Emile Zola was, frankly, not a writer I ever had the urge to read. I think I always confused him with Honoré de Balzac, whom I also never had the urge to read. I was reluctant to reveal to myself the level of my ignorance – or even worse, reduce it – by actually reading them. Until a trusted friend recommended Thérèse Raquin to me and it then became a book group read, and so you see I had really no choice.
Anyone – like me – approaching this book with a dreaded expectation of difficult 19th century literature in translation will be disappointed – and relieved. It is, for the first half anyway, a compelling and vivid tale of adultery and murder (the blurb goes this far, so I don’t think it counts as a spoiler) with a nicely mean line in narrative. We know what we’re in for from the start, which places the action mostly above a shop in an alleyway in Paris, under a “glass roof black with grime,” all “sticky flags” and “vile and murky darkness.”
Thérèse herself is a child at the beginning of the story, orphaned and left to live with her aunt Madame Raquin and her cousin Camille. Madame Raquin decides that Thérèse will be the perfect wife for her sickly son Camille, clearly never having taken on the Wuthering Heights warning of the dangers of relationships between people brought up together. Thérèse, inured to boredom already, does not complain but
living amidst the damp and gloom in an oppressive, dismal silence, saw life stretching out pointlessly ahead of her, with every evening bringing the same cold bed and every morning the same empty day ahead.
Cue Laurent, a “handsome, full blooded” regular visitor to the Raquin family home, whose “well developed, bulging muscles, and the firm, solid flesh of his body” make Thérèse feel that “she had never seen a real man before.” When Laurent looks upon her, his gaze makes her feel “almost unwell.” But not quite: she is well enough to get to know that Laurent has a taste for “brutish pleasures” which “had left him with compelling needs of the flesh,” all of which makes her husband Camille, “this weakling, whose soft and puny body had never once felt a tremor of desire” look like a right drip.
And so. You can guess the next step (clue: “When [Laurent] left her he was tottering like a drunkard”), but the tale goes deeper than that. Zola’s self-stated wish is to show his characters as ‘animals’ who are subject to their brutish urges. There follows a striking reenactment of elements of Macbeth, though oddly it is at this most intense and dramatic point where the story grinds down in speed and begins to disappoint, and ends up feeling much longer than its 200 pages.
For all Zola’s claims to “Naturalism” and “an exact and meticulous copying of real life,” there are implausibilities aplenty, not least in the course which Madame Raquin’s life takes toward the end of the book. Although the central characters are considered by Zola ‘brutish’ and like animals, in fact there is a tiresome amount of introspection and angst between them, particularly after the central act-which-I-cannot-reveal. It is true though that Zola treats his characters as less than human, with a positively misanthropic glee as miscarriages are induced and cats are tortured. Often it seems that the characters, rather than real people, are precast types which Zola has picked off the shelf to suit his purpose.
Nonetheless Zola’s story has a gripping grittiness for the first half, and his depiction of frank sexuality was sufficiently ahead of its time to be the source of scandal on publication. Zola provides a preface about this for the second edition, railing against the book’s “hostile and indignant reception” from those who lacked the “little intelligence” needed to appreciate his novel. We’ll allow him this little Partridgean self-indulgence: after all, he was only 28.