Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Reading Group report: Thérèse Raquin

Thérèse Raquin, 15 March 2012, led by Harriet Briggs (Newcastle)

Émile Zola's claustrophobic tale of sex, obsession and murder in the gloomy arcades of nineteenth-century Paris made for a fascinating discussion. None of us had read the novel before, and as a group we had very little knowledge of Zola's work or of the French Naturalist movement of which Thérèse Raquin was a key founding text. This unfamiliarity led to a fantastically discursive and speculative session that proved especially useful for members working in the mid- and late- nineteenth century and the fin de siecle.

We began by considering the setting of the novel. In particular, we were interested in the architecture. Spaces, we felt, were close and ill-lit. The dark and grimy arcade seemed at odds with the light and spacious promenading spaces the Paris arcades usually represented. This arcade was not a public space, and the grime which coated the glass also blurred distinctions between outdoors and indoors and day and night. This led into a discussion of the psycho-geography of the novel – the role of windows, passageways and doorways in occluding or dissolving barriers between different spaces and different states of mind. 

Thinking about the fluidity of internal/external architecture led us to talk more broadly about the permeability of boundaries throughout the novel – between body and mind, between mental states, between respectability and squalor, and, in the grotesque mortuary scene, between the body's interior and exterior. This led us into thinking about Zola's journalistic focus on the diseased city and his public advocacy for the proposal to clean up the Seine and its adjacent slums.

Harriet drew our attention to the Preface to the second edition and in particular Zola's claim that the work was not immoral (and in fact, had no moral) but was rather a strictly scientific observation of the collision of Laurent and Therese's different temperaments. The group was not wholly convinced of this, finding it a disingenuous move. We thought the loss of access to Therese's inner thoughts after the end of their affair ended her development as a character. It suggested that, despite Zola's claim, she had become fixed as the 'fallen woman' and that the narrative was not entirely free of moral judgement. The scene where Laurent followed her through the streets and, seeing her in a first-floor window, realised she had either taken a lover or was a prostitute, further underscored the impression that Therese was mediated through his gaze. The narrative voice was not, we thought, as neutral as it claimed.

We also considered Zola's claims for scientific objectivity in light of the repeated appeals to a separation of the mind and the body that left the soul 'entirely absent' and considered the two lovers as 'human animals'. Upending Romantic and Christian dualisms, the novel prioritises body over mind, reading their behaviour as the natural outcome of changes that 'derive from the flesh [and] are rapidly communicated to the brain and to the entire being'. We found this problematic too: what is 'the entire being' if not the body and brain, and if the soul does not exist? What does this mean for a definition of art and the artist in light of Laurent's physical wasting, consequent increase in artistic power and discovery that he cannot prevent his hand from producing images of the drowned Camille? We weren't sure what to make of this sequence; was Zola claiming artistic talent and emotions (in this case guilt) are located in the body? This led to a discussion about what the artistic and 'gentlemanly' body looks like in this novel. Before he drowns Camille, Laurent is described as a peasant, as big and animalistic and slow. Afterwards, he's not only thin and artistically talented but 'elegant' and 'a gentleman'. We therefore thought there was a strong class element to his change from 'sanguine' to 'nervous' in temperament.

The discussion of Laurent's classed body led into a consideration of class more generally. The group found the novel's depiction of class to be confusing: Madame Raquin is clearly well-off, with the ability to purchase a business and support three adults despite her niece's neglect of the shop, and their friends are from respectable backgrounds. Laurent is a peasant but also has the leisure and money to hire a studio and live a bohemian existence. Yet at the same time they live in a dank and filthy arcade, and when Camille is dead both Laurent and Therese turn to working-class amusements and pastimes: Laurent to visiting the morgue every day, Therese to drinking and streetwalking. We weren't sure whether this was an intentional depiction of people on the fringes of several social groups or a loss of narrative control; Zola's sudden conflation of physicality with intellectual and artistic potential was another moment when the dispassionate narrative voice seemed to unintentionally slip.

Finally, a discussion about the novel's supremely creepy ending led us to all read out the final few sentences from the different editions. Those of us who were able to compared the English descriptions of the final scene with the original French. They were all quite radically different, which sparked a debate about reading in translation and whether the role of the translator was to be faithful to tone or language.

Beatrice Turner (Newcastle)


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