La Bête Humaine is No 15 in the recommended reading order for the Rougon-Macquart cycle, (and I’ve already read Germinal which is No 16, see my review) so I think I’m in a good position to judge. This novel has a narrative drive which will have your pulse racing – and the ending, oh! the ending is so powerfully dramatic!
According to the excellent introduction by Roger Pearson, the novel received a fierce critical reaction, including the complaint that there were ‘too many trains and too many crimes’. That should serve as a salutary reminder for book reviewers that we can be so horribly wrong because now La Bête Humaine is in the 1001 Books canon, and rightly so.
The central idea in the novel is the struggle between man’s primordial instincts and the civilising veneer. Jules Lemaitre, writing in Le Figaro, was one of those who appreciated Zola’s genius, describing him as ‘the poet of man’s darker side’ whose whole work could be described by the title of this particular novel. Pearson credits Lemaitre with being the best of the early reviewers of La Bête Humaine because he understood its point:
‘In his latest novel M. Zola examines the most frightening and most mysterious of all primordial instincts: the instinct for destruction and slaughter, and the obscure connection between this instinct and the erotic instinct.’ (p. viii)
The novel is set in the railway community, in 1869-70, along the Paris-Le Havre line. Rail was well-established by the time Zola wrote this in 1890, and indeed, one crime is averted because of technological safety improvements. But the tension between the onward rush of progress and the age-old emotions of jealousy and greed plays out into murder and violence no matter how the protagonists struggle against it.
The story begins with a respected train-driver called Roubaud and his wife Séverine, and the murder which propels the novel along was based on a real-life murder of a judge in a first-class compartment. In those days carriages were self-contained: there were no corridors or connectors and no means of getting between carriages once the train was in motion. So no one heard a thing, and the culprit was never found. This notorious murder, and another which highlighted the dangers of travelling alone in a compartment, led to the introduction of footboards which ran along the outside of the carriages, the use of which must have been perilous indeed when the train was hurtling along at 80kph. Pearson says that Zola was influenced by the celebrated serial killer Jack the Ripper as well.
But La Bête Humaine is not sensationalist tabloid rubbish. Yes, there are shocking murders, and one of them is triggered by the sexual abuse of a young girl and another, which goes wrong, results in the deaths of many innocent victims. If you are reading it here in Victoria where there is a Royal Commission into Domestic Violence, you will cringe when you see how neighbours hear and do nothing about the routine beating of women. However La Bête Humaine is also Zola’s roman judiciare (legal novel) and he uses it to expose the corruption of the judicial system which relied so heavily on patronage. Monsieur Denizet, the prosecuting magistrate, knows not to rock the boat when an important man gets killed and with his usual forensic dissection of character, Zola shows us how this man manages to justify ignoring inconvenient evidence when it doesn’t match up with his own theories. Further up the food chain, M. Camy-Lamotte, Secretary General at the Ministry, is too easily swayed by a pretty face and his anxieties about the fluid state of the empire. (Yes, it was about to fall apart again, in the wake of the disastrous war against Prussia). My guess is that the authorities would have been none too pleased about what they read about themselves in La Bête Humaine.
But interesting as they are, the insights into the minds of these powerful men are sidelines in a book which offers a masterful psychological analysis of the causes of violent crime. In all cases Zola invokes the struggle between emotion and reason and the clash of base instincts against knowledge of what is right. He shows with unnerving clarity how civilised behaviour can so easily be vanquished by inexplicable surges of rage and hatred. In Jacques, we see the triggers which threaten to overwhelm him when he’s with women. In Flores, we see the inane logic of jealous impulses. We see how Mizard justifies his grotesque actions, and we see with Cabouche how easy it is to let an innocent fool take the blame. We also see how easily crime can be forgotten when its proceeds lead to the desired outcome, how a moral gangrene sets in and leads to further wickedness, but how eventually it haunts the criminal from within.
The metaphor of the train as a symbol of runaway progress is brilliant, and the chapter where Jacques coaxes his locomotive La Lison through the snowstorm is Zola at his absolute stunning best. This is an heroic struggle of man against nature with technology on his side, but we feel the vulnerability of man when the engine finally fails and the panic-stricken passengers are marooned in the icy-cold desolation of La Croix-de-Maufras. En route, we are reminded that Jacques at the helm and his drunken fireman Pecqueux are exposed to the elements:
Never before had Jacques experienced such penetrating cold. Pricked by the myriad needles of the snow, his face felt as though it were bleeding; and he had lost all feeling in his hands, which were stiff and achingly numb, so numb indeed, as he shuddered to realise, that his fingers could no longer feel the little gear-wheel. When he lifted his elbow to pull the whistle, his arm hung from his shoulder with the dead weight of a corpse. He could not have said whether his legs were supporting him, amidst the endless jarring and jolting which tore at his entrails. Immense fatigue had overtaken him in this cold, as its icy grip spread to his skull, and he was afraid of simply ceasing to be, of not knowing any more whether he was driving or not, for already he was merely turning the gear-wheel in mindless, automatic response as he gazed in vacant bewilderment at the falling pressure gauge. (p.190)
There isn’t a better description of imminent hypothermia in literature until you read the Russians. (Tolstoy, Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn). And I am not going to think about the final chapter with the runaway train next time I’m on the TGV!
If you only ever read one Zola, then I recommend this one. It’s brilliant.
Author: Émile Zola
Title: La Bête Humaine
Translated by Roger Pearson
Publisher: Oxford World’s Classics, 1999, reissued 2009
Source: Personal library, purchased from the Book Depository (because I just had to get my hands on a good translation really quickly).
PS My first attempt to read this novel was with my copy of the 1956 Elek edition, translated by Alec Brown. It was unbearable. The dialogue of the working class characters were like excruciating caricatures. Within five pages I was checking a French edition to see what had been done with it and I was appalled. Just don’t. Don’t.