By Phil Clapham
For The Beachcomber
Which books would you take to a desert island?
I can never throw away books. Books have souls; they represent knowledge, ideas and creative aspirations — however misapplied that may sometimes be by authors who are conspicuously devoid of talent.
Sure, in an effort to reduce the inventory of literature that fills many corners of our small house, I’m occasionally forced to conduct a bit of a purge of titles I know I’ll never read again. I duly deliver bags of paperbacks – and the occasional hardcover – to the Vashon Library, or to that repository of all good things, Granny’s Attic. But, no matter how bad the book, I can’t seem to find it in my heart to commit the sacrilege of actually throwing one into the trash (Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf might be an exception if I actually owned a copy, which I would hasten to note that I don’t).
So I can’t destroy a book. I have, however, thrown one across a room.
Some books are so bleak in their portrayal of the worst of human nature that they make very grim reading. I’m not talking here about non-fiction. Heaven only knows there are endless examples of books that detail the darker side of humanity: serial killers, genocide, systemic racism, corporate greed, the history of torture, British food – you name it, if it’s singularly awful, it’s been written about in often lurid detail.
Indeed, I just read one of the bleakest of these, Christina Lamb’s brilliant and deeply disturbing Our Bodies, Their Battlefields, about mass rape in warfare; I do not recommend it as the last thing you read before you go to sleep at night. No, non-fiction simply documents; with fiction, however, the author makes a choice about how to portray evil.
There are, obviously, innumerable novels that explore the darkness within us, including in situations when societal restraint is removed – or rigidly imposed. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is one of the first that springs to mind, as do George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984. There’s William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange… and, for that matter, pretty much everything that Franz Kafka ever wrote. Et cetera. None of these leave you feeling warm and fuzzy about humanity.
But for sheer wallowing in the depths of unrelieved wretchedness, nothing but nothing beats Emile Zola’s novel Thérèse Raquin.
I’d say a spoiler alert is coming up, except that it would be difficult to spoil this book as much as it spoils itself. Thérèse Raquin is a young woman in Paris who is pushed by an overbearing aunt into marrying her sickly, cosseted and selfish son Camille. Unhappy in the passionless marriage, Thérèse begins a torrid affair with her husband’s friend Laurent. To make an unnecessarily long story short, the lovers murder Camille by pushing him out of a boat to drown; but instead of this act freeing them to live happily ever after in a romantic land of kittens and rainbows, the guilt of the murder consumes them, and their relationship becomes increasingly fractious. Initially, Camille’s mother is touched and gratified by how Laurent cares for what she assumes is her son’s grieving widow. But then she has a stroke which leaves her mute and paralyzed in a wheelchair in the apartment they all share (doesn’t this sound fun? But wait — there’s more!)
As the elder Madame Raquin becomes a helpless and ultimately forgotten part of the furniture, Thérèse and Laurent’s arguments intensify and, from these violent spats that take place in front of her, she finally realizes the truth: that they murdered her son. The novel descends into increasingly horrendous scenes and concludes with the delightful spectacle of the couple committing mutual suicide and dying at the mother’s paralyzed feet.
Zola published the novel in 1868. The book reviewer of the famous Paris daily Le Figaro described it as “putrid,” but despite this, it sold quite well. It’s even been turned into – God forbid – an opera. My own reaction, as noted above, was to hurl it across my living room in disgust, and for a long time thereafter I couldn’t see it on my bookshelf without an overpowering feeling of revulsion.
It’s not that I don’t find enjoyment in dark themes; I do. Rather, it’s the almost sadistic way in which Zola submerges his story deeper and deeper into the swamp of human misery and the complete lack of redeeming qualities in any of his wretched characters.
So, in keeping with the theme of this column, Thérèse Raquin is the last book I would ever take to a desert island. For once, I’d have no problem at all ditching it over the side of the lifeboat.