Friday, April 18, 2014

Emile Zola - 'La Bête Humaine'

La Bete Humaine (The Human Beast, in English) is the fifteenth novel in Emile Zola's Rougon-Macquart Cycle (based on Zola's preferred reading order). With its focus on nascent serial killer Jacques Lantier and the lurid career of his married love interest Severine Roubaud, The Human Beast is a suspenseful page-turner with pacing unlike anything else in the Cycle (at least so far). This may be Zola's most tightly plotted novel in the Cycle. However, it is also one of the blackest in terms of characterization (but then the title should clue you in to that).

The Oxford University Press edition I read was translated by Roger Pearson and is eminently readable. Further, Pearson contributes a fantastic introduction crammed with astute observations about the novel's structure and themes. Unlike some introductions which come off as perfunctory (I'll use poor Vizetelly as an example), Pearson's introduction is genuinely helpful and provides excellent historical context for the action in the novel. A few of his assessments about imagery are a little overdone (sometimes a cigar is just a cigar) but, on the whole, he illuminates this work in a way that only someone who has spent a lot of time with Zola, the period, and the novel itself can offer. That said, if you want to enjoy the novel's plot to the greatest extent, read the novel first and then tackle the introduction, because it has loads of spoilers. In my humble opinion, the introduction would have been much better positioned as an afterword.

As to the novel itself, The Human Beast can definitely be read on its own, especially since the main character - Jacques Lantier - is not mentioned in any other novel. He doesn't even figure in L'Assommoir, where Gervaise Macquart and her progeny are laid out in detail. Early in The Human Beast, Zola fills out the back story. Jacques is the second illegitimate child Gervaise had with Antoine Lantier. This sudden introduction felt a little 'tacked on' to me, which is borne out in Pearson's notes where he indicates Jacques was a late addition by Zola to the family tree. It initially surprised me that Zola did this when there was an existing character, Victor Saccard, who could have been placed into this story fairly easily. However, I believe Zola didn't do this because Victor is a member of the Rougon branch of the family. In keeping with the degeneracy Zola is after at this point in the Cycle, he really needs the lead character in The Human Beast to be a Macquart.

When we meet Jacques, he is plagued by violent urges and seems to be hanging onto self-control by his fingernails. After scarcely resisting the urge to butcher Flore, he ponders his mental make-up, touching directly on the themes of heredity we know Zola is ultimately interested in exploring within the Cycle. Jacques tries to understand the cause of his desire to butcher women as follows:
"True, his mother Gervaise had had him when she was very young, when she was fifteen and a half; but...neither of this two brothers...seemed to suffer any ill effects...Perhaps each of his brothers had his own secret affliction, the elder one especially, who was devoured by ambition to become a painter, and so wildly obsessed, it was said, that his genius bordered on insanity. The family was hardly what you might call all there, many of them were half cracked. He could feel it well enough sometimes, this hereditary crack..."
Since The Human Beast is set amid the railroad industry where Jacques is employed, his inexorable urge to kill is given a physical parallel in the madly speeding railway trains which constantly figure in the novel. The indifference of the trains, both to the people they carry headlong towards their destinations (literal and figurative) and those they pass on their way, is a recurring symbol of the callous disregard human beings display towards one another as they pursue their private agendas. Zola portrays all his characters in this manner; they differ only in the degree to which society and social structure have softened or buried these innate predatory tendencies. As Phasie, who is slowly being poisoned by her husband, comments on page 41:
"Ah, yes, it's a fine invention, there's no denying. People go fast now, they know more...But wild beasts are still wild beasts, and they can go on inventing bigger and better machines for as long as they like, there'll still be wild beasts underneath there somewhere." 
Jacques nods in agreement while watching Flore guide a cart across the tracks; a brilliant juxtaposition that is only appreciated in retrospect. (No spoiler here!)

1895 photo of French railroad accident
All the characters have this "wild beast" within them, and Zola is clearly implying that we do too. Each character behaves like a train rushing towards its end goal, heedless of anything or anyone around it. And the number of characters who are murderers - or possessing murderous impulses - creates a claustrophobic atmosphere. In this novel, society is a pit of wild animals clawing and killing each other in order to prevail. The examples are everywhere, with Jacques homicidal urges only being the most obvious. There is Grandmorin's pedophilia, Roubaud's desire for vengeance and - later - his gambling, Denizet's criminal investigations which have the ruthlessness of justice without it's wisdom, Severine's lust for Jacques and her fantasies about their future together, and Misard's greed. The list goes on and on. Even the most peripheral characters are shown to have monomaniacal obsessions that defy reason and lead to destruction and/or self-destruction (e.g., Phasie wanting to die without anyone getting her inheritance or Madame Lebleu's recurring desire to catch Madame Guichon and Monsieur Dabadie 'in the act').

