14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
Murder and lust on 19th century railways,
This review is from: La BÍte humaine (Oxford World's Classics) (Paperback)
A gripping story of murder and lust, of the dark side of human nature -- of the beast within. The most brilliant aspects of the novel are Zola's descriptions of trains and railways on the Paris-Le Havre line, around which all action from murder to love to jealousy to a magnificently described train wreck commences. The protagonist is a young engine driver Jacques Lantier in the 1870s, son of Gervaise (depicted in _L'Assommoir_) and half-brother of Nana. Jacques is never mentioned in the earlier novels as Zola only invented him later for a clear purpose in _La Bete Humaine_.
Jacques unfortunately is the most flagrant blemish of this novel. He is an obvious literary invention, an over-simplification, and perhaps some of the other characters too are simplified to a slightly lesser extent, but Jacques' tormented character is clearly psychologically unsustainable and more of a theoretical strawman than a fully developed individual. In contrast with _Germinal_, _Nana_, and _L'Assommoir_, this sacrifice of reality for tendency is also why _La Bete Humaine_ ends up lacking in the realistic depth of the mentioned novels. Some plot twists only add to the sense of lessened realism, especially when everything takes place in about a year's time, and it all takes away some of the sting of Zola's criticism of the powers that be. Nonetheless, _La Bete Humaine_, in its depiction of primeval murderous traits hiding underneath the educated sheen of modern 19th century society, buried deep in the thunderous rumble of railways, resonates in the recesses of human mind with its sinister tragedy.
Oxford World's Classics series version is the latest English translation of the novel. Zola's colloquialisms are rendered here well in a suitably colloquial English tone, although there are a couple of "blimeys", which are English enough to appear bizarre in a French novel, translation or not. 3 stars for the meat of the book: trains and railways.