Recent reading: Therese Raquin

Emile Zola’s first major work, apparently; seems to have caused something of a critical stink upon first appearance in 1867, though there is apparently a theory that the scabrous Figaro review was actually produced in collusion with Zola to whip up interest in the book. If so, it worked, cos the book was enough of a hit to warrant a second edition a year later, with Zola adding a new preface defending himself against his critics’ charges of wallowing in filth and producing a kind of pornography. After reading the thing, I’m not sure that this is not precisely what Zola actually does. Therese Raquin tells a fairly grotty story of some remarkably unlikeable people, mainly Therese and Laurent, who conspire to kill her husband Camille, and are haunted by their crime ever afterward. It’s this latter part of the story that really got on my tits, cos it occupies so much of the book; the murder comes about a third of the way in, and most of the rest of the book after that is their horror at what they’ve done and their inability to live with each other, etc. I read the Robin Buss translation (the latest Penguin Classics edition), and Buss’ introduction observes the influence of Flaubert upon Zola, and the former’s belief that the author should be a recorder of reality and not shrink from depicting horror, but at the same time not indulge in it either. This is kind of amusing, cos I think that’s exactly what Zola does; he keeps slapping on additional layers of unpleasantness until you start to feel he’s doing so just because he can, not because it actually serves any purpose. Even subjecting poor old Madame Raquin to a paralysing stroke and leaving her unable to avenge Camille when she discovers the other two killed him just seemed wilful and needless. There’s a certain gothic quality to some of this stuff that seems more like a horror story than an avowedly realistic novel of actual people, but it’s also hugely monotonous; I don’t think I’ve ever been so glad to see fictional characters kill themselves. Did not like at all.

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