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? No, another writer got their earlier… No less than Emile Zola, with his carnal and edgy Thérèse Raquin in 1867. Who can write about sex like Zola these days, with everyone flinching in advance of ironic but ultimately censorious awards or political correctness? Such as this timeless 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.’
I’m reading the new Vintage Classics translation by Adam Thorpe of Thérèse Raquin (a tie-in with a new film), and it’s astonishing – it makes one realise for the first time why Zola was so shocking in his day. Actually, Vintage have done this before – I remember the radical new translation they commissioned of Dostoyevsky’s The Devils (as Demons) in the late 90s.
My advice to any crime writers looking to re-energise their batteries when writing about murder and sex? Pick up a novel which was written a hundred and fifty years ago and learn from a master.
Thérèse Raquin by Emile Zola is published by Vintage