During my theatrical studyings, one of my lecturers pointed me in the direction of Emile Zola. On realising that he wasn’t a Spanish footballer (This was said for humorous effect, of course I knew he was an Italian), I settled down to read the recommended novel; “Therese Raquin“. We were studying the play version, and the lecturer thought it would be helpful. It was, though perhaps not for the reasons he outlined, as I disappeared for hours on end devouring the book about three times in a row, and neglecting my course work….Well he told me to read it!
Zola presented his work as a naturalistic study of the human as animal, as we see Therese being steered in one direction, and violently and tragically choosing another. Derived from the old medieval idea of the four “Humours”, Zola wanted us to see this novel as almost a scientific study paper. We have moved on some distance from the four humours in our understanding of Scientific evidence (Well…Not sure about our Government, but that’s another story)..So what is left for us now?
The eponymous “heroine” takes us on a tale of love, anger and violence. which keeps the reader suitably engaged all the way through, but the real triumph of the book for me, is the mood and atmosphere it conjures. The morgue scene with decaying flesh and bits dropping off will stay with me forever, to the point where I swear I can smell the scene as well as imagine it. It has, as with “The Return of the Native” been attempted on screen, and the two versions that I am aware of do not, surprisingly, do it justice. Perhaps there should be some sort of list of novels that we just leave alone, and let them exist as they should? If such a list existed, then I nominate “Therese” to sit proudly near the top.
Because of Zola’s own explanations of his work, I think he has been rather unfairly bracketed as almost without emotion in his novels, but I think the opposite is true. His incredible way of observing the human being scientifically actually reveals so much more.
The play version is equally excellent, and I would love to see a performance, although I suspect at least three of my friends will join me in feeling themselves lucky NOT to have seen Keira Knightley in the role on Broadway several years back.
I have tried again not to give any spoilers for these books, and it’s been lovely reading the comments made…Please give this one a go. Whilst it has the feel of “Serious Literature”, and justifiably so, it is also a very pacey book that I found hard to put down, and easy to pick up again.