Émile Zola: La Bête Humaine

I’ve only read one other title by Zola, which was Nana. It was a book that required a couple of runs at it to immerse myself sufficiently to read on, but once I took the plunge it was a fantastic experience, sufficiently vivid to stay with me even years after I read it. So it was, and I think so it will be, with La Bête Humaine. Zola is a marvellous writer, there’s no doubt about that*, but he can be a little dense – it’s a style that takes a bit of getting used to. However, because of this quality it is full of life and detail and emotion. It reminds me a bit of Russian novels I’ve read in the way that it deals so specifically with thought and interaction; the minutiae of life provide the beating heart of this kind of writing. Perhaps it’s got something to do with the fact that both are translated.

There is also a socio-scientific and political current evident in this book. The human condition – judging from Zola’s account of it here – is pretty dire, and modernity/progress shows everyone in an unflattering light. The brutal savage of our ancestry (quite literally, the human beast – a phrase repeated often throughout this novel) is alive and well; living in a modern world with advancing technology that – Zola implies – he has not learnt to master, and perhaps never will. The train and the train station provide an atmospheric and symbolically significant backdrop to the novel as a whole, interspersed only with brief glimpses of the corrupt political classes of Paris, and the vast and neglected hinterland that the train traverses.

The overall impression of this book might be summarised as; sex, death and trains. It’s these three elements that make up most of the content, and it’s a startling concoction. Husbands have jealous rages and nearly batter their wives to death, lovers plumb the depths of passion, randy old men abuse young orphan girls, people avenge themselves for broken hearts in unspeakable ways – it’s a mess, and no mistake. Sex seems inextricably linked to violence, and the idea of ‘love’ is an irrelevance or at best futile in the extreme. Throw in the devastatingly grim imagery of new mechanisation; trains with fiery furnaces rushing through the night and onwards into the blackness of the Future, and the effect is certainly high drama; almost operatic in its grandeur and silliness. But riveting, nonetheless. Perhaps all this death, narrated in classic Zola style – without discernable emotion – might be seen to presage the horror of the war that is to come? It seems likely.

* when La Bête Humaine was first published in 1890 it was all but dismissed as an unnecessarily bloodthirsty and brutal piece of writing, with little or no literary value. “Murder” should have been the title’ read a comment in The Athenaeum.

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