Friday 29 January 2010

Maybe February will be better

I'm sad, very sad, to say that my first foray into the literature of Emile Zola has been a serious disappointment. La Bete Humaine, a lurid tale of sex and murder, was for all its sensational content remarkably dull. People were stabbed and killed in horrific train accidents; there was fairly detailed infidelity not to mention vicious domestic abuse; secrets and lies; addiction and gambling. Yet, somehow, it all felt sort of flatly theoretical.

I'm not sure how to explain this. Let's try this: If this novel were a dissertation rather than fiction, its thesis would have been something like "Humans, for all their appearances of civility, are in fact brute animals waiting for their chance to express themselves as they really are. The primary form said expression takes is murder." I have no problem with this, in principle; the problem is, to extend the metaphor, that this novel reads as though Zola was trying to bend all his evidence to fit his thesis. La Bete Humaine displays all of the elements of both a good read and a disturbing look into what lies beneath society's veneer of self-control, yet somehow the story wasn't convincing and the psychology dreary and mundane.

Jacques, a young man who becomes involved with a murderess and who struggles constantly with his own urges to commit murder, is the main focus of Zola's psychological study. Initially, this study comes across as fairly promising; early on we're told that
He had wanted to kill her, kill her, oh God! He gasped in agony as he thought that he would go and kill her in her bed, now, if he went back there. Nor would it matter if he had no weapon, it would avail him nothing to hold his head in his arms and try to forget - he realized that the male in him, independent of his own will, would push open the door and strangle that girl, lashed on by the instinct for rape and the urge to avenge the age-old outrage. (p. 69)
Yet, Zola's analysis never goes any further than this, and the stuff about "the male in him" and "avenging the age-old outrage" (never explained) is simply repeated throughout the novel, almost exactly verbatim each time.

Structurally, the novel is also problematic as Zola himself likely knew. His original plan had been to write two novels - one about the lives of those devoted to working for the railways, and the other to a close study of a murderer doomed by heredity to madly carry out his base inclinations. This structural divisiveness while certainly problematic, mightn't have been fatal if Zola's psychological diversions had been compelling or if the lurid, dirty stuff had seemed at all convincing; as they weren't, the structural discord simply contributed to the novel's failure to engage me in any way.

2010 sure isn't beginning well re: my ability to choose good books for myself. But there's naught to do but forge on and keep reading I guess.


Heidenkind said...

What year was Le Bete Humaine published? I'm just wondering if it was influenced by the Franco-Prussian War or not.

That excerpt makes me happy I haven't read it.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

I'm afraid you are reinforcing an anti-Zola prejudice. Anti-Naturalist, actually.

Rebecca Reid said...

oh so sorry this wasn't a pleasant read. I'd like to read some Zola sometime, so maybe this isn't the one, huh.

Bookphilia said...

heidenkind: It was published in 1890. :)

Amateur Reader: I can't help that I didn't like it. And it is in keeping with the tenets of Naturalism not only to own it, but assert that there's nothing I can do about it.

Rebecca: I'm not sure naturalist writing can be pleasant. I doubt that's what Zola was going for. I would be open to this if I thought it was intellectually compelling in any way...

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

How funny. I now see that my comment was badly miswritten.

I meant that you were reinforcing my anti-Naturalism prejudice. Meaning: I find Naturalists dreary and unartistic, and you make Zola sound just like I feared he was.

I've got to link to this post later in the week.