#RivetingReviews Classic: Barry Forshaw reviews LA BÊTE HUMAINE by Émile Zola

Who can write about sex like Émile Zola these days, as in his carnal and edgy Thérèse Raquin of 1867, with everyone currently flinching in advance of ironic but ultimately censorious awards or political correctness? The Vintage Classics translation by Adam Thorpe made one realise for the first time why Zola was so shocking in his day. (Actually, Vintage had done this before – they commissioned a radical new translation of Dostoyevsky’s The Devils – as Demons – in the late 1990s.)

But the inherent brutality (as well as the concupiscence and violence) of Zola’s work found expression in another infernal triangle with the blunt and excoriating La Bête Humaine of 1890. American paperback editions emphasised the steaminess (calling it ‘The Human Beast’ and adorning the jackets with copious cleavage). English editions tended to stick to the original French title. The book, though, is about far more than a sordid homicide; Zola’s targets include the French judicial system (which he was to excoriate during the Dreyfus affair) and there is a brilliant realisation of the world of railways and railwaymen. La Bête Humaine is a richer, more complex experience than Thérèse Raquin; the unlucky trio here are the eponymous ‘human beast’, Lantier, gripped by a hereditary madness and a desire to murder; Severine, an object of lust for men, who nevertheless retains an unsullied centre; and Robaud, her brutal husband who cuts the throat of one of her ex-lovers.

My advice to crime writers looking to re-energise their batteries when writing about murder and sex? Pick up Zola’s visceral work, written over a century ago, and learn from a master.

Reviewed by Barry Forshaw

La Bête Humaine by Émile Zola 

Translated from the French by Roger Pearson

Published by Oxford World’s Classics (2009)

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Barry Forshaw’s books include Crime Fiction: A Reader’s Guide, the Keating Award-winning Brit Noir and Euro Noir. Other work: Nordic Noir, Death in a Cold Climate, Sex and Film and the British Crime Writing encyclopedia (also a Keating Award winner). He edits Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk).

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