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la bête humaine

11 february 2010

I picked up La bête humaine having no idea what it was going to be about: I was headed off on a plane trip, expecting to be snowed in when I reached my destination, and I wanted a 19th-century novel that would take me several days to finish. All things considered, it was a good job that I wasn't going by train. My 41-year-old paperback copy has a smart-looking locomotive on the cover, but the trains in the text end up more than a little the worse for wear.

La bête humaine is strong stuff, carried off with the utmost panache. It reminds me vividly of James M. Cain – I realize I'm probably not the thousandth reader to make that connection, but it's an important one for the history of American pulp fiction and film noir stories. La bête humaine anticipates both Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, but at enhanced strength. Not once but twice, lovers plot to murder a blocking character. First, Severine and her husband Roubaud slaughter the hideous Grandmorin, who has sexually abused the young Severine since her childhood. Once they are linked by that murder, they become repellent to each other. Severine takes a younger lover, Jacques Lantier, and with him, she plots to rub out Roubaud.

Every plot in the novel goes wildly awry, and it's hardly a spoiler to bring that up. You'd be surprised if they didn't. You can't plan so many murders without something going wrong. The wonder is that everyone is so murderous to begin with. Jacques, who is the most innately murderous of the bunch, seems to have an atavistic compulsion to act out homicidal race memories.

Chaque fois, c'était comme une soudaine crise de rage aveugle, une soif toujours renaissante de venger des offenses très anciennes, dont il aurait perdu l'exacte mémoire. Cela venait-il donc de si loin, du mal que les femmes avaient fait à sa race, de la rancune amassée de mâle en mâle, depuis la première tromperie au fond des cavernes? (ch. 2, pp. 64-65)

Each time, it was like a sudden burst of blind rage, an ever-renewed thirst to avenge crimes so old that he had forgotten just what they were. It came from so far back, from the harm that women had done to his race, from the bitterness transmitted from man to man, every since the first betrayal in the depth of a cave.
Wow, men, get a life. Watch professional sports, or something.

The theme of atavism in La bête humaine is so insistent that Zola repeats almost those exact phrases about the "fond des cavernes" several other times in the course of the novel. These atavisms express themselves despite (and therefore in part because of) ever more rapid advances in technology.

Mais les bêtes sauvages restent des bêtes sauvages, et on aura beau inventer des mécaniques meilleures encore, il y aura quand même des bêtes sauvages dessous. (ch. 2, p. 50)

But wild animals remain wild animals. You can invent better and better machines, but there will still be wild animals running them.
The various murderers of La bête humaine all work for the railroad that runs between La Havre and Paris. Their lives are welded to the rails that run up and down between the two cities. The engines that pull the trains are more and more powerful, always personified, even anthropomorphized, in Zola's descriptions. But technology is not a civilizing force, in this world. It just accentuates the "beast beneath."

The conclusion of La bête humaine is remarkable for its bravado, and for the way it fuses the energy of the "human animal" with the energy of the locomotive. War with Prussia has broken like a storm across France, and troops are coming up from Normandy to join the ill-fated battle. As two murderers are torn to bits under its wheels, the train, full of bellowing soldiers, speeds on toward Paris – with nobody at the controls.

There's so much panache in the scene that it verges on camp, or at least corn. But it still works for me. I don't think I'd go along with Zola's madder theories on race memory and the "bête humaine," but the dangers in a spiralling acceleration of technology and desire make perfect sense for the 21st century.

Zola, Émile. La bête humaine. 1890. Paris: Le Livre de Poche, 1969.