I’ve mentioned previously that I do like reading the novels of Emile Zola. This will be the fifth one I’ve read (not counting re-reads) and is, I think, one of his best known. However, because I can’t read French I have had to pick up a translation and the title has got me all confused. The novel I’m reading is La Bête Humaine, which my (Penguin) edition has translated as The Beast Within. This is entirely acceptable, and I’m sure there is no problem with it. It’s just that to me, the title translates as The Human Beast which, in the context of the story, seems to make more sense.
The crux of the story (about which I will probably write more later) is that of murder on the railways, and in particular, the mind of a murderer; but I would also like to explore other characters and their mindsets because I think it illustrates (my translation of) the title really very well.
Roubaud, a stationmaster, kills the man who molested his wife when she was younger in a fit of jealous rage. I’m not sure, actually, that it is jealousy – perhaps righteous anger, but still – and realising that he has means, motive and opportunity, arranges the murder. The victim, Galincourt, a wealthy company director and senior lawyer, is a well-known sexual predator whose crimes have effectively been covered up as a result of his position. Don’t be surprised if this sounds HORRIBLY familiar, because it did to me too. Unfortunately for Roubaud, the murder is witnessed by Jacques Lantier, a young engine driver who suffers from homicidal delusions and had just tried to rape and murder his godmother’s daughter (whose sister was raped and murdered by Galincourt).
Traditionally, it is Lantier who is considered the Beast of the title, but I think there are different meanings to the word which Zola plays with. Certainly Galincourt’s behaviour is beastly, and Lantier’s fits of mania hint at a lack of rational control which at the time was considered to (to quote an old friend) “separate us from the animals”. In the fullness of time, however, we see Lantier go on to kill his mistress, then his engineer and finally himself in a plot that twists and turns like a good 19th century classic – which, of course, this is.
I’m only about halfway through at the moment, and so far only Galincourt is dead, but the senior judiciary have already conspired to ensure that the case doesn’t go to trial to protect the deceased’s reputation. Zola was well known for his assertions against the State for injustice – he was a famous supporter of the accused in the Dreyfus affair – so this is hardly surprising. What surprises me is how prescient it feels in the light of more modern examples of Galincourt’s behaviour. Naming no names, because I refuse to give them publicity.
Looking at all the characters and the behaviour they illustrate, I can’t help but think my translation of the book is the right one. I’ll let you know when I’ve finished it.