There used to be a bookish panel game on TV, in which well-known writers, at some stage of the proceedings, confessed to a novel or other literary work they hadn’t read. I seem to remember that Middlemarch featured quite frequently. It’s funny how you’re supposed to feel guilty about what you haven’t read, isn’t it? I have long since stopped feeling shameful. I haven’t read Paradise Lost (would you, if you’d been forced to read all Milton’s ‘shorter’ poems as well as Comus and Samson Agonistes, before being told, at 15, that, very sorry, the syllabus didn’t actually require anything other than Samson?), and I haven’t read Gravity’s Rainbow or any Proust or several of Shakespeare’s history plays. Or… but I haven’t space to confess.
However, there are some ‘classics’ (see blog two days ago – I have found another list of 1000 classics I must read before I die, and I am not going to do it) which I have been saving up for the rainy days of retirement. (H.G. Wells is surprisingly high on the list.) And one these has been Therese Raquin, by Zola. Circumstances, however, have conspired to bring forward my date where Therese Raquin is concerned: I entered a competition which involved knowing a French novel, and I thought, rather than dredge up bits and bobs of French novels I have read, let’s try one I’ve saved up. And it must be 30 years since I read Germinal (and I only did that for a student who wished to write about it. Let me digress a moment – very unusual, ha ha – and complain about the way things have changed at English Literature A level, which I no longer teach, of course, so probably know nothing about. In the 1980s and 1990s, students on the most popular syllabus, which my department was using when it was a pilot, used to have to write an ‘extended essay’, generally on three novels of their own choice. If you had a group of (say) 16, that meant, assuming no duplication, having to read over 40 novels just to keep up. It was great. Obviously, you’d read a lot of them already, because you recommended them, but some you hadn’t, and the whole syllabus forced teacher and student to read together. Needless to say, the course was eventually trimmed and closed. It was far too sensible. That was how I got to read Henry Roth’s amazing novel Call It Sleep, as well as Germinal, which I know isn’t English, but does that matter? Fantastic. End of digression).
Anyway, I read Therese Raquin, which you can do at a sitting, because it is so gripping (and quite short). That it came out in 1867 is nothing short of sensational. It would have surely been denounced in England, whereas it merely caused a bit of a hoo-hah in France, and went into a very speedy second edition. It is a murder story with all the menace of Poe, but without his stylistic flourishes and excesses, and it also has a wonderfully small cast, and a very short sequence of events on which Zola dwells, painfully, skilfully, making every scene quite gripping, even appalling. The murder itself seems to take forever, and there is a truly grim sequence in which the murderer visits a morgue to look for his victim, and the morgue, it transpires, is not only open to the public, but visited by the public, who come to look at the dead bodies out of careless interest. Boys, says Zola, of twelve and upwards, come to stare at the naked women, and, rather darkly, the translator of the Penguin edition remarks, ‘Young louts have their first women in the Morgue.’ Surely he doesn’t mean…
Anyway, it’s a bit late in the day for M. Zola, I know, but I recommend Therese Raquin to anyone who wants to have a rather superior sort of nightmare. It reminded me of something while I was reading it, and of course the list of 1000 Books etc., written as it is by a bunch of very-clever-clog-wearers, proudly informed me that James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice is a steal from Therese Raquin. I think I’d have got that if left to my own devices: Cain is a bit of a hobby of mine, and I’ve read most of his 21 novels. Did you know that Cain was originally an opera-singer, before he decided on pulp fiction? There, that’s today’s useless fact.
Useless facts are in short supply. The trivia shows have been stealing them. Treasure that one while you can.