The Beast Within Review & Notes

The Beast Within by Emile Zola

The Beast Within (La Bête humaine) by Emile Zola, trans. by Roger Whitehouse
 Purchase on
 French text available at Project Gutenberg.

The Beast Within - Emile ZolaI picked this up at the Anthony Frost Bookstore in Bucharest. This is the first Zola I’ve read, and being #17 in a series,∇ I don’t know if it was a representative choice, but the blurb mentioned railways, and I was sold.

Warning: SPOILERS!

  1. I love how in the first chapter, Zola sets up a cheerful dinner between a husband and wife, and within a few pages, turns the entire thing on its head. Love becomes hate, the characters’ previous actions, and the interpretations of those actions become suspect, and the knife, which begins as a thoughtful and loving gift, becomes a potential murder weapon. This is very effective in surprising and unsettling the reader. I think a lot of the violence in the novel hinges on this juxtaposition of the beautiful and the vile. I notice James Patterson using (and teaching) this too.
  2. I’m not entirely convinced by Zola’s representation of the criminal mind, or the impulse to kill, but then, he didn’t have those insights into psychological profiling that have become familiar to us.
  3. Roger Whitehouse notes the characteristic style of Zola’s dialogue:

    ‘Monsieur Roubaud!’ Henri called. ‘What brings you to Paris? Oh, of course… I heard about your little brush with the Sub-Prefect!’
    Roubaud stood at the window and explained how he’d had to come down from Le Havre that morning by the 6.40 express. He’d been hauled over the coals by the senior traffic manager. He’d been told to come and see him in Paris immediately. He was lucky he hadn’t been given the sack.
    ‘Is Madame Roubaud with you?’ Henri inquired.
    Yes, she had wanted to come too in order to do some shopping. He was expecting her back at any minute. Madame Victoire always let them have the key to her room whenever they came to Paris. They liked to have a quiet meal there on their own, while she, bless her, went off to her job as a lavatory attendant. They’d had a quick sandwich at Mantes so that they could get everything done before they had lunch, but it was now gone three o’clock, and he was starving.
    Henri was in a chatty mood and asked if they were staying overnight.
    No, they weren’t. They were returning to Le Havre that evening, on the 6.30 express. Some holiday! A lot of fuss and bother just to get a ticking off, and then it was back to the grind!

    I like the way that this style combines direct and indirect speech with exposition. The line breaks are key to following the dialogue. I do wonder whether the translator was working from another text, though, because the Gutenberg French text seems quite different. For example:

    Henri, pour être aimable, posa encore une question:

    —Et vous couchez à Paris?

  4. Overall, the novel gave me the impression that it was written rapidly, and with little planning or editing. This led to descriptions that were at times almost contradictory, and often repetitive, as though Zola were searching to pick up the thread of the story. For example, he describes how peaceful the Roubauds’ life is after the murder, and then he describes them always avoiding the floorboard. And then he describes Roubaud’s gradual decline and gambling…
  5. The descriptions of the train crash and the murders are really gruesome.  Too gruesome. It’s hard not to get the impression that Zola takes some delight in detailing violence and suffering. I wonder whether his work as a journalist has anything to do with this.
  6. Along that thread… I really need to get around to reading An Officer and a Spy (Robert Harris’s thriller about the Dreyfus affair, in which Zola was heavily involved).
  7. I can’t deny that I love the triumph of machine over man, although it seems like an odd theme for a book in a family saga. I will have to read some of the other novels to see how this fits into the series.

I did later realise that this is #1 in the Pocket Penguins series, which is colour-coded according to the work’s original language, indigo being French.