When Emile Zola climbed aboard the railways

Love, murder and locomotives

As you’ll no doubt have noticed, here at Midnight Weekly, we’re not obsessed only with trains. We’re also into the artists, writers and film directors who take inspiration from them. Having already spoken about a important journey Antoine de Saint-Exupéry once took, Agatha Christie’s inspirations and a trip aboard the Trans-Siberian taken by Blaise Cendrars, this week we’ll be exploring one of Emile Zola’s major works: La Bête Humaine. For this majestic (and rather sombre) work takes place within the burgeoning railway sector of the nineteenth century. So let’s go, and explore a world where the criminal underworld and the rail industry intertwine.

The 17th volume of the Les Rougon-Macquart series, published in 1980, La Bête humaine opens with the story of Roubaud and his young, charming wife Séverine. He is a sous-chef at Le Havre station, and the couple have travelled to Paris to avoid this loyal but narrow-minded man from going down a bad path. A few days earlier, he had lashed out at a wealthy passenger who insisted on climbing aboard a first-class carriage with his dog in tow, when he should have been in a second-class carriage reserved for hunters and their animals.

Happily for Roubaud’s career, his wife is the protégée of Grandmorin, president of the Compagnie de Chemin de Fer de l’Ouest. That connection will allow him to avoid being stationed in a small station in the middle of nowhere. But over the course of the story, we discover that Grandmorin has raped his wife, and that beneath the surface of his benevolence lies a predatory sexual violence. Enraged with jealousy and a desire for revenge, Roubaud turns psychotic, and plans to assassinate Grandmorin. And so the murderous spiral of La Bête Humaine begins.

This virtuosic novel, written in faultless French, is a work of immense darkness that explores the influence of one’s social milieu on the behaviour of human beings (and particularly men). With an almost surgical rigour, Emile Zola questions what can push someone to kill another human. Jealousy? Money? Anger at a world that doesn’t give you what you want from it? Probably a mix of all those things. Every reader will come to their own conclusions.

The real heroes of La Bête Humaine aren’t Roubaud and Séverine, but in fact Jacques Lantier and La Lison. The former is a train mechanic (and lady killer) who hides behind a seductive facade. The latter is a locomotive that Jacques more than any woman. Initially portrayed as an animal, it soon takes on the form of a lover in this shady character’s mind. A witness to the murder of Grandmorin by Séverine and Roubaud, he eventually turns out to be even more dangerous than the murderous couple.

As always with Zola, the characters are rich and detailed, and the plot is so twisty that you never know what might happen next. Thus, Jacques Lantier becomes Séverine’s lover, and they plan to lay a mortal trap for Roubaud. But once again, things are much more complex than they seem at first. And the intervention of various other characters, themselves  driven by their own motives, will complicate the situation further. In La Bête Humaine, there’s no room for chance or deus ex machina. Everything makes sense and each action is justified by something that came before.

This sense of precision even filters down into the very structure of the book. Organised along the line between Paris-Saint-Lazare station and Le Havre, it takes the form of a series of return trips that recall the comings and goings of a regional express service. These services are interrupted by several incidents whose severity increases as the book goes on, mirroring the hellish internal spiral of the main characters. The final incident, the real climax of the work, is never actually narrated by the author. He simply leaves faced with the unbearable suspense of a train travelling at high speed (and totally out of control). It’s a remarkable, luminous piece of writing that contrasts with the bleakness of its contents, and that pays homage to the mysterious, emerging world of rail. An absolute must read for both for train aficionados and basically everyone else, too.

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