|Poster from Jean Renoir's 1938 film adoption of The Beat Within/La Bete Humaine|
The Beast Within
by Emile Zola
Penguin Classics Edition
Translated by and with an Introduction and Notes by Roger Whitehouse
There is something exciting about Zola and his novels. Maybe it's the gusto with which he depicts the physicality of life. God bless the Victorian novelists of England but they are a prudish bunch. Zola meanwhile, will describe a good fuck, a good fight, a good murder. And if it's murder you are after, The Beast Within has plenty.
I believe The Beast Within is the last listed Zola novel. While I prefer him to a Thomas Hardy, it's hard not to shake the feeling that the naturalist/realist approach was a literary wrong turn. It represents a point of departure into modernity where art ceases to be concerned with producing beauty and where it begins to carry a political agenda. The assimilation of art by political agendas ends up with Leni Riefenstahl and Socialist Realism.
Roger Whitehouse's introduction points out that prior to becoming a full time writer, Zola was the head of publicity for a publishing house in Paris, and his career, particularly his novels, appears to be informed by some of the truisms of the advertising that have become commonplace today, "Sex sells;" "If you want to sell the steak you need the sizzle." ETC. Zola's break-out novel was Therese Raquin, in which sex and violence figure prominently, but Therese Raquin is a a walk in the park compared to the violence/murder obssessed story of The Beast Within.
The characters fight, and fuck and die. There is not just one but two horrific train crashes, one of which is fully described. Zola treats the reader to several graphic depictions of murder, the main female character is repeatedly raped as a child by one of the victims. It's enough to make Quentin Tarantino blush. At the same time Zola doesn't stint on the description. The Beast Within is focused on the doings surrounding the train and people who work on the train- the murders mostly happen on or near a train. He was a nut for research and it shows by his accurate descriptions of life on the rail road in the mid 19th century. Zola was using the train as a metaphor for progress before it became a hoary cliche. The only similar usage of the train in a novel that I've read so far is in Anna Karenina, and there the railroad is merely a setting, not a central metaphor for life, the universe and everything.
Zola's characters are so universally miserable it's hard to muster much sympathy for any of them, and perhaps that is a cue that his universe is a wrong turn in the world of literature. You read the Beast Within because it is eminently readable and because the action is compelling, in the same way you would watch a Hollywood Blockbuster but not really give a shit about what happens to the hero. In fact, The Beast Within is a novel without a hero. All the characters are perpetrators of violence, even the victims. It's a dark world and it is only going to get darker.