Zola has explored the destructive and predatory nature of human beings elsewhere in the Cycle. His view seems to be that of Phasie: society merely suppresses this basic nature or redirects it into other channels. The 'white collar criminals' in Money, for example, or Octave Mouret's cut-throat entrepreneur in The Ladies' Paradise. In the former (see the Zen Throw Down post), Zola suggests that the ponzi scheme which financially destroys some to the benefit of others is a natural expression of basic human nature and progress. In the latter (see post), Octave's giant department store is repeatedly described as an animal, a beast that devours everything around it. In fact, Octave is an interesting parallel for Jacques. Octave possesses women for economic gain, while Jacques does so to satiate his blood lust. Both men view women as commodities, and Jacques even thinks to himself in Chapter 6: "Did possessing and killing amount to the same thing deep within the dark recesses of the human beast?" (It's interesting to note that Octave only finds satisfaction with a woman whom he can neither commoditize nor exploit).

This dark view of humanity in The Human Beast, and elsewhere in the Cycle, is certainly a powerful tool in Zola's ultimate critique of the Second Empire period. Zola explicitly bashes the corruption and venality of the Empire in several passages of The Human Beast. However, a more subtle dissection occurs on page 143, when bureaucrat Camy-Lamotte muses over how the Empire is a machine and the murder of Grandmorin is a problem in the workings of that machine. There's ultimately little justice in pursued in the novel, despite all the drama. The real concern is not about guilt or innocence, life or death, but the inconvenience caused to the machinery of the Empire, the railway system, Jacques and Severine's affair, or to any of the headlong trajectories the various characters are hurtling upon. The apotheosis of this theme is the chilling image in the final pages of novel: drunken soldiers gleefully singing as they are packed like sardines into a train bound for the disastrous war with Prussia (the title "debacle" of another novel in the Cycle). The train ends as a runaway, which Zola sends off towards Paris before ending his novel.

There is no overt moral commentary from Zola, despite the fact that several of the characters die while on trains, being run over by them, or when trains are passing. Zola always links the predation of human on human to trains on some level in The Human Beast. However, it is not a causal link. He's not saying modern society or the machine age or whatever dehumanizes us and makes us into monsters. The link to the trains is merely to show a parallel for the mindset of his characters. It seems to me that Zola believe these urges are innate to all of us, and our setting or milieu only enters into things to provide a higher or lower level of repression. Another reason to assume Zola is not trashing modern technology or progress is that Jacques repeatedly clings to his intellect as a means of resisting his urges and the premeditated murder he and Severine plot.

Ultimately, the novel is driving towards the final collapse of the Second Empire regime. It seems that in many of the Macquart novels, the endings in some way foreshadow this collapse. In The Human Beast, we see the aforementioned soldiers headed to the war. Nana also has a reference to the war in its final chapter, with strong foreshadowing of destruction attached to it. Zola's Cycle is likely drawing a parallel between the rise and demise of the Rougon-Macquart family fortunes and the rise and collapse of the Second Empire. In fact, it would be an interesting exercise to see whether the Rougon novels tend to occur early in the Second Empire while the Macquart novels occur towards the end. On the surface, this does seem to be the case. However, it does seem that Zola's observations are rendered most often about human nature as a whole, rather than being mere political satire/commentary about a specific regime.

If I had one criticism to make of The Human Beast it would be that, in Jacques, Zola has committed the age-old writers' no-no of having "a character load a gun in Chapter 2 but then never fire it". The threat of Jacques' murderous desires breaking loose is a suspenseful device Zola employs to great effect throughout the novel. The most chilling is when Jacques stalks the streets of Paris burning to kill and randomly selecting and then changing his mind about who to victimize. While Pearson correctly suggests that Zola is making a point to show how his serial killer's restraint is one of the few moral efforts made by any character in novel, I feel there's still a bit of the "sizzle without the steak" here. Anyway, this is a minor criticism given the brilliant edifice of theme and plot Zola has constructed in this novel. The Human Beast is among the very best novels in the Cycle, and I highly recommend it.

After reading several Zola novels in a row, however, I need a break before tackling Germinal. This is one of Zola's most famous novels and, given that the subject matter is the working conditions of miners, I'm expecting it to be a very bleak read.

So maybe I'll read something Jane Austen-ish next, before returning to the land of Zola!

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