Monday, April 19, 2010

Human animals nothing more - Émile Zola's Thérèse Raquin

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  After some mocking references to books in Chapter III (an idiot is reading out of date books), there is essentially no culture, history, or politics.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.


  1. I am reading Parade's End right now - I have just blogged on Some Do NOt and am now tackling No More Parades - after a rocky start, i am now hugely enjoying Tietjens' stream of consciousnes.... I can understand why reading all these three at once may have been a bit much however!

    Thanks for sharing


  2. I can't decide if Germinal is really any more complex than you're describing, or not. It certainly has one un-subtle, guiding idea - that the mining industry is a giant monster devouring human flesh - that it emphasizes over and over. On the other hand, I've been surprised at the level of sophistication in the questions he's asking about how humans come to be as we are, and where the blame lies (if anywhere) when everything goes to hell. For a modern reader, it also requires more footnotes, mostly about the history of Communism in Europe, political upheavals, the economic depression in the 1860s in France, etc. I'd be curious to compare & contrast with Therese Raquin.

  3. I appreciate Emily's comment becaus that is somehwat like I was thinking yesterday when Iw anted to comment. I found the (one) Zola novel I read to be very simple in how it was written. I knew what was coming and nothing took me by surprise. But Zola seems to have such a philosophical view of people and why they do things, it's like he was actually trying to explain things by the simplicity maybe?

    I haven't yet read Terese Raquin but I can see what you're saying here: "The simplicity is presumably necessary as a trimming away of the inessential, a way to reveal the essential concept of the novel." I really think I need to read more Zola, much as I didn't enjoy it.

  4. Can't wait to see your follow-up posts! :)

  5. I have seen the excellent 1993 movie of Germinal, starring Gérard Depardieu. So I know that Germinal must be more complex in its scope if nothing else. And it sounds like the social history is far more complex.

    But the way you, Emily, describe the metaphorical structure makes me wonder. Still, Thérèse Raquin is one of the simplest books I've read in a long time.

    Rebecca, that's right. It's an artistic problem, though. If a poor sap like me values subtlety, for example, or variety, what am I supposed to do with this book? But if I value conceptual purity, I don't want all of those excresences and distractions, and then Zola is doing what he should. Sort of. I'm going to try to write about that later.

    One amendment, Rebecca - Zola is anti-philosophical. There are no metaphysics here. His view of the world is physiological.

    Ah, Hannah, I was immediately at home in Parade's End, from the first sentence. I am secretly a Modernist. Please do not tell anyone.

    Eva - I don't know if I've got a week of Zola in me, but a new one is up now and more are coming. I've got to write about that morgue scene. Ick.

  6. I enjoyed Therese Raquin tremendously -- although putrid is a good description of several passages.

    Here is short review on Rose City Reader. Can I post a link to your review on mine?

  7. Bonkers. Definitely bonkers. I had to take a little break because it was getting to be too much. Should be back on it by next week. It is a very odd book.

  8. Rose City Reader - post away, please. You get more right in that mini-review than some people are getting in much greater lengths. I should note that this was not Zola's first novel - it seems to be his fourth. It's his first major novel.

    stefanie - no reason to read Carlyle in a hurry. Some good reasons not to.

  9. I to took a break from Reading Parade's End (I am now started back into book 3) to read Nana's Zola for the circuit-I admit it was a enjoyable to read Zola and be fairly confident I could at least follow what is happening-one wonders if Zola would make short work of Sylvia and Christoper Tietjens?

  10. I will start reading Therese Raquin today via

  11. I reviewed it too, here: It's a noir, I agree with you.

  12. I love the idea of Thérèse Raquin as a noir. Also agree that it's "a good" and very "vivid noir." Maybe I should have read/reread all your TR posts before writing my own for pillaging purposes. Now I can only read them for fun, quite a larcenous letdown!

  13. It was a funny feeling - "Hey, James M. Cain was totally ripping off Zola!"

    Now that I've read quite a bot more Zola, I would change close to nothing about these early posts.