LEFT FIELD: Therese Raquin by Emile Zola

Review published on January 25, 2018.

I am not the first person to note that this classic of world literature is also the progenitor of the French crime novel and indeed has been an inspiration for some of the finest writers of hard-boiled fiction. As some great noir writers in both Europe and America have used Thérèse Raquin as the inspiration for their crime novels. Zola has had a massive impact on world crime writing all the way up to your favourite fiction today. Maybe there is nothing new under the sun, so it’s not so much the premise as the way you tell it that is original.

Reg Seward recently caught up with Thérèse Raquin and gave the novel a five star review on BookHugger. How could you not, it’s a classic of world literature? Reg loves the feel of nineteenth century France and the artful storytelling. I could wax lyrical for some time about one of my favourite novels but I want to look at the specific influence of the novel on crime writing because at the heart of the book is a murder.

Thérèse Raquin is a psychological study of two lovers who kill the woman’s husband. Matters of the human heart and soul are to the fore. What caused people to contemplate murder? Where does murder lead? What effect does it have on the murderers? And, in this case to a lesser extent, how does it affect the people around them?

At the beginning of the novel Thérèse Raquin is a very unhappy young woman; she has been bullied into marrying Camille by an aunt. When the chance of an escape from the over-bearing boorish husband presents itself Thérèse begins a torrid, passionate affair with his friend, Laurent. It becomes difficult for the lovers to see each other, eventually Thérèse suggests murdering Camille. The couple plot, they drown Camille, but only after a struggle in which Camille bites Laurent on the neck. The wound is a physical manifestation of the crime that eats away at the lovers. Madame Raquin is devastated by the loss of her son but it is assumed to be an accident. Thérèse has nightmares, Laurent imagines Camille is still alive. A friend, Michaud, mistakes the misery in Thérèse and suggests that she marry Laurent. There is no happy ending, the couple can’t live with what they have done, hallucinations of Camille haunt the bedroom. Laurent, an artist, can no longer paint. The couple are looking after Madame Raquin who has had a stroke and the lovers reveal the truth about Camille’s death in front of her. Madame Raquin tries to let others know but cannot speak. The poisonous thoughts of the lovers lead them to plot murder against each other. When they each realise what they have been plotting and the futility of their situation they commit suicide in front of Madame Raquin. The guilt gets them in the end.

Despite apparently getting away with it the couple are prisoners; the prison of guilt, the prison of each others’ tainted love. Thérèse Raquin was Emile Zola’s first successful novel; it seems to be a character study but Zola says he was interested in temperament; Thérèse is melancholic, Laurent sanguine. The style is naturalistic, this is never a rosy love story. Motivations are questionable, Laurent can’t afford prostitutes, his friend’s wife is a cheaper option. At what point it became love if it ever did rather than desperation or lust is for the reader to decide.

I don’t claim to be an expert on nineteenth century French literature but I have read this novel and a few of the introductions to the different texts. I was expecting to find a reference to a real case that sparked the imagination of Zola but there doesn’t seem to be a specific incident that prompted this novel. Clearly though, what the novel portrays has happened throughout history. I think it’s also fair to say that Zola was aware of Greek tragedy and the recently published Madame Bovary, on which this is a further twist. That is what I meant earlier when I said – nothing new under the sun.

When published in L’Artiste Aug-Oct 1867 the story was subtitled ‘a love story’. The critic Louis Ulbach described it thus in Le Figaro “A pool of mud and blood”.

A pool of mud and blood, what better context for a crime novel?

I think anybody reading this novel will know of a crime story that takes its inspiration from Thérèse Raquin. Here are two by the same author, The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity by James M. Cain. Author James Lee Burke describes Cain as “….a master craftsman” and his storytelling as having an “….originality and crispness” [of dialogue]. The basic structure of both novels is the same (lifted from Thérèse Raquin). The story builds towards the crime, we have to believe that the lovers can commit murder. The murder has to be planned and executed (pun intended). Finally the lovers who think they have their freedom are more trapped than ever, things fall apart. If there is a difference it is that Zola is portraying the social, political and economic life of France. Cain is not interested in the polemic but they share a love of ordinary people. The characters are meant to be everyman/woman. Where Zola uses the third person, Cain uses the first person, a little more intimate. Naturally Cain was aware of similar cases in the United States that he used as background for his fiction.

The Postman Always Rings Twice was published in 1934. It opens with the line “They threw me off the hay truck about noon”. It’s not much but think about the picture it puts in your head of the character. Frank Chambers is a young drifter who winds up at a rural Californian diner. Cora is beautiful and married to the older Nick Papadakis; she doesn’t love him and she skivvies in the restaurant. The two young people are attracted to each other. The novel was controversial for its sex and violence (banned in Boston apparently). In a nod to Thérèse Raquin they first try to drown Nick and when it fails they stage a car crash. A clever prosecutor realises what has happened and gets the couple to turn on each other but they survive the investigation and patch things up. Then tragically, Cora dies in a car crash and the irony is that Frank is telling his story from a prison cell convicted of killing his lover. The twists are there but this is Thérèse Raquin reimagined.

Double Indemnity was written two years later. The lovers are named Walter Huff and Phyllis Nirdlinger. He is an insurance salesman (General Fidelity), a bit brash; she is a housewife, a little pretentious, bored. They cook up a scheme to kill the husband and profit from his death. The mother becomes a step-daughter, Lola. As things escalate we ask: are they in love? Do they trust each other? Can they live happily ever after? I won’t say more because you could read this book in an afternoon and it’s well worth doing so if noir/hardboiled is for you.

What we have are three tales of ‘why done it?’ rather than ‘who done it?’ If you are interested I would say read all three you won’t regret it.

Is Thérèse Raquin a crime novel? Yes, and an important one. So are Cain’s novels, which have also influenced later writers. What novel do you think these classics have influenced?

Paul Burke 5/5

Therese Raquin by Emile Zola
Vintage Classics 9780099573531 pbk Oct 2014

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