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As an excursion away from politics and the mysteries of man’s love-affairs with war I picked up an old classic, one of those we should re-read from time to time.  Emile Zola’s Thérèse Raquin (1867) is said to have initiated the roman noir which led to the American hard-boiled novel, now imitated all over the world.  The story of an adulterous affair in which a passionate woman deserts a weak husband for a man “with a neck like a bull,” has been the source for at least half-a-dozen movies**,  and as its near cousin, The Postman Always Rings Twice, several more.

I listened to a marvelous Audible reading by Kate Winslet, whose voice alone could turn the boring to the sensual and wondered whose translation she was reading.  It turned out to have been a 1902 re-edit of an 1867 original (the same year as Zola’s original)  by Edward Vizetelly.  I wasn’t too surprised as such works, in the public domain, make fewer demands on the publisher’s bottom line.  However, as there are now eight* newer translations into English I wondered what the latest might read like.  I found Adam Thorpe’ 2013 offering, and favorable reviews and so did a bit of comparing.

The following short passage appears in chapter VII.  Laurent has been introduced his friend Camille’s  wife, Thérèse, and to his mother.  He becomes part of their regular Thursday dominoes circle and, interpreting Thérèse’s glances at him correctly, contrives to spend more evenings painting her husband’s portrait. The first kiss has happened,  an arrangement made.

Vizetelly, 1902

“Laurent was astonished to find his sweetheart handsome. He had never seen her before as she appeared to him then. Thérèse, supple and strong, pressed him in her arms, flinging her head backward, while on her visage coursed ardent rays of light and passionate smiles. This face seemed as if transfigured, with its moist lips and sparkling eyes. It now had a fond caressing look. It radiated. She was beautiful with the strong beauty born of passionate abandon. …

When Laurent parted from her, after his initial visit, he staggered like a drunken man, and the next day, on recovering his cunning prudent calm, he asked himself whether he  should return to this young woman whose kisses gave him the fever. First of all he positively decided to keep to himself. Then he had a cowardly feeling. He sought to forget, to avoid seeing Therese, and yet she always seemed to be there, implacably extending her arms. The physical suffering that this spectacle caused him became intolerable. He gave way.

He arranged another meeting, and returned to the Arcade of the Pont Neuf.”

Thorpe, 2013

“Laurent, astonished,  found his mistress beautiful.  He had never seen this woman.  Therese, pliant and strong, was pressing him close, her head thrown back, blazing lights and passionate smiles racing over her face.  A lover’s face, it was as if transfigured; she seems crazed and fawning; with moist lips and glistening eyes, she dazzled   The young woman, twisted and supple, was beautiful with a strange beauty that completely transported her. It was as if her face were lit from within, that flames were darting from her flesh.  And both her burning blood and her tensed nerves gave off warm fragrances,  a penetrating, pungent air all around her. …

At the first kiss, she revealed herself to be a courtesan.  Her unfulfilled body threw itself desperately into sensual pleasure.  She was aroused as if from a dream, awakening to passion.  She passed from Camille’s feeble arms to the firm arms of Laurent, this advance from a powerful man giving her a sudden jolt that wrenched her flesh from its long slumber.  All the instincts of a highly strung woman exploded with unparalleled violence; her mother’s blood, that African blood burning in her veins, began to flow, to beat furiously in her lean, still all but virgin body.  She stretched herself out, she offered herself up with a supreme lack of modesty.  Long drawn-out shudders thrilled through her from head to toe.

Laurent had never known such a woman   He remained astonished and ill at ease.  Normally, his mistresses would never receive him with such ardour; he was used to cold, indifferent kisses, to cloyed and weary love-making.  Thérèse’s sobs and fits almost frightened him, all the while piquing his sensual curiosity.  When he left the young woman he was tottering like a drunk.  The next day, recovering his sly, cautious calm, he wondered if she should return to this lover whose kissed threw him into such a fever.  At first he flatly decided to stay at home.  Then he felt cowardly.  He wanted to forget, wanted no longer to see Thérèse in her nakedness and with her soft, brutal caresses, yet she was always there, implacable, stretching out her arms,  The physical suffering this image caused him grew unbearable.

He gave up, arranged another meeting and returned to the Passage du Pont-Neuf.”

While Thorpe’s newer, British, English is more contemporary and so more saucy to our ears, it is the additional fevered passages that catch the eye, particularly the reference to Thérèse’s African blood.  Which of the two then did Zola write in 1867?  Is it possible Thorpe found an unexpurgated edition, here presented, or did Vizetelly simply excise?

