A book at bedtime (2)

La Bête Humaine by Emile Zola (1890)

Jacques Lantier, brother of Etienne, is the main character in La Bête Humaine, in which Zola considers the rage within man. I find the novel’s setting strangely evocative, based as it is around the Le Havre-Paris railway line, travelling through the Normandy countryside; a route and final destination of Paris’ Gare St Lazare which are still close to my heart. I can also confirm that this setting is much more apt for literary treatment than the coach station in fin-de-siècle (fin de 20th siècle, that is) Rouen: another Norman vehicular setting, but, from my experience, populated by many more weirdos than Zola’s – even allowing for the ‘human beast’. 

Unlike many of his ancestors, Jacques avoids the old green fairy but instead finds himself consumed with murderous desires, which he attempts (unsuccessfully, natch) to suppress. There are several occaisons where Jacques comes close to succombing to his rage; he manages to rein in his homicidal urges, but finally snaps and kills his lover.

Indeed, lust, sex, and desire are never too far away in this novel (and are usually inter-twined with a dose of murder for good measure): an(other) extra-marital affair is central to the plot from the very beginning, Jacques is deeply attached to his engine (‘La Lison’; this relationship even seems to keep his rage in check) and, well, trains and tunnels and that. You know.

At the dénouement of the novel, Jacques attacks a colleague; the train they are supposedly in charge of hurtles down the tracks, throwing them to their deaths as their unknowing passengers drink themselves into a stupor. Zola being Zola, these passengers are of course patriotic soliders on their way to the border to fight in the Franco-Prussian war. Train or bullet lads: either way, you’re screwed.

Incidentally, I’m fairly certain the image above is not from the original 1890 edition of the novel.


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