When I was in my teens I read a good deal in the realist school of American fiction: Theodore Dreiser, Upton Sinclair, Frank Norris, and so on. As a more mature reader, I found their work hopelessly dreary, dull, and dead. Much later I discovered the French realist novelists of the second half of the 19th century, of whom the most important is Émile Zola. Within the past several years I’ve read a number of his novels, including L’Assommoir and the wonderful La Débâcle, about France’s defeat by Germany in the brief Franco-German War of 1870, and been impressed by Zola’s ability to combine realism with a large measure of poeticism that belongs more to his treatment of his material than to his prose style. I’m now in the middle of Thérèse Raquin, a short work that has been translated to the stage and to film.
The novel, the story of an adulterous couple who decide to murder the husband, was a scandal in France when it was first published in 1867, so much so that Zola felt compelled to add a Preface to the second edition explaining that his interest in writing the story had been clinically analytic, not prurient. By the moral and artistic standards of today, Thérèse hardly raises eyebrows. It seems, indeed, far too blasé a story to interest a 21st-century publisher or director (though Hitchcock could have done a lot with it). In spite, or perhaps because, of this, the author’s stated artistic intent comes through clearly and beautifully in the text. The novel is a close, and at the same time dramatic, exploration of the psyches of a pair of moral monsters, one that Sherlock Holmes (the detective, not necessarily his creator) would have learned from and admired. Like all of Zola’s work, it demonstrates how fiction can combine artistic vision and technique with what one might call the higher journalism to create a first-rate work of art.
Incidentally, the theme of the book is ahead of its time not only for its anticipation of Western sexual mores in the 20th and 21st centuries but for its indirect bearing on the history of demographic change in Western Europe since 1945. Thérèse’s native French husband is pale, sickly, weak, and ineffective, not least in bed. She herself has an African mother—not black, clearly, but North African—which in Zola’s mind accounts for her sexual passion and fierceness once her strongly masculine lover has awakened them in her. It does not seem farfetched for a modern European reader to perceive here the roots of the present demographic crisis that menaces the future of Europe, even though Zola could not have foreseen it. But, art is often like that.