by Frederick Brown)
The publication of Gustave Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary” in 1857 and of Émile Zola’s “Thérèse Raquin” 10 years later roused the French literary establishment against two previously unknown authors who had gone beyond the bounds of all that was held to be morally admissible in fiction with their portraits of adulterous women starved by marriage of sex and romance. The state prosecuted Flaubert for gross indecency, despite the terrible punishment he metes out to his wayward heroine. Zola was not subjected to the same ordeal, but critics treated him as a rogue purveying smut in the name of realism. Both novels have appeared in countless editions since the 19th century. Both have been adapted to the screen. Now they are available as audiobooks, read by two gifted English actresses: “Madame Bovary” by Juliet Stevenson and “Thérèse Raquin” by Kate Winslet.
Zola predicted that his work would prove to be a succès d’horreur, and horror is indeed what it portends from the opening scene, which ushers the reader into a narrow Parisian street or “passage” overhung by a dirt-encrusted glass canopy admitting little daylight (today, “passages” that survived Baron Haussmann’s reconstruction of Paris under Napoleon III are mostly smart commercial arcades). Residing in this sepulchral milieu are the Raquins: Thérèse; her frail husband, Camille; and her mother-in-law. Thérèse had joined the family long before her marriage. The illegitimate child of Mme. Raquin’s brother by an Algerian woman, she had been raised to pamper Camille, first as his childhood companion, then as his nominal spouse. Time passes joylessly for her until Camille introduces a friend named Laurent, whose virile presence releases the “African” stifled by her chlorotic French family. She gives herself passionately to Laurent, and in due course conspires with him to rid herself of Camille. No sooner have the lovers killed him than they discover that what had stood between them also bound them together: The murder consummating their lust extinguishes it. Joined in marriage, the couple marry their villainy and form a ménage à trois with the memory of Camille, who posthumously acquires the power he never enjoyed in life.
Even critics otherwise sympathetic to Zola carped at his obvious distortions. To Sainte-Beuve, Zola’s Paris, far from illustrating the doctrine of realism, was, in its “utter blackness,” a proper backdrop for melodrama. But with Zola one should bear in mind Eric Bentley’s dictum that melodrama is the realism, or “naturalism,” of the dream life. His Passage du Pont-Neuf, for example, is the archetype of enclosed spaces that harbor violence or depravity throughout his 20-volume saga, “Les Rougon-Macquart.” It prefigures the greenhouse in “The Rush for the Spoil,” the glass-roofed market in “The Belly of Paris,” the derelict country church in “The Sinful Priest,” the apartment building in “Pot Luck,” the underground maze in “Germinal.” Like Balzac, Zola closely investigated his different settings. But what shapes each one is a fantasy of instinctual forces bursting through the structure containing them and leaving a world in ruins. Tree limbs poke into holy naves, well-laid gardens go to seed, locomotives run full steam with no one at the engine, water floods mine shafts. Zola, whose recurrent nightmare was of himself buried alive, could hardly conceive drama without a sacrificial victim. Identity and enclosure, the self and an abode standing islandlike on the margin of some larger settlement are linked again and again in disaster.
Kate Winslet’s reading proceeds in a rich voice from one extreme of human dysfunction to another — from the internments of deadly routine and obsessive guilt to murder and self-extinction. It tells the story as well as one could wish it told, with perfect diction but an edge of anxiety, maintaining a deliberate pace but anticipating the rush to an abyss. Where Zola’s narrative calls for dialogue, Winslet brilliantly impersonates the main characters, becoming by turns an old woman, an effeminate man-child, a vulnerable brute, a desperate vixen. She tells us that she first read “Thérèse Raquin” years ago and was riveted by it. Here we enjoy all the benefit of her long engagement with the novel.
“Madame Bovary” features another woman whose quest for fulfillment outside her conjugal prison ultimately leads to suicide. In both novels, pretending is a matter of life and death. While Thérèse wears a mask of contentment to survive as best she can the dreariness of her adoptive family’s petit-bourgeois arrangements, Emma Bovary is portrayed as a born actress wed to the belief that real life lies in a Romantic netherworld far removed from rural Normandy. Among the greatest scenes in Flaubert’s novel are those that cruelly expose her self-deception. And among these the most ingenious takes place at an agricultural show in Yonville, where Emma and a suave man of means named Rodolphe Boulanger, seated at a tall window behind the town square, witness the spectacle of merchants and peasants assembled to hear a regional councilor glorify animal husbandry. While the government official throws bouquets of rhetoric to the crowd, Rodolphe addresses world-weary rants to Emma. The commotion of livestock being judged for prizes serves as an ironic obbligato to the philanderer’s well-rehearsed script. Theater answers theater from either side of the square.
All this Stevenson manages with the virtuosity of a quick-change artist, adapting herself to one persona after another: the full-throated functionary, the practiced libertine, the plaintive wife of a country doctor.
Flaubert, who would have preferred a life onstage to the career in law he was expected to pursue, always read his sentences aloud. Stevenson — whose movies include “Truly Madly Deeply” and “Bend It Like Beckham” — gives her all, or all that the translation allows, to their worked beauty and expressiveness. Another example is the oblique description, some chapters later, of Emma having sex behind drawn shades in a hackney carriage circling round and round Rouen, to the bewilderment of onlookers. She and her new lover are unseen, but unseen in flagrante delicto, and unheard except for the lover angrily hectoring the coachman to press on. Here as elsewhere, eros travels recklessly. Heeding Flaubert’s metaphoric cues, Stevenson reads the blind journey as a dirge timed to the beat of horses’ hooves and conducted by a death wish. The scene harks back to the agricultural show, only one or two harvest seasons past in her neighbors’ calendar, but long enough ago for Emma to have descended from the Romantic stage to a harlot’s mobile boudoir. The audience — now facing her — still sees nothing. Animals still attend her love life. She is fallen, still cherishing dreams of elevation.
Kate Winslet has said, in praise of audiobooks, that it is “magical” to have an atmosphere and environment “created entirely for you by somebody else’s voice.” There are voices and then there are voices. For magic of that kind, Flaubert and Zola are well served by her and Juliet Stevenson.
By Émile Zola
Read by Kate Winslet
By Gustave Flaubert
Read by Juliet Stevenson
Frederick Brown’s latest book, “The Embrace of Unreason: France, 1914-1940,” was published last month.