When Roubaud discovers his wife, Séverine, was sexually molested in adolescence by her guardian, Grandmorin, he flies into a rage at both of them, beating his wife nearly to death (he’s a real catch, isn’t he?) before forcing her to accompany him as he kills Grandmorin. Meanwhile, an engineer named Jacques has struggled his whole life with an impulse towards murder that he tries to deny. Jacques witnesses the murder of Grandmorin, which excites him and brings a new thought into his head – perhaps he, too, can murder, rather than denying this urge he’s suppressed his whole life.
That synopsis doesn’t give away any spoilers. All that happens in the first two chapters, and the rest of the book is the unraveling of the three stories: Roubaud’s, Séverine’s, and Jacques’. Zola uses this book to explore the idea that man can inherit bloodlust, and he uses both the train system and the French judicial system as vehicles for this exploration.
Unfortunately, this book didn’t work for me, but I think that’s more my fault than the book’s. Initially I was very excited going into it. It is my friend Veronica’s favorite Zola and my copy is translated by Leonard Tancock, who is my favorite Zola translator. I made the mistake of reading the back of the book before I began, though. It doesn’t talk about the plot at all, but instead about the themes in the book, and the idea of reading a whole book from the mindset of a psychopath really turned me off. I know Zola can be extremely graphic (thinking of some of those scenes in Germinal…) and I was worried that I might not be able to handle the violence in here on top of being unable to handle the psychopathic mentality. I went into the book keeping myself extremely aloof, distancing myself from the text, characters, events, etc.
Have you ever watched a scene from a TV show or movie while covering your eyes? So that you’re only peeking out between your fingers and getting partial glimpses of what’s going on? That’s how I read this book. I closed myself off to it, swallowing it in gulps without really tasting it. As it turns out, I was wrong about a lot of what was in this book, and sitting with Jacques and his impulse to murder was not as off-putting as I expected it to be. He didn’t want to have this impulse. He tried to control it and get away from it, and to me, that made him more human and tolerable. There was violence in this book, oh yes, quite a lot of it, but it was tactful and never turned my stomach the way I expected it. But the damage was done from the beginning – I never let the book hook me. I never let myself go, and the book passed me by peripherally.
From the outside, the book seemed a little silly and ridiculous. There was so much murder going on! Everyone was killing each other, for all sorts of reasons! Corruption everywhere! Plus there was the fact that Zola sewed two of his ideas together to make this book, which made it feel odd, as if I was switching novels every few pages. He wanted to explore this hereditary bloodlust, but he also wanted to write about trains. Zola was the sort of person who focused on a particular part of society in each of his books. Germinal was about coal mining. Nana was about the prostitution and theatre scene in Paris. He’s written books focusing on food, on painting, on alcoholism, on farming, etc. But La Bête Humaine was about two different things, and it didn’t work very well for me. I’d be reading about Jacques and what he was going through, only to switch to a five-page long detailed work about a train’s engine. It was jarring.
Despite not liking this novel as much as other Zola novels I’ve read, I can see that I probably would have liked it had I not held myself back from it. I plan to read it again some day, this time more slowly and paying more attention to the language. I hope to get more out of it on second read.
In the meantime, I have actually decided I don’t want to read any more of the Rougon-Macquart series until I can read them in order. There are twenty books in the series, and I began to see how interrelated they are in this book. Jacques, for instance, is the brother of Étienne from Germinal, Nana from Nana, and Claude from The Masterpiece, though Zola admittedly made Jacques up solely for this book. (Originally it was meant to be Étienne as the character having bloodlust problems, but that didn’t end up working out after the path Étienne takes at the end of Germinal.) Now that I’m starting to see how all the family comes together, I really want to read from the beginning. Fortunately, all the books have been translated into English, but unfortunately, seven of the twenty have very old and sometimes censored translations. Sigh. Still, they’re better than nothing, and I plan on starting a Rougon-Macquart project in the next few months where I’ll try to read one book a month or so!