What the Editors Are Reading

When I was in my teens I read a good deal in the realist school of American fiction: Theodore Dreiser, Upton Sinclair, Frank Norris, and so on.  As a more mature reader, I found their work hopelessly dreary, dull, and dead.  Much later I discovered the French realist novelists of the second half of the 19th century, of whom the most important is Émile Zola.  Within the past several years I’ve read a number of his novels, including L’Assommoir and the wonderful La Débâcle, about France’s defeat by Germany in the brief Franco-German War of 1870, and been impressed by Zola’s ability to combine realism with a large measure of poeticism that belongs more to his treatment of his material than to his prose style.  I’m now in the middle of Thérèse Raquin, a short work that has been translated to the stage and to film.

The novel, the story of an adulterous couple who decide to murder the husband, was a scandal in France when it was first published in 1867, so much so that Zola felt compelled to add a Preface to the second edition explaining that his interest in writing the story had been clinically analytic, not prurient.  By the moral and artistic standards of today, Thérèse hardly raises eyebrows.  It seems, indeed, far too blasé a story to interest a 21st-century publisher or director (though...

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