Friday, April 23, 2010

It is difficult for analysis to penetrate to such depths - art and reading in Thérèse Raquin

Thérèse Raquin is almost culture-free, just as it is free of politics or history or (almost) religion.  The exceptions are worth examining, because they're hilarious.

Zola's first serious novel owes a great debt, conceptual and legal, to Flaubert.  Madame Bovary, eleven years earlier, was corrupted by her reading, especially by novels.  She became a worse person, morally, because of her reading.  Not Thérèse Raquin.

Thérèse's pale, sluggish husband Camille is an uneducated idiot: "His entire learning consisted of basic sums and a very superficial grasp of grammar" (Ch. II).  His mother is sure that "books will kill him," and Zola asserts that "his ignorance was just one more weakness in him."

Once Camille finds a job with as a clerk with a railroad, he begins to feel bad about his ignorance.  He's like me!  So he assembles a pile of obsolete books - by the 18th century naturalist Buffon, for example - and begins a course of self-study, twenty to thirty pages each night, "although he found it very boring" (Ch. III).  He tries to read to his wife Thérèse (or, actually, "would force her to listen"), but concludes that "his wife was basically not very bright."

The scene is partly an elaborate joke, and a nod at Flaubert.  Emma Bovary is damaged by books.  Camille and Thérèse are completely immune to books.  Jenny at Shelf Love calls Camille "over-educated... always with his nose in a book," a representative of civilization.  That seems to me to contradict the text.  He is uneducated, and untouched by civilization.

The adulterer Laurent is a better stand-in for culture - he wants, or wanted, to be a painter, not for artistic reasons but he thought it would be "an easy living."  "His great body asked for no more than to do nothing but lounge about all day in idleness and contentment" (Ch. V).  He is interested in nude models and sleeping late, not art or culture.  So by "better," I mean "terrible."

Late in the book, Laurent again tries ties his hand at painting.  He was once a hack, but is suddenly good.  Why?  

Some strange transformation had undoubtedly come about in the organism of Camille's murderer.  It is difficult for analysis to penetrate to such depths.  Perhaps Laurent had become an artist in the same way that he had become a coward, as a result of the drastic upheaval that had thrown his body and his mind off balance.  In the past, he was weighed down and stifled by his sanguine temperament, and his vision was blocked by the dense vapours of good health which surrounded him; now that he was thinner and more sensitive, he had the restless vitality and keen, direct sensations of those of nervous temperament.  (Ch. XXV)

The passage goes on like this for quite a while.  Laurent transforms from an untalented to a talented painter because he loses weight, and dissipates the "dense vapours of good health."  I hope it's easy enough to see why I don't take all of this seriously, and why I give Zola credit for not taking it too seriously himself.  And that before we get to the episode's fantastic twist ending, worthy of the best thriller writers.  Everything fits the theory perfectly, as long as the writer is allowed complete control over the results, which he is.

As an aside:  The Classics Circuit really worked well this time, (for me, I mean).  So thanks, Rebecca, and - I know there are a dozen or more other people.  Was it helpful that a relatively small number of books were covered?  Thérèse Raquin eight times, Germinal six times, and so on.  I'm all for more of that.

I didn't really adjust my own reading list - my biases were confirmed.  Germinal is obviously essential, as is NanaThe Masterpiece is based on Zola's first-hand knowledge of the world of Impressionist painters, so I want to read it for its subject, and, one would think, as a corrective to the painter in Thérèse Raquin, but it sounds a bit second-tier.  I'm curious about his short fiction, and no one read L'Assommoir, which I hope to try someday.  Someday is key.  Zola did not write the kind of novels that I want to read one after another.  I want some space between them..  I want to maintain the dense vapors of my good health.


  1. You're quite right -- I'd misremembered about Camille. I should change that bit in our review. And it is clearly a nod to Flaubert. (Although the fact that he feels bad about his lack of education says that he's not *entirely* untouched by civilization, unlike Therese, who is.)

    I spent some time while I was in France with someone who likes to read all of either Zola or Balzac each winter. I tend to agree with you that it needs a little more space, or else keeping the windows open.

  2. Yes, that's good - some little glimmer of civilizing light shines in. It can't penetrate Camille, but he does know it's out there, which is something.

    All of Zola, or all of Balzac, in a season? Impressive. Intense, too intense, but impressive. The Rougon-Macquart novels alone must add up to 10,000 pages!

  3. I tried to read Nana after finishing The Kill, while also reading Baudelaire, it did not go down well... too concentrated a dose of French pessimisim. But I'm glad I joined the Classics Tour and reread The Kill, coming back to it now on its own helps me see and appreciate it more clearly.

    (And to reply to your other response: 'to blog is to essay' -- I like that. I've missed writing essays for university and have sometimes thought of book blogging as a way to take that up again, in a calmer, saner way! I'm still looking to find my balance between serious reviews of serious literature and a more fluffy 'n fun approach, finding the tone I feel comfortable writing in, how much humour, etc. Maybe I will post about that...)

  4. Baudelaire casts a huge shadow over Thérèse Raquin. Every day, I started to go into it, and every day, I pulled back.

    You sure made The Kill sound pretty good. Interested parties should click the link just to see Manet's portrait of Zola.

    That tone and balance takes time to develop. Unless you're a conceptual writer like Zola, in which case the idea comes first. I'm not, not remotely. Try and try again.

  5. Your Thérèse Raquin posts this week have been quite interesting, Amateur Reader, although I suspect your condemnatory attitude to Laurent's fondness for nude models and sleeping in late reveals an anti-humanities student bias on your part. Even if his lack of interest in art or culture doesn't really support my "thesis" either. Hmm...

  6. Condemnatory, what? That's just the text. That's just science. With Zola, it's all about science.

    This is why I need to read Zola's The Masterpiece. His attitude toward real painters, of whom he knew many, including some of the best of the best, cannot possibly be like this. Can it?

    Real humanities students are no lazier than anyone else. Laurent is like one of those guys who gets an art history or English degree because he thinks it will be easy. Which it is, I guess, if you don't do any work. Sort of circular there.

  7. But "L'Assommoir" is so good!

    It's actually been several months since I last read a Zola novel. I've been meaning to start the Rougon-Macquart series (this time in order!) but I seem to have been putting it off... I also keep meaning to read "Thérèse Raquin", but... I don't know. Maybe it'll find its way between the others...?

  8. This one sounds so good. I just got a copy from Paperback Swap, cant' wait to read it!!

  9. Amanda, good. This book has its problems, but was worth reading, no question.

    Biblibio - TR is barely a pamphlet among those Rougon-Macquart monsters.

  10. lol: most people complain they though there wasn't enough variety for this tour. We'll never have everyone happy and I'm okay with that. I'm glad you liked it as it was for Zola!

  11. Well, it worked for me because, I guess, I don't really wants reviews as such. I want insights, and one way to get them is through conversation, and for that we need some common ground.

  12. I enjoyed being in the tour also-I have noticed there are several Zola short stories on am not really wanting to read more Zola right now but will later on tackle at least two more of his works

  13. No one on the circuit did a short story, did they? Not as well known, I suppose.