Etienne’s powers of persuasion enable him to set up a Provident Fund but when a change in pay scales finally forces the miners out of their passivity and triggers a strike, the fund is barely enough to support the miners for a week, never mind a sustained stoppage. The timing of their visit to the manager to plead their cause coincides with a splendid luncheon complete with truffles and partridge – and the diners make sport about it, sealing themselves inside a darkened room and pretending to each other to be so scared of the strikers that they must conceal their presence at the luncheon. The hungry men, by contrast, are so humble that they are too afraid of damaging the antiques to sit down outside in the reception room, and Maheu as spokesman is so deferential that he has no impact at all.

None of the bourgeois really has any idea about the misery their workers endure both above and below ground, M. Grégoire is a placid, lazy and sentimental man who simply wants to enjoy the fruits of his inherited wealth and lavish it on his spoilt daughter Cecile. The women view the entire enterprise as an opportunity for pseudo-works of charity (which don’t include giving what’s really needed – money and food). When there’s an accident, these women take advantage of it as a grotesque form of sight-seeing, and the daughters get out their paints to make a picture of the scene.

Zola, however, balances this picture of complacent bourgeois living off the labour of others with a more complex view of things from their point of view. These mine owners are under pressure themselves because of a downturn in orders from America, and one of them, Deneulin, has perilous debts due to the cost of modernising his plant and equipment and a small rise in labour costs two years before. For him to pay higher wages now would bring ruin and he tries to explain that the closure of his mine would leave them even worse off, but understandably the strikers are unconvinced. M. Hennebeau the manager is under pressure to return profits to the company he works for. Not only that, but manufacturing all around them is dependant on cheap coal, and a protracted strike is a disaster for the local economy. For all their faults, the bourgeois are not depicted as evil, but rather as characters caught in a complex web of economic realities which seem to preclude any just solution to the miners’ grievances.

So the violence when it comes, is a shock. It is mob violence, but personalised, and characters we have come to know do and suffer unspeakable things. There is an horrific scene when Catherine and Chavel, slaving underground in a torrid heat are trapped there by violence above, and the death of the shopkeeper who refused credit is revolting. Zola’s women are real furies indeed, but there is also the sickening example of a miner’s child wholly corrupted by violence. But in each case we see humanity caught in the web – see my Sensational Snippet for an example where the soldiers confronted by the savagery of the miners are compromised by their inability to withstand it.

The real villain of the story is the earth itself, and the final scenes below ground after the defeat of the strike are the stuff of nightmares. Although I’ve ordered the DVD, I’m not sure that I’m going to be able to watch it.

Although the introduction makes it clear that there are historical inaccuracies in the plot, Zola’s unrelenting realism succeeds in confronting the tragedy of the struggle between capital and labour. In this novel no one is to blame, and there are no ready solutions. It’s very powerful writing.

Commentary by Lisa Hill, 11/11/13 and cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers

Author: Emile Zola
Title: Germinal
Translator: L.W. Tancock
Publisher: Penguin Classics 1969, first published 1885.
ISBN: none
Source: an OpShop somewhere, purchased long ago.

Germinal Availability:
Fishpond: Germinal (Wordsworth Classics of World Literature).
Book Depository: Germinal (Wordsworth Classics of World Literature) They have the DVD of Germinal too, starring Gerard Depardieu.