One of my goals in life is to finish Zola’s twenty volume Rougon-Macquart series, and I’d just finished number 11 (The Ladies’ Paradise) when I decided to take a break, well sort of, and begin Zola’s Therese Raquin.
It’s a very dark novel that tells the tale of a love triangle, with a careful-what-you-wish-for horrific aftermath. When the novel begins, Therese is married to her sickly cousin Camille, and they live together with his mother above a drab little shop in a dingy part of Paris. Therese was brought up by Camille’s mother (her aunt) with the understanding that one day she’d marry Camille–a semi-invalid even as a child. Therese is bored and emotionally disconnected from her life, but since she possesses no dreams, no imagination or longings, she doesn’t examine her boredom and unhappiness, but accepts it–rather as someone who accepts shabby surroundings. And then one day, Camille brings home a friend, Laurent.
Laurent works as a petty clerk in the same office as Camille, and since he doesn’t have quite the same means as the Raquins, his life is bleaker and impoverished. He is invited to join the Raquins’ little circle of friends, cadging free meals and attending the ritual Thursday evening domino games with the Raquins’ dull friends.
During his evenings with the Raquins, Laurent brags about being a painter. It seems that at one point, Laurent attended university but dropped out to pursue art. But since Laurent has little talent, he ended up in a meager position as a petty clerk. To Therese, this tiny amount of knowledge releases her imagination, and something in her awakens. Therese and Laurent begin a passionate affair that’s stifled by the mundane details of her home life. The lovers scheme to be together, but Camille stands in their way….
Leonard Tancock is the translator for my Penguin edition, and the translator includes an introduction to the text. Tancock explains that Zola as a “naturalist novelist” saw himself as a “scientist on the same footing as a surgeon or any other experimenter upon organic matter, that his characters are animals motivated solely by the physical processes of their bodies and nervous systems.” Tancock also argues that Zola used this same sort of approach to The Abbe’s Transgression: “the formula is to arrange some temperaments, add some medical or neurological jargon, deliberately omit the interplay of character and all purely psychological reactions, and call the mixture ‘fatality.'” Therese Raquin mainly succeeds as a novel–whereas The Abbe’s Transgression strikes many false and formulaic notes.
For the 2/3 of the novel, Therese Raquin is a marvelous read, and for a while, I thought I was reading a novel on the level of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, but somewhere around Chapter 21, the novel, at least for me, fizzled a bit. Zola’s introduction of guilt’s impact upon the lovers, which takes the form of Poe-like, almost supernatural happenings, is over-the top at some points. Even the translator, obviously a tremendous fan of the book, admits that Zola was “still young and relatively inexperienced” and that he failed to pace the novel’s “climaxes,” and indeed that too is my complaint. While I have this niggling feeling that I am being too picky (and committing Zola Heresy), the last third of novel’s almost hysterical tone is a bit grating after a while.
For me, the very best parts of the novel explain Therese’s duplicitous nature. An indolence, and a general lack of interest in her own life–which could be misconstrued as dullness covers layers of deceit, hatred and submerged passion:
“She preferred to do nothing, staring in front of her and letting her thoughts run on. She still remained equable and easy to get on with–indeed she devoted her whole will power to making herself a passive instrument, completely acquiescent and free from all self interest.”
Suppressed by a twisted childhood, her explosive adulterous joy in the early days of her affair with Laurent, once unleashed, is unstoppable:
“On her part she seemed to revel in daring and shamelessness. Not a single moment of hesitation or fear possessed her. She threw herself into adultery with a kind of furious honesty, flouting danger, and as it were, taking pride in doing so.”
Zola will always remain one of my favorite 19th century writers, but Therese Raquin is not my favorite Zola by any means. It sits with some of the good ‘stack’ from the Rougon-Macquart cycle (and there will be a post that goes into that subject when I’ve actually finished all twenty). As a novel on the theme of adultery and female sexuality, Therese Raquin must be read. Its depiction of Therese raised to wed her puny cousin, allowed no alternative, and no avenue for her passionate nature is an incredibly strong portrayal. But for me, at least, it wasn’t one of those phenomenal reads that leave me mentally shaken by its power.