The Penguin Classics edition of the novel that first got me to read it.

The Penguin Classics edition of the novel that first got me to read it.

La Bête humaine

  • Author:  Émile Zola
  • Published:  1890
  • Publisher:  Charpentier
  • Pages:  366
  • First Line:  “Roubaud came into the room and put the pound loaf, pâté and bottle of white wine on the table.”
  • Last Line:  “With no human hand to guide it through the night, it roared on and on, a blind and deaf beast let loose amid death and destruction, laden with cannon-fodder, these soldiers already silly with fatigue, drunk and bawling.”
  • Film Version:  1920 (possibly lost), 1938 (**** – dir. Jean Renoir), 1954 (***.5 – dir. Fritz Lang), 1957
  • First Read:  2010

The Novel:  The idea behind the Great Read series was to cover the kind of books that weren’t showing up in My Top 100 Novels.  The first 8 posts in this series have been almost entirely books that are either genre books or are collections of stories (and thus not eligible for the list of novels).  They have been books that are, in general, more fun to read.  This book, which might have made my Top 100 had I read it earlier (and did make my Top 200), doesn’t really fit that mold.  And by not really fit that mold, it takes the mold and beats it with a naturalistic bent like a man who has homicidal tendencies as part of his genetic makeup would beat someone to death.  Not that that’s relevant or anything.

Why do you read?  Do you read to escape from the world?  If so, then Zola is not for you.  His writings move intricately into the very depths of the darkness of the world, the social realism that strives to understand what is happening to mankind, what technology is doing to us, how the individual subsumes himself to the crowd and becomes part of a mass, and yet, somehow, not part of humanity.  But do you read for the pleasure of the written language?  Do you pick up a novel with the hopes that it might have something to say, or, barring that, have a way of saying it that reminds you that the joy of reading, the joy of writing, is in language?  Well, then you are missing out by not reading Zola.

Is it presumptuous of me to assume that you don’t read Zola, whoever you may be?  Perhaps.  But look at me – an undergraduate degree in Literature, a Master’s in English, having long ago plowed through the entire Modern Library list, having polished off every major literary award in the English Language and some that are not.  And when did I start reading Zola?  In 2010.  And not because of my OCD driving me to read all the great books – I had already plowed through so much on that point.  But my other OCD – my need to collect and my need to read all the books I own.  I started buying Penguin Classics because I love the look of them (especially the ones of the same design pictured above with the black spines and the colored top of the spines indicating place of origin – that’s the edition of this book I own; there won’t be a For Love of Books on Penguin because there has been so much written about the series already, including this whole book here, and I can’t compete with this collection here).  I bought a couple of Zola books and then set to reading them.  Then I began to realize precisely how amazing this series is – the Rougon-Macquart series that covers the history of the Second Republic in France through the fortunes and misfortunes of one extended family.  Sadly, I don’t have all the books – Penguin has only published a few of them and several of them are long out-of-print in English.  But in France, these books have a whole different life (and if you are French and have read a lot of Zola, my apologies for underestimating you).  They have been widely read and admired for well over a century now.  And Humaine is one of the best, if not the best.

Like many of the books, it is a self-contained novel that connects to the other books in the series through its setting (during the Second Republic, leading on into the Franco-Prussian War) and the familial connections (Lantier, the main character descends from the Macquart side of the family – his mother is Gervaise, who would get her own film in 1956 from director Rene Clement while the Rougon side gives us Aristide Saccard (the lead character in L’Argent, which I haven’t read, but the film version is reviewed here) and Octave Mouret (the owner of the department store in Au Bonheur des Dames, the book and film of which are reviewed here).

This is the story of Jacques Lantier (“From the look of his delicate complexion and well-shaved face you might have taken him for a city gentleman, had you not seen elsewhere the indelible imprint of his job, the oil already staining his mechanic’s hands.”), a train engineer and member of the Macquart family, a man whose natural tendencies run towards violence, especially towards women (when we first see him he says hallo to his cousin and this is the reaction just saying that causes: “But his eyes, which were big and black, flecked with gold, seemed to have veiled themselves with a reddish mist which turned them pale.  His lids fluttered and his eyes looked away in sudden embarrassment, even discomfort to the point of pain.  His whole body had instinctively recoiled.”).  Later, Zola will make clear his violent connection to his family’s past: “He was coming to think that he was paying for others, fathers, grandfathers, who had drunk, generations of drunkards, that he had their blood, tainted with a slow poison and a bestiality that dragged him back to the woman-devouring savages in the forests.”  But Lantier lives his life on his train, allowing him to curb his disturbed passions by staying away from women and focusing on the train (“First Jacques saw the mouth of the tunnel light up, like the door of a furnace full of blazing wood.  Then, bringing the din with it, the engine poured forth with its dazzling round eye, its headlamp blazing a gap through the landscape and lighting the rails far ahead with a double line of flame.”)

