Jean Renoir and La Bête humaine

“You see, in this world, there is one awful thing, and that is that everyone has his reasons.”
― Jean Renoir

Big Boy 4018, in Fair Park, more than a few years ago.

So yesterday, I finished La Bête humaine by Emile Zola.

I have written before about my love for the streaming wonderfulness of The Criterion Channel. So tonight I sat down and watched the 1938 film by Jean Renoir, his version of Zola’s La Bête humaine.

It was very good – though very different than the book. The plot was significantly trimmed down – most of the murders were gone (only the two key homicides were left). The big set pieces were cut too, for time and also, probably for budget – the special effects cost for train wrecks and blizzards has to be enormous.

What is left is a more personal story, one of the first examples of film noir – with a femme fatale (Simone Simon – who I recognized from Cat People, filmed a few years later). A love triangle, murder, and