Émile Zola’s La Bête humaine (1890): Event Review

Thursday, 19 November 2015, 7–9pm

The 2015/16 season of BookTalk kicked off with a sensational start, as the audience was treated to a preview of BBC Radio 4’s new series, Émile Zola: Blood, Sex and Money. The series is a 27-episode “mash-up” of radio adaptations that draw on the French author’s Les Rougon-Macquart novel sequence, which was published in 20 volumes between 1871 and 1893. For BookTalk’s first event of this season, the audience was given the opportunity to listen to the ninth episode of the series entitled “Trains”, in an hour-long “dark listening”. This episode draws primarily on La Bête humaine (1890), a tale of murder, passion and possession, as well as a portrait of a society racing into the future like the out of control locomotive with which the novel ends.

Dr Kate Griffiths

Introducing Zola, La Bête humaine and the novel sequence was Dr Kate Griffiths of Cardiff University’s School of Modern Languages, who acted as Academic Consultant for the radio series. Kate began by pointing out the difference between today’s view of Zola as an established writer and one of the foremost nineteenth-century innovators of the novel, and the view of some of his contemporary critics who saw his work as sensational, superficial and subversive. One critic writing in Le Figaro in 1868 referred to Zola’s writing as “putrid literature” and attacked realist writers more generally for focusing on the physiological. As Kate observed, Zola responded to his critics with the following: “Truth, like fire, purifies everything”. There was also a more material reason for the sensationalism of Zola’s novels. As he was not from a moneyed background, Zola depended on the sales of his books for his income, and sensation was (as it is still is today) an effective driver of sales. The combination of blood, sex and corruption that fill the pages of La Bête humaine—and in particular the many murders that take place—certainly kept readers interested. The following example of the novel’s sensationalism was given by Kate:

Wordlessly, chest against chest, each strove, panting, to push the other back. For a moment she seemed likely to prove the stronger, indeed might well have held him down beneath her, so weak had he become, if he had not then seized her by the throat. Her blouse ripped open and her breasts burst forth, hard and swollen from the battle, milky white in the bright shadows. And back she fell, ready to give herself, vanquished.

Whilst the novel’s sensationalism is immediately apparent to readers, Kate argued that this aspect of Zola’s writing hides an in-depth analysis of human behaviour and politics based on three key factors: heredity, environment and era. Firstly, Zola’s novel sequence is like the literary equivalent of a family tree, focusing on two families: the Rougons and the Macquarts, all of whom are descended from Aunt Dide. However, there is a crack running through this line of descent as Dide has tainted blood and so all of her descendants are flawed in some way or other—the central figure of La Bête humaine has a pathological urge to kill the women to whom he is attracted. As the novel puts it at one point, Jacques could feel “this hereditary crack” in certain “sudden losses of control, deep in his being, like fractures, holes, from which his self would escape”. In these moments, Jacques is no longer master of himself but subject to his physiological impulses or the beast within. As the radio adaptation puts it at one point, Jacques is “born with murder” in his “macabre blood”.

Secondly, Zola’s characters are also subject to the particular forces of their environment, such as the increasing presence of technology, exemplified in La Bête humaine by the fixed railway lines and roaring locomotives. Because of the determining role that the environment plays, human beings are often represented as machines in Zola’s writings, subject to the physiological mechanisms of the human body. Conversely, the technological is often represented as animate: at one point in La Bête humaine, a train is described as “like someone gradually being overtaken by impatience”. The trains also mirror the fixed destinies of the tainted human characters: as a train driver says in the radio adaptation, “where we’re going is already decided”. Furthermore, as Kate pointed out with reference to an extract from the novel, Zola captured the appearance of his environments in immense detail and in a proto-cinematic fashion. In the opening scene, Roubaud gazes out from a window high above the city, his eyes moving across the vast space like a series of cinematic shots. Zola’s brand of literary realism aimed at being a window on the world.

Lastly, Kate noted Zola’s belief that everyone is shaped by the time in which they live. All of his Rougon-Macquart novels take place during the Second Empire in France and reflect what Zola saw as a corrupt, illegitimate and blood-stained regime. The tainted bloodline of the Rougons and Macquarts is thus reflected by Zola’s larger picture of late-nineteenth century France. Kate then concluded her introduction by asking the audience to consider a number of questions, including “Can radio adapt Zola’s sensationalism?”, “Can radio adapt the voices of heredity?” and “Can radio adapt Zola’s concept of space?”

Polly and Dan

After the hour-long “dark listening”, the audience heard from Dan Rebellato, writer of the episode, and Polly Thomas, the episode’s producer and director. They both talked of the great challenge of adapting twenty novels and of translating Zola’s intensely visual prose for the radio. Whilst cinema might seem a more appropriate medium (see Jean Renoir’s 1938 cinematic adaptation, for example), Polly argued that radio can capture the quality of inner space effectively. Furthermore, the use of sound, such as the repetitive locomotive engine, can transport the listener to a particular external space. Dan also noted that Zola himself had failed to adapt his novels for the theatre, one reason being the immense scale of the stories and the lack of dialogue.

One aspect of the radio adaptations which they were both proud of was the layering of audio motifs, such as the recurring sounds of trains, a ticking clock and a beating heart. These sound effects make objects and spaces more palpable. Additionally, they wanted to use silence effectively to provoke the audience to fill in the gaps with their imagination. At one point in the “Trains” episode, as two characters are fighting, the noise of the locomotive engine fades away just before an almighty crash as the train derails. Such moments heighten the sense of suspense and contrast wonderfully with the audio motifs that usually sit in the background.

BookTalk finished with a Q&A session in which audience members engaged in a lively dialogue with Polly and Dan. Questions ranged widely across a number of topics. One audience member inquired about the number and type of problems faced by the creative team. Polly and Dan noted the important decision to turn Aunt Dide into an omniscient narrator throughout the series in order to create a strong sense of internal coherence and continuity across the episodes. They also spoke about the decision to split the adaptation into three themes spread over three broadcast weeks as an effective way of breaking up such a long series. Another problem they faced was how to select from the immense wealth of detail of Zola’s writings in order to create a tense and taut hour of radio, all the while balancing the personal and the political stories that Zola combines in his novels.

On a slightly different note, given that the original stories are set in France but the radio adaptation is in English, one member from the audience asked about how the creative team decided on the issue of accent. Polly and Dan spoke about wanting to avoid the tradition of having English actors speak with a French accent, as in the BBC television sitcom ’Allo ’Allo!, and about their decision to set each of the three series in a different region of Great Britain: the “Blood” series, for example, is set in Manchester.

On a similar line, another member asked Dan and Polly about how the differences between late-nineteenth century France and the contemporary world pose specific challenges about terminology. Would Jacques have been described as a “psychopath” in Zola’s era, for example, or is this a more recent notion, added to the radio adaptation to bring things up to date? Dan noted that the creative team decided to keep the stories set in the past, and that the term “psychopath” is in fact one that arose in the nineteenth century. As he went on to say, it was at this time that new sciences, such as psychiatry, emerged and found new ways of characterising and making sense of human behaviour. He also noted a similarity in the aspirations of both late nineteenth- and twentieth-century science in that both seek to explain everything.

The evening’s final question concerned censorship, and Dan observed that whilst the BBC tends to be “risk-averse”, it is also crucial to be sensitive when dealing with violence. The recent terrorist attacks in Paris, for example, spring quickly to mind when thinking about the violence of Zola’s work as it is being broadcast for a contemporary audience.

All quotations are taken from Émile Zola, La Bête humaine, trans. Roger Pearson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).