Thérèse Raquin (Gallimard, 2011)by Émile Zola
Its über well known adultery-and-murder plotline notwithstanding, I naively read Thérèse Raquin expecting some sort of a pro forma workout on the nature of female desire but never expecting to thumb through the insalubrious pages of one of the doomiest of 19th century doom novels. Silly me! Way weirder than expected roman classique, ze weirdness coming fast and furious once Laurent, who has just drowned his friend Camille in the Seine in order to make it easier for the murderer to bed down the fetching desperate housewife/willing accomplice to murder/brand new widow Thérèse, begins frequenting the Paris morgue to see if the dead man's body has finally been fished out of the drink. Much page-turning luridness ensues. Much, much page-turning luridness ensues. Within the gruesome morgue chapter alone, for example, Zola treats us to the startling spectacle of decomposing bodies rotting before the reader's eyes and to the maybe even more sensational depiction of roving bands of twelve to fifteen year old boys who, stopping only in front of the female cadavers, make all sorts of crude remarks about the sex appeal of the dead women behind the display windows. Having "learned vice at the school of death" ["ils apprenaient le vice à l'école de la mort"], it turns out, "c'est à la Morgue que les jeunes voyous ont leur première maîtresse" ["it's at the morgue where the young thugs have their first mistress"] (128). Elsewhere, Zola is equally as in your face a purveyor of the prose poetry of revolt when describing how the aftereffects of their crime torment the murderous newlyweds on their eventual wedding night ("Thérèse et Lauren retrouvaient la senteur froide et humide du noyé dans l'air chaud qu'ils respiraient; ils se se disaient qu'un cadavre était là, près d'eux" ["Thérèse and Laurent recognized the cold and damp odor of the drowned man in the warm air that they were breathing; they told each other that a corpse was there in their midst"]) (189) and beyond ("Lorsque les deux meurtriers étaient allongés sous le même drap, et qu'ils fermaient les yeux, ils croyaient sentir le corps humide de leur victime, couché au milieu du lit, qui leur glaçait la chair" ["When the two murderers were stretched out under the same sheet with their eyes shut, they believed they could feel the damp body of their victim, prone in the middle of the bed, making their skin crawl"]) (205). All this, a copious amount of hallucinatory overkill + a certain scratch and sniff dimension to the prose (cf. human remains likened to "greenish, eel-like" flesh ["pareil à un lambeau verdâtre"] or a room described as sporting "une fade senteur de cimetière" ["a faint whiff of cemetery"]) (205 & 218) leave me no choice but to marvel--Zola, what a sick puppy!
Émile Zola (1840-1902)