Thérèse Raquin and La Bête Humaine by Emile Zola, book of a lifetime
Thursday 26 June 2014
Two lovers who can't keep their hands off each other's bodies and who have sex on the floor; an inconvenient and unattractive husband who it is necessary to get out of the way. I know – you're thinking James M Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice or one of its many imitators. But no, another writer got there earlier ... Emile Zola, with his carnal and edgy Thérèse Raquin in 1867.
Who can write about sex like Zola these days, without flinching in advance of ironic but ultimately censorious awards, or political correctness? Take this passage: "Then, in a single violent motion, Laurent stooped and caught the young woman against his chest. He thrust her head back, crushing her lips against his own. She made a fierce, passionate gesture of revolt, and then, all of a sudden, she surrendered herself, sliding to the floor, on to the tiles. Not a word passed between them. The act was silent and brutal."
The recent Vintage Classics translation by Adam Thorpe makes one understand, perhaps for the first time, why Zola was so shocking in his day. (Vintage has done this before – it commissioned a radical new translation of Dostoevsky's The Devils, rendered as Demons, in the 1990s.)
The concupiscence and violence of Zola's work found expression in another infernal triangle in La Bête Humaine in 1890. American paperback editions emphasised the steaminess, calling it The Human Beast and adorning the jackets with copious cleavage. The book, though, is about far more than a sordid homicide; Zola's targets include the French judicial system (which he was to excoriate during the Dreyfus affair) and there is a brilliant realisation of the world of railways and railwaymen.
La Bête Humaine is a richer, more complex experience than Thérèse. Its unlucky trio are the "human beast" Lantier, who is gripped by a hereditary madness and a desire to murder; Severine, an object of lust for men who yet retains an unsullied centre; and Robaud, her brutal husband who cuts the throat of one of her ex-lovers.
My advice to crime writers looking to re-energise their batteries when writing about sex and murder? Pick up two visceral novels written more than a century ago and learn from a master.
Barry Forshaw's latest book is 'Euro Noir: The Pocket Essential Guide to European Crime Fiction, Film and TV' (Oldcastle)
TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice
Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites
TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Nigel Farage: Me vs Russell Brand on Question Time – he's got the chest hair but where are his ideas?
- 2 Harry Potter fans can apply to the Hogwarts-inspired College of Wizardry
- 3 Jessica Chambers: 19-year-old woman 'doused with lighter fluid and burned alive' in the US
- 4 Russell Brand calls Nigel Farage 'poundshop Enoch Powell' in BBC Question Time debate
- 5 Orange Wednesdays are no more
Peter Lik: The self-proclaimed 'fine-art photographer' whose work sells for millions
The best underrated Christmas movies from Love, Actually to While You Were Sleeping
Grace Dent on TV: The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies was a beautifully shot, immensely considered drama
The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies, review: Jason Watkins is brilliant, but real victim Joanna Yeates is reduced to a footnote
Marilyn Manson denies involvement in shocking Lana Del Rey rape video
Disgruntled RBS worker writes hilarious open letter to Russell Brand after anti-capitalist publicity stunt leaves him hungry
Shock poll shows voters believe Ukip is to the left of the Tories
Nigel Farage's approval rating hits 'record low' as popularity suffers in wake of Ukip sex scandal
Ukip candidate jokes about 'shooting peasants' in racist and homophobic rant
Pakistan school attack live: Taliban kill at least 132 children in 'horrifying' massacre
Sony hack: Angelina Jolie branded 'seriously out of her mind' in further embarrassing leaked email saga