Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Émile Zola: Precursor to crime?

An exhibit of fashion illustrations at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston offered this wistful, sobering explanatory note from the collector who had assembled the drawings, mostly originals of advertisements:

"I think our familiarity (at least until recently) with holding and flipping through magazines and newspapers gives these works an intriguing intimacy."
That makes a nice case for printed books, magazines, and newspapers over whatever machine you're using to read this now. Forget the advantages of e-books for a moment; what have we lost?

Zola: Ancestor of hard-boiled crime?

A wonderful little book called Un Certain Style Ou Un Style Certain? Introduction a l'etude du style francais includes excerpts from Émile Zola's novel Thérèse Raquin (1867). "Here is a tale of adultery, murder and madness," according to an introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of the novel, "set mainly in a single location and with a cast of four leading characters and four minor ones."

And here's an excerpt from the first chapter:
 "Built into the left wall are dark, low, flattened shops which exhale the dank air of cellars. There are secondhand booksellers, toyshops and paper merchants whose displays sleep dimly in the shades, grey with dust. The little square panes of the shop windows cast strange, greenish reflections on the goods inside. Behind them, the shops are full of darkness, gloomy holes in which weird figures move around."
Sounds like 1950s crime melodrama to me. Has anyone ever cited Zola among those authors whose work includes elements of crime fiction?
***
I'm up on the Likely Stories blog talking about Detectives Beyond Borders as part of Booklist's celebration of Mystery Month. Sorry for the old picture that illustrated the piece; it's the only one I could get my hands on at short notice.               

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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19 Comments:

Anonymous Aaron said...

Peter,

Zola's novel La Bete Humaine is also a strong predecessor of today's crime fiction...and it was also made into a film by Jean Renoir and starring Jean Gabin. I'm certain he couldn't in the strictest sense be considered a crime writer, but there are elements at work in a few of his novels (I haven't read the whole Rougon-Macquart cycle of novels so I can't say that with authority, but I have read the ones mentioned). Of course, Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Conan-Doyle and Poe aren't solely crime writers in their full bodies of work, but they seem to be more quickly referenced as ancestors in the crime writing community.

May 16, 2012  
Blogger Cary Watson said...

I'd say there's little doubt that James M. Cain reworked Therese Raquin for The Postman Always Rings Twice. Raquin is probably the first novel use the idea of sexual infatuation leading to murder.

May 16, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Aaron, that's the thought I'll carry with me as I read Zola (and a bit of Balzac, too): Dickens, Collins, Conan Doyle and, especially, Poe, are members of the Crime Fiction Hall of Fame in the builders catetory; Zola and Balzac not. Discuss.

May 16, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Cary: Tales of obsession probably did not come to the fore in American crime writing until the 1940s or '50s. Perhaps that's one reason Zola, who did not write about crime and detection, is not cited as an ancestor.

May 16, 2012  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Aaron took the words right out of my mouth.

Of the Zola novels I've read (Thérèse Raquin, Nana, Au Bonheur des Dames, La Bête humaine) all contain crimes of one kind or another. Zola took great pains to immerse himself in the language of the streets and the various lowlifes who populate his novels. A precursor to Dashiell Hammett...? And Zola's "Realism" may make him seem fresher to today's readers than, say, Wilkie Collins, or even Charles Dickens. Zola was most definitely "an ancestor of hard-boiled crime."

Speaking of museum exhibitions of illustrations + crime... An exhibition of Goya's series of etchings, "Los Caprichos," at the Albuquerque Museum of Art & History (seen last week) certainly contains many crime elements.

(Glad you like that French book...)

May 16, 2012  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Forget the advantages of e-books for a moment; what have we lost?

Serendipity. "The faculty of making fortunate discoveries by accident" is anathema to e-reading and its devices.

May 16, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisabeth, I'd say Zola's narrative voice is more akin to that of 1950s hard-boiled writers, whom I know you also love.

I read most of Balzac's story "The Vendetta" on my dinner break. And yes, I'd agree that the voice of Realism seems especially fresh today.

As for Goya, I saw lots of his work on a visit to Spain a few years ago, and I thought it was the darkest of the dark. Then I found his "Black Paintings" at the Prado. Goya was the Derek Raymond of painters.

May 16, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Right on re e-books. Browsing is dead.

May 16, 2012  
Anonymous aaron said...

Elisabeth,

I completely agree that Dickens can seem dated, if only because he wrote specifically for his time period. But Collins still feels fresh to me ( as does Zola) because of the very, very modern approach to the genders and to relationships that he had in his fiction and in his personal life, not to mention the dark psychosexual undertones his work takes on at times. Sensation fiction, in part, explored the "mysteries on our own doorstep" and critiqued the society of the time, particularly gender and marriage.

