‘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.

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Therese Raquin, by Emile Zola, translated by Andrew Rothwell

3862390 As regular readers know, I’m working my way through Zola’s Rougon-Maquart cycle in the recommended reading order, so The Sin of Father Mouret should be my next Zola However, I’m waiting on my preferred translation to come from a second-hand bookshop in America, so I decided to read Thérèse Raquin in the meantime. (This early novel of Zola’s has the added advantage of being listed in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, a reading project that I have sadly neglected this year.)

Publicity for Therese Raquin 1867 (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

Publicity for Therese Raquin 1867 (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

Thérèse Raquin was Zola’s first big success, and judging by the publicity promising splendides illustrations presumably as racy the one on the poster, the good folk of Paris were under no illusions about the novel. Sales were helped along, no doubt, by outraged criticism in Le Figaro by ‘Ferragus’ who called it ‘putrid literature’. According to the introduction by Andrew Rothwell, the translator of this new edition from Oxford World’s Classics, Ferragus was the nom de plume of author Louis Ulbach and there is some suspicion that Zola put him up to it so that he could generate further interest in the novel by writing a rebuttal. (All publicity is good publicity, eh?) For the good folk of the 21st century, however, inured as we are to unhealthy preoccupation with lust, corpses and decay, Thérèse Raquin isn’t regarded as disgusting and immoral … and … an outrage against good taste. Rather, it’s regarded as a milestone in the development of Zola’s ambitions to use fiction to comment on society.

In 1001 Books it’s included – although it is not the best of Emile Zola’s novels – because

it is precisely the properties of uncertainty and of extravagance that make Thérèse Raquin a significant novel. In it we see one of the most important novelists of the nineteenth century struggling with his form, seeking not without desperation, to transform the novel into the social scalpel he so devoutly believed it could be. (1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, 2006 edition, p. 163)

All well and good, but how does it read on its own terms? Well, it limps a little towards the end, but it’s still a powerful evocation of the psychological effects of guilt. Like Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment it explores the mental anguish arising from murder, showing how the adulterous couple Thérèse and Laurent can never realise the happiness they hoped for because they are tormented by guilt.

Zola paints their claustrophobic mental state in a gloomy, morbid Paris. The Raquins live in an apartment above their haberdashery in a narrow, dark arcade, paved with yellowish flagstones, worn, uneven, permanently exuding an acrid-smelling damp and covered by a right-angled glass roof black with grime. It gets a pallid light in summer, but on foul winter days or foggy mornings, the glass casts nothing but darkness on the sticky flags beneath, a vile and murky darkness. (p. 7) The central characters are held captive in this dingy atmosphere with only a few other equally lugubrious settings: the murky Seine, where the murder takes place; Laurent’s dismal workplace and grubby studio; and most repulsive of all, the morgue.

There are very few characters – only old Mrs Raquin; her doomed son Camille; her niece Thérèse and her opportunistic lover Laurent; and the Thursday night visitors to the house: Grivet, an ancient employee who works with Camille; and the dim-witted police commissioner Michaud, his son Olivier and daughter-in-law Suzanne. (Oh yes, there is also the Raquins’ cat called François, which is imbued with vengeful behaviours by Laurent. But I thought it just behaved like a typical cat.) Consistent with Zola’s beliefs about temperament defining behaviour, the adulterous couple behave as their smouldering amoral passions dictate, and they do not change, which tests the tension and the realism that the novel aims to achieve. The reader knows that they are doomed, it’s just a question of how Zola resolves their fate.

The novel works despite its limitations because Zola is such a brilliant wordsmith. He elicits a sense of shocked awe in the reader when Laurent and Thérèse hatch their plans. Laurent’s obsessive visits to the morgue are revolting. Camille’s constant presence in the couple’s fateful marriage is palpable, and the horror of old Mrs Raquin’s impotent discovery of their duplicity is unforgettable.

Thérèse Raquin is gripping reading, all the more so because for all its flaws it heralds Zola’s mastery of the French Naturalist Movement.

Not to be missed!

Cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers

Author: Émile Zola
Title: Thérèse Raquin
Publisher: Oxford World’s Classics, OUP (Oxford University Press), 2008
ISBN: 9780199536856
Source: review copy courtesy of OUP

‘Thérèse Raquin’ Cover Images

Thérèse Raquin was first published in 1867.

For images of other covers please look on the Images page.

Exceptional Excerpts: Thérèse Raquin by Émile Zola

RobinBussPenguin

Thérèse Raquin was published when Zola  was twenty-seven. It was his first book to be translated and published in England by the Vizetellys.

Not for the faint of heart, the first appearance was three installments in Houssaye’s L’Artiste with the title Un mariage d’amour (August – October, 1867). Apparently the Morgue scene was omitted in the periodical publication. In the Preface to his translation in a 1902 edition, Edward Vizetelly wrote: “. . . he consented at the insistence of the Editor, who pointed out to him that the periodical was read by the Empress Eugenie, to draw his pen through certain passages, which were reinstated when the story was published in volume form. I may say here that in this translation, I have adopted the views of the late M. Arsene Houssaye; and, if I have allowed the appalling description of the Paris Morgue to stand, it is, first of all, because it constitutes a very important factor in the story; and moreover, it is so graphic, so true to life, as I have seen the place myself, times out of number, that notwithstanding its horror, it really would be a loss to pass it over.”

There are several descriptive pages of individual bodies and the horror that Laurent feels as he sees them, but I will only quote of the Morgue’s popularity as entertainment.

The Morgue is a show that anyone can afford, which poor and rich passers-by get for free The door is open, anyone can come in. There are connoisseurs who go out of their way not to miss one of these spectacles of death. When the slabs are empty, people go out disappointed, robbed, muttering under their breath. When the slabs are well filled, and when there is a fine display of human flesh, the visitors crowd in, getting a cheap thrill, horrified, joking, applauding or whistling, as in the theatre, and go away contented, announcing that the Morgue has been a success that day.

Laurent soon came to know the regulars who attended the place, a mixed, diverse group of people who came to sympathize with one another or snigger together. Some workmen would come in on their way to their jobs, with a loaf of bread and some tools under their arms; they found death amusing. . . . . Women came in great numbers: pink, young working gils with white blouses and clean skirts, who went briskly from one end of the window to the other, attentive and wide-eyed, as though looking at the display in a fashion store; there were working-class women too, haggard with doleful expressions, and well-dressed ladies, nonchalant, trailing their silk dresses.

(Thérèse Raquin, by Émile Zola, Penguin Classics, translated by Robin Buss, 2004, p 73)

 

Could this possibly be true? A sentence from Paris illustré en 1878 by Adolphe Joanne reads: “When the newspapers announce the discovery of some crime, curious people arrive in large numbers, making a queue from morning until evening that sometimes reaches the number of between 1,000 and 1,500 persons.”

 

The 1902 Vizetelly edition and an edition in French are available free at Project Gutenberg.