La Bete Humaine
Around 500 pages
The last two entries on the List were both appallingly racist and shamelessly misogynistic, so I was eager for some Zola to alleviate the hangover. Not that Zola necessarily makes me feel more hopeful about humanity, but at least he is slightly less hateful about it.
It is not really necessary to have read the preceding novels in this series to understand the story, but if you have, it might interest you to know that the Human Beast of the title is Lantier, brother of Etienne (from Germinal) and half-brother of Nana (from The Drunkard and Nana). Lantier is frequently visited by the impulse to brutally murder women, but so far he has successfully resisted. Instead, he focuses his energies on running a train engine, which he is creepily enamoured with. Meanwhile, Rouband is a station master who suspects his wife Severine had an affair with one of the station directors. Rouband also happens to be a homicidal maniac, so he resolves to do something about it. Lantier becomes involved with Severine, which leads to even more murderous mayhem.
I have seen this title translated a few different ways: The Human Beast, The Beast Within, The Monomaniac, and Judas is a Woman. That last one really gets me; it's not enough that they will hold Eve over our heads for all eternity. Now the crucifixion is our fault as well. In any case, no one can inhabit the mind of a killer better than Zola can; it is actually a bit frightening. I think Zola might have been Jack the Ripper.
Putting aside my baseless accusations, this was obviously a well written book and as always, he is keenly aware of the nuances of human behavior. His characterization of the train engine was brilliant and his imagery was unforgettable. I am going to miss that boy.
Seventeenth book in Zola's Les Rougon-Macquart series.
My official ranking of Zola's work, from best to worst:
1. Therese Raquin
2. La Bete Humaine
5. The Drunkard
UP NEXT: The Kreutzer Sonata by Leo Tolstoy. The last Tolstoy on the List. We really are saying goodbye to a lot of big names as we finish up the 19th century. I'm excited to see what's next!