Collins had 2 completely separate households, with 2 different women (Caroline Graves and Martha Rudd)-neither of whom he married- and had children with both women. And both women knew of the arrangement and met each other and were apparently perfectly happy with it...in 1880!! Martha even went off and married another man and left him to return to the arrangement. All of this is subtly referenced in the almost "menage a trois"-type ending of Woman in White, but of course none of his readers knew about it, and I'm not sure how well his close friend Dickens accepted Collins' free-loving life, although he did divorce his wife to be allowed to get Ellen Ternan, so maybe he was less Victorian than his fiction suggests.

Of course, these kinds of unorthodox marriage arrangements were more common than most readers knew about ( George Eliot, of course, and Mary Elizabeth Braddon come to mind). Even today, Collins' polyamorous situation seems outre, but at least he did to some extent incorporate these elements into his fiction, making it more ahead of its time than others, like Dickens, who was more of his time.

May 16, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Though the rambling Pickwick Papers may seem fresher today than does some of Dickens' more heavily plotted novels.

In re nineteenth-century sensation fiction, an acquantance of mine devotes a good deal of his energy to raising the profile of George Lippard.

May 16, 2012  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

unorthodox marriage arrangements

Aaron, I'm most familiar with these arrangements within an earlier Victorian group, the Pre-Raphaelites and their circle. Isn't it funny how so many people think sexual freedom was "invented" in the 1960s?!

May 16, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Did the Victorians think of themselves as Victorian?

May 16, 2012  
Anonymous aaron said...

Peter,
I understand that "Victorian" was used as a pejorative before the end of the 19th century, so apparently there was some level of awareness, at least of the intensely earnest moral seriousness that pervaded their culture for some time. Also, I will look up George Lippard as I haven't heard of him before...sadly, many of the big names in sensation fiction aren't especially well represented in print today ( Collins wrote some 30 novels and about 10 are available; Braddon apparently published some 90 novels (??!!), but only 1 is widely available, though a couple of others have had short print runs). But then, I'm don't think that even Joyce Carol Oates has her entire body of work still in print, and she is one of the few living authors as productive as the Victorians were...she must not watch tv either!!

Elisabeth,

I know...its so funny how short our collective memory can be, although I am more interested in how these various authors and artists interpolate such unorthodox arrangements into their work, since there is nothing new under the sun. Certainly Collins is also fresh in the sense of his novelistic structure as well, and of course they were also beginning to explore the city as a character as well, but those things wouldn't be especially shocking in his lifetime. And, if I remember correctly, Braddon and Eliot were both to some extent known for their unusual marital relations in the general public. Of course, Dickens's divorce was public, but it seems that Collins kept a much, much tighter lid on his set up...and on his ever-increasing laudanum/opium addiction. Maybe that's why he could touch on those subjects in his novels. But that's another post!!

May 17, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Victoria apparently was pretty Victorian herself. I wonder when during her long reign this tendency (if I'm right) came to manifest itself and to characterize her time.

May 17, 2012  
Blogger Dana King said...

You're dead on about e-readers. The only thing I miss with my Kindle is the ability to flip through pages until something catches my eye. E-books are designed to be read straight through, even if the content lends itself to other types of reading.

May 17, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That, and the ease of flipping back and forth as necessary. When I read a book in French, I like to have an English translation at hand to read side by side. This is not easy with an e-reader.

May 17, 2012  
Blogger Linda said...

I THINK ITS VERY EASY TO READ THERESA RAQUIN IN BOTH LANGUAGES ON KINDLE, WHICH I AM DOING NOW; ODDLY ENOUGH I FIND YOU BLOGGING ABOUT IT. THEN THERE IS THE DICTIONARY. OTHERWISE I WOULD HAVE TO CARRY 3 BOOKS AROUND.

May 22, 2012  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

I read Nana while a teen-ager, so I can't recall to much, except for Zola's sympathy for the main character.

What I do recall is Zola's intervention in a real crime story. His famous articles and appeals in newspapers and his hard work helped to free Dreyfus, who had been framed for treason by a top officer in the French military, and was suffering in his exile and imprisonment.

Zola played a very important role in exposing the real criminal(s) and getting Dreyfus exonerated.

May 26, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy: I haven't read it, but J'accuse, Zola's open letter about the Dreyfus case, is surely his most famous work these days.

May 26, 2012  

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