For some misguided reason, I was reading three complex novels at once, The Brothers Karamazov, the four novels that make up Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End, and Thomas Carlyle's Sartor Resartus (Stefanie, how's that going - bonkers, huh?). They are all quite difficult books, and in quite different ways. The Modernist Ford novel is a stream-of-consciousness blizzard of cultural references and time-shifting. The Carlyle novel is, if anything, even more crammed with stuff, just pages and pages of stuff, all meant to explicate or domesticate some form of Kantian Idealism. Karamazov has surprised me with its abundant literary references as well, and the book is fraught with other difficulties, ethical and stylistic. One thing these books have in common: they're all exhausting.
What a relief, then, to turn to Thérèse Raquin (1867), an early Émile Zola novel. This book is simple. Maybe even primitive. It's my first Zola novel, so I do not mean this as a description of "Zola," of Germinal or the other Rougon-Macquart novels, which cannot possibly be so basic in their conception. Can they?
Thérèse Raquin is a short crime thriller, an adultery-murder shocker. It's claustrophobic, with only four main characters and a handful of others, and just a few settings. Not much to keep track of. The language is simple, the imagery is simple, the story is simple. After some mocking references to books in Chapter III (an idiot is reading out of date books), there is essentially no culture, history, or politics. The Oxford World's Classic edition has, and requires, almost no annotation. Virtually all of the endnotes are about Paris streets and buildings.
A murderer has begun to feel - well, not guilty, exactly, but nervous:
The awful darkness in the alley and on the stairs filled him with dread. Normally, he would have crossed this dark area quite light-heartedly. That evening he did not dare ring the bell, telling himself that behind a certain projection by the cellar entrance there might be murderers lurking who would leap at his throat as he went by... [He lights a match] The sulphur stared sizzling, setting light to the wood so slowly that it further increased Laurent's alarm; in the flickering shadows cast by the sulphur's pale, bluish glow he thought he could make out monstrous shapes... The huge, weirdly-shaped shadows, like those which always flit to and fro around anybody carying a lamp up a staircase, filled him with vague apprehension as they loomed up in front of him, then vanished. (Ch. XVII)
We have another name now for this kind of book - Thérèse Raquin is a noir. It's an ancestor of The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, but with more explicit sex, eighty years earlier. It's a good, vivid noir.
This is my scheduled post for The Classics Circuit, Zola Edition. If anyone has wandered here from there and found this at all interesting, I should warn you that I'm not done writing about this book. Are you kidding? The remaining question: is there anything more to the book? I put the answer, drawn from Zola's preface, in the post's title. Thérèse Raquin is a conceptual novel, governed by a single clear idea. The simplicity is presumably necessary as a trimming away of the inessential, a way to reveal the essential concept of the novel. The match between the concept and the content is close, clean. Whether the concept is "true" or "not ridiculous" is another matter.
Tomorrow for that. Then later in the week, Thérèse Raquin as "putrid literature." Don't read that one over lunch!
Quotations from the Oxford World's Classics edition, translated by Andrew Rothwell.