Zola, 1867

Laurent, étonné, trouva sa maîtresse belle. Il n’avait jamais vu cette femme. Thérèse, souple et forte, le serrait, renversant la tête en arrière, et, sur son visage, couraient des lumières ardentes, des sourires passionnés. Cette face d’amante s’était comme transfigurée ; elle avait un air fou et caressant ; les lèvres humides, les yeux luisants, elle rayonnait. La jeune femme, tordue et ondoyante, était belle d’une beauté étrange, toute d’emportement. On eût dit que sa figure venait de s’éclairer en dedans, que des flammes s’échappaient de sa chair. Et, autour d’elle, son sang qui brûlait, ses nerfs qui se tendaient, jetaient ainsi des effluves chauds, un air pénétrant et âcre.

Au premier baiser, elle se révéla courtisane. Son corps inassouvi se jeta éperdument dans la volupté. Elle s’éveillait comme d’un songe, elle naissait à la passion. Elle passait des bras débiles de Camille dans les bras vigoureux de Laurent, et cette approche d’un homme puissant lui donnait 75 une brusque secousse qui la tirait du sommeil de la chair. Tous ses instincts de femme nerveuse éclatèrent avec une violence inouïe ; le sang de sa mère, ce sang africain qui brûlait ses veines, se mit à couler, à battre furieusement dans son corps maigre, presque vierge encore. Elle s’étalait, elle s’offrait avec une impudeur souveraine. Et, de la tête aux pieds, de longs frissons l’agitaient.

Jamais Laurent n’avait connu une pareille femme. Il resta surpris, mal à l’aise. D’ordinaire, ses maîtresses ne le recevaient pas avec une telle fougue ; il était accoutumé à des baisers froids et indifférents, à des amours lasses et rassasiées. Les sanglots, les crises de Thérèse l’épouvantèrent presque, tout en irritant ses curiosités voluptueuses. Quand il quitta la jeune femme, il chancelait comme un homme ivre. Le lendemain, lorsque son calme sournois et prudent fut revenu, il se demanda s’il retournerait auprès de cette amante dont les baisers lui donnaient la fièvre. Il décida d’abord nettement qu’il resterait chez lui. Puis il eut des lâchetés. Il voulait oublier, ne plus voir Thérèse dans sa nudité, dans ses caresses douces et brutales, et toujours elle 76 était là, implacable, tendant les bras. La souffrance physique que lui causait ce spectacle devint intolérable.

Il céda, il prit un nouveau rendez-vous, il revint au passage du Pont-Neuf.

Hot stuff!

Even if you don’t read French, you can see that Zola, unlike his contemporary British translator, was unabashed.

And this is why, translations need to be re-done from time to time and why readers picking up old classics should care whose they are reading.  The $2 saved won’t make up for what you might miss.

[[By the way, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary was published in 1856, 11 years before Thérèse Raquin .]]
More Translations

* Thérèse Raquin (1867)

  • Thérèse Raquin (1887, Tr: Edward Vizetelly, Vizetelly & Co.)
  • Therese Raquin (1902, Tr: Edward Vizetelly, Grant Richards)
  • Theresa (1952, Tr: unknown, Corgi Books)
  • Thérèse Raquin (1955, Tr: Philip G. Downs, William Heinemann)
  • Thérèse Raquin (1956, Tr: Lee Marcourt, Ace Books)
  • Thérèse Raquin (1960, Tr: William R. Trask, Bantam Books)
  • Thérèse Raquin (1962, Tr: L.W. Tancock, Penguin Books)
  • Thérèse Raquin (1992, Tr: Andrew Rothwell, Oxford Uni. Press)
  • Thérèse Raquin (2004, Tr: Robin Buss, Penguin Books)
  • Thérèse Raquin (2013, Tr: Adam Thorpe, Vintage, Random House)

** Films

1915 Teresa Raquin directed by Nino Martoglio

1928 Terese Raquin, and Thou Shalt Not, directed by Jacques Feyder, with Gina Manes, Hans Adalbert Schlettow, Jeanne Marie-Laurent

1953  The Adulteress, Directed by Michel Carne with Simone Signoret, Raf ValloneSylvie

1980 Terese Raquin, a 3 part BBC series, Directed by Simon Langton, with Kate Nelligan, Brian CoxMona Washbourne, [This is an excellent production.  Innovative film work and great locations make the Pont Neuf and the shop exactly like Zola describes them.  Kate Nelligan is fantastic.

2013 In Secret, Directer by Charlie Stratton with  Elizabeth Olsen, Tom Felton, Jessica Lange

It’s also an Opera by Tobias Picker, Libretto by Gene Scheer, and a current Broadway production with Keira Knightley as Thérèse.

For a nearly complete list see Wikipedia.