Around 100 years before we had met the serial killer, Dexter, the French novelist Emile Zola gave us Jacques Lantier. Jacques dreams of blood and killing, but unlike Dexter, his psyche is grounded in something more ancient than a traumatic childhood experience.
La bête humaine, translated as ‘the beast within’, explores the base animalistic instinct for destruction; something that lurks inside the human psyche; something ancient, wild and difficult to control.
Dexter manages his lust for killing through a moralistic system of only killing those who harm others. He justifies his approach as tidying up the disorder that society cannot contain. But, he is also part of the disorder.
In the introduction to the Oxford World Classic version of the novel, the translator Roger Pearson presents us with a theory of Zola’s idea about violence and society.
The final chapter of La Bête Humaine displays the inability of the dominant moral order to recognize and deal with the irrational.
As Jacques sees the 6.30 pm Le Havre express fly past him, he witnesses a murder through one of the carriage windows. A man is pinned down and knifed by another while a third figure hovers in the background.
Is it real, he wonders? Having, an hour before, only just escaped his own longing to kill the young wildling Flore. Is this a projection of his desire?
No, there’s a body on the track. The murder was real, and Jacques promptly gets drawn into the case for the search for the murderer of Judge Grandmorin.
La Bete Humaine was the 17th of 20 novels in the Rougon-Macquart series charting the working-class lives in the tumultuous time in French history.
Although audiences were used to Zola’s habit of writing about orgasms, menstruation, murky conditions of working-class life and murder, people were still shocked at the violence of the story, released in serial format in late 1889
In the first fifty-six pages, we find preparations for no fewer than three brutal assassinations, two by the knife and one by poison,” and that’s just for starters because the carnage continues throughout the tale.
The murderers are numerous in the novel; their devices include stabbings, poison, beatings, and in a horrific but beautifully articulated scene, there is the train crash caused by Flore.
The book is true grit, with heroes in short supply and each of the murderers breaking down into a base version of themselves as they carry out their killing in an attempt at possessing that which they wish to control.
We associate shades of grey and three-dimensional characters with modern writing, especially television with shows like the Ozarks, Dexter and Breaking Bad. Still, La Bete Humaine competes with these stories by creating a world that has lapsed into the recesses of darkness. Likewise, the pace and plotting of the novel are comparable to the fast-moving Netflix serials that we’ve come to love.
Zola wrote the Rougon-Macquart series between 1870 and 1893, so it’s no wonder that La Bete Humaine is so well crafted after writing so many novels. The reading experience was one of those unstoppable sessions where your to-do list flies out the window; all best intentions for the morning have faded away in place of a frantic desire to carry on reading.
Below is a list of devices and techniques that are easy to apply to your own writing and that I’ll be taking into my craft, hoping that my next piece elicits the same reading effect on the audience.
Holding back on information
Zola’s scattering of information is done with extreme writing confidence. Not only does he respect his audience by not feeling the need to front-load details, but he has also crafted the reader experience by using suspense, which causes exhilaration.
He foreshadows events and sprinkles the plot delicately for maximum impact. The effect of this is to keep reading, and it’s a problem with many newbie writers that we feel the need to give all of the information upfront.
As writers, we need to have all of the answers but give them up reluctantly. Once a reader is robbed of expectation, they may give up on the story.
For example, the murder that Severine and Roubaud commit on the sleazy Grandmorin is planned in the first chapter. Jacques then witnesses it in the 2nd chapter, but we don’t get any further details of the “howdunnit” until chapter 8.
Likewise, with the letter that Severine sits down to write in Chapter 1, we know they lured Grandmorin to his fatal meeting place, but where the letter ends up remains a mystery to Severine and the audience until later in the story.
How far can you hold back revealing information? In my early stories, I’d give in to an urge to give all the necessary information upfront, which ruins the reading experience. Suspense is simply anxiety about what will happen next; fear is a lack of control, and both devices are practical tools in any form of writing.
Search for truth
Zola takes the audience on a search for truth throughout the story, and even when we, the audience, have the fact, we wonder who else has it.
Zola treats the truth like he treats information; delicately, and even when the truth is revealed to the readers, it is held back from the characters. Maybe the truth is an elusive quality, not long destined for the hands of mere mortals.
In the final courtroom scene, the murderer takes the stand to testify against two men innocent of the crime. He knows one man to be guilty of murder; the other an unfortunate victim of circumstance. Only Jacques and the readers know the truth; the accused are as in the dark as most of the people in the courtroom.
There was a deathly silence in the courtroom, and the jury members felt a lump in their throats at this sudden wave of emotion that seemed to have sprung from nowhere; they were witnessing the silent passage of truth.
What a wonderful expression. Does a search for truth transcend the time and place of a novel? Is it more timeless than the last days of a republic, or an election where neither contender inspires, or in a post-truth age?
Is there something about the human condition that drives a search for truth, and can you use it in your storytelling?
Dramatic irony is a literary technique originally used in Greek tragedy where a character is deprived of a truth that the audience or reader knows.
It’s effective in tragedy and all storytelling because it conveys a nakedness that all humans experience; the human condition.
Think of comedy, especially slapstick, where the audience knows that a character is hiding in a cupboard, but the new entrants to the room have no idea. Or TV drama. Think of the character Hank in Breaking Bad, who was deprived of the truth of the identity of his criminal target Heisenberg. And the devastating sympathy we felt for him all along, despite him being a nob.
My favourite use of dramatic irony in La Bete Humaine is with Monsieur Denizet, the examining magistrate of the Grandmorin who is summonsing witnesses to his chamber to discover the murderers.
Denise considers himself a shrewd detective.
He was “exultant that he alone had a nose sufficiently keen to sniff out the actual murderer. He summons many witnesses to his chamber. While the visitors bring him a collection of truths, fables and lies, he still sticks to his unoriginal premise that the Roubaud’s had murdered Grandmorin for his property.
After hearing from Grandmorin’s sister about his proclivities for a kiss and fondle with youngers, he still doesn’t allow his genius brain to veer from the theory of murder for the property.
What levels of truth or self-awareness can you hold back from your characters for devastating impact or even comedic impact.
No one in the story has complete self-awareness, and perhaps that’s one of Zola’s points? When we lack this self-awareness, we descend into the human beast; whether you’re sleazy Grandmorin or helpless Severine.
Asking Big Questions
Zola lends the method of willful murder to many characters in La Bete Humaine: Jacques, Roubaud, Severine, Flore, Misard – they all respond to their baser desires with murder – Flore turning into the terrifying beast of all when she orchestrates the crash of the Friday morning express to Paris – creating bloody carnage but failing to kill the two she had set her sights on.
Is this a signal from Zola about the futility of violence to solve problems?
Likewise, can we turn to the pillars of government for truth, justice or understanding of the plights of ordinary people? This question is just as relevant today.
Without bashing your readers over the head with ‘big questions,’ can you find one that you, the writer, are trying to explore yourself?
Zola’s insistence on the quest for truth didn’t end with his novel writing. In 1898 he made the brave move of penning a letter to the Emperor of France as a front-page letter in a left-wing newspaper about the Dreyfus Trial and Conviction.
So shall I dare? Dare to tell the truth, as I have pledged to say to it, in total, since the normal channels of justice have failed to do so.
He fled to England on the advice of his publisher after being convicted of Libel and had to wait out his time across the channel, missing his friends and good food.
Maybe today, we would call this personal branding, conveying the beliefs that you write about in your action.
La Bete Humaine has highlighted the effectiveness of specific writerly tools of the trade to craft the reader experience and is also a reminder of the writer’s power through their stories to re-imagine and examine the world around them.
Thanks for reading.