Lantier will become a witness to a murder committed by a husband and wife (the husband and wife are actually introduced before Lantier and their unhappy story takes up the whole first chapter – while both films begin with the train and focus on that, the novel actually waits before we meet Lantier and his beloved train).  Lantier ends up having an affair with the wife, an affair in which she keeps quiet and in which his homicidal passions are cooled by his physical ones (“A great tremor began in her loins and swelled her breast with passion as confused little cries rose to her lips.  Was she about to say something in that dying voice in the midst of a spasm of ecstasy?”).

But misery begins to pile on misery.  The wife wants Lantier to kill her husband but he backs out at the last minute.  His cousin, jealous of the affair, plans a train wreck that destroys Lantier’s beloved engine and hurts him badly (but doesn’t kill him): “Realizing that Lison was no more, Jacques shut his eyes again, wishing to die as well, and being in any case so weak that he thought the last little breath of the engine was carrying him off too.”  Without his beloved engine, he can no longer control himself, and, moving back and forth between the urge to kill and the urge to fuck, the former finally wins out: “She threw back her head in readiness, full of imploring tenderness, exposing her bare neck where it left the voluptuous curve of her bosom.  Seeing this white flesh as in a flash of fire he raised the fist which held the knife.”

And yet the misery doesn’t end there.  His lover dead, her husband and another man are blamed for the death and are sentenced to life in prison.  His cousin kills herself after the horror that she caused with the train wreck.  Lantier begins to have another affair, this time with the lover of his own fireman.  The two are working on a train full of soldiers headed towards the front for the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War and their anger boils over into pure hatred.  A final skirmish between them brings the end for both: “The two men, who for so long had lived together like brothers, fell together and were sucked under the wheels by the very speed and hacked to pieces, locked together in that frightful embrace.  They were found headless and without feet, two bloody trunks still crushing each other to death.”

And so, as I said, not a book for those who want a little escape.  But for those who look out at the world and try to understand, who look at the world and see only death and wonder what can come of it, they might find a measure of understanding in Zola’s naturalism, in this dark story about those who attempt to escape their fate.  And we are left with this final, indelible image, of the young soldiers, headed straight towards a death they never could have seen coming, the horrible rushing forward into the future that does not exist: “With no human hand to guide it through the night, it roared on and on, a blind and deaf beast let loose amid death and destruction, laden with cannon-fodder, these soldiers already silly with fatigue, drunk and bawling.”

Renoir and Gabin achieve greatness again.

Renoir and Gabin achieve greatness again.

The Films:

1938 version:

In the late 30’s, when he may have been the best film actor in the world, Jean Gabin only actually made three films with Jean Renoir.  But what a three films they were.  The first was The Lower Depths (which I wrote about here), a first-rate adaptation of the Gorky play.  The second was The Grand Illusion which is on the very short list of contenders for the greatest film ever made (reviewed here).  And the third was La Bête humaine, a first-rate adaptation of the Zola novel, moving the action forward from the time of the Second Republic to the present day.  This takes it away from the structured part of the sociological epic that it was part of in the original book, but it also shows how well this novel stands on its own, separate from the series.

Gabin plays Jacques Lantier, the human beast of the title, who finds himself falling for the absolute wrong woman.  Pushed too hard by her it leads him first to the knowledge of murder, then to the murder at the very depths of his soul, and then only onwards to death, the only future he can possibly embrace.  Could anyone but Gabin have played this role?  He somehow manages to make us overlook everything reprehensible he is doing – the affair with a married woman, the knowledge of murder that he keeps to himself, and the eventual killing of the woman he has come to love – and even maintain a measure of our sympathy.  Zola’s original novel provides us with the beast.  It is Gabin’s performance that gives us something human from it.

In the original novel, there is nothing that can be done – the course of human nature will override anything else and Lantier’s life can only end in death – first for others, then for himself.  But the film frees him from the naturalism and allows the story to take its course.  And yet, both the film and the novel make clear one thing – that the train that Lantier rides is the one true thing that he loves in his life; that nothing human can possibly ever compare to the emotions he feels for this piece of machinery.  And perhaps that is where the true tragedy of Zola’s novel shines through in the film – not that he is a killer by nature, but that humanity itself matters less to him than the technology in his hands.  And perhaps that is appropriate.  After all, it is a well-told story that this film ended up getting made primarily because Gabin wanted to star in a film where he got to be the engineer of a train.


It takes a German director bring Zola to Hollywood.

Human Desire  (1954 version)

In a previous post, when I wrote about Au Bonheur des Dames, I noted that Zola’s novels get filmed a lot in France but remain basically untouched by Hollywood.  I also noted the exception – Human Desire, a Hollywood version of Humaine, which was, ironically, made by a German director, one of the greatest of all directors, Fritz Lang.  I was a bit surprised to learn that Lang wasn’t the spark behind making the film: “(producer) Jerry Wald was very impressed with the Renoir film, in which there are a lot of trains going into tunnels – which Jerry thought was a sex symbol; I doubt that Renoir in 1938 ever thought about sex symbols, but anyway, Jerry thought so and he fell in love with trains.”  (Fritz Lang in America, p 92)  I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that Hollywood would make several changes in a work as dark as Zola’s.

This isn’t vintage Lang – not nearly on a par with his brilliant German films, but it is one of the better films he made in the two decades he spent as a director in America.  For the role of Lantier, Lang brought in Glenn Ford, who had played the troubled cop in his film The Big Heat the year before.  His Lantier (renamed Jeff Warren) isn’t the disturbed man of the novel and the original film with murder at the very core of his soul – that would never fly in Hollywood (“Naturally, in an American movie, you cannot make the hero a sex killer.  Impossible.  So Glenn Ford has to play it, you know, like Li’l Abner coming back from Korea – hundred per cent red-blooded American with very natural sex feelings (if such a thing exists).”  (p 92)  But Ford was one of the more interesting actors in Hollywood and he manages to provide an edge to his character – the way he is attracted to the young daughter of his best friend who has reached adulthood while he was in Korea (barely) and yet also be drawn in by the sultry looks of another man’s wife.  The daughter isn’t in the book – in fact the whole scene of domestic bliss in the film isn’t from the book and provides a nice counterpoint to the rest of the film.

That other man and his wife are a couple of great casting coups.  In the original film, it is all about Gabin and his performance.  But here, we get a forceful performance from Broderick Crawford, who could so perfectly both be the bullying husband who can’t accept his jealousy and the brooding man afraid of losing his wife and begging her to help him after he looses his job.  And, more importantly, we get Gloria Grahame (who had also been in The Big Heat).  It was originally supposed to star Rita Hayworth but Grahame, with her looks of pure carnality and her solid performance give us much more than we ever could have gotten from Hayworth.  Grahame, like in other performances during her decade long hey-day nearly sets the film on fire with just one look.

But, of course, leave it to Hollywood to take the naturalism out of the book: “During the writing of the script, I think [Alfred] Hayes and I were the only ones who knew the Zola story.  I tell this with a smile because I love Jerry Wald very much, but one day he called us in and said, ‘You are both wrong.’  I said, ‘What have we done this time, Jerry?’  He said, ‘Look.  This is called La Bête Humaine, the human beast.  But everybody is bad in your picture.’  ‘Naturally, because Zola wanted to show that in every human being is a beast.’  He said, ‘You both don’t understand it.  The woman is the human beast.'”  (p 95)

And so, at the end, we don’t have the straight path towards death for our main character.  We have death only for the person declared as the real human beast by the producer.  It’s a monument to Lang’s film that in spite of this massive change to the book, it works for the way the film is made – Grahame plays the character on such an edge of morality that when she is the only one of the main three characters who ends up dead we aren’t as upset as we might be, even those of us who have actually read the book (which is especially harsh as one of the changes from the book is that the murder of her benefactor isn’t planned, but done on a spur of the moment by her husband).  Perhaps that explains something else as well: “And you know a funny thing?  I was very scared that the picture would get panned terribly in Paris because it’s a falsification of Zola – either you do Zola or you don’t – but I got very good reviews there; I don’t know why.” (p 96)  Because, perhaps, they judged him not on the film he could have made or the book he adapted, but on the film he made.  And it’s a very good film and it works for what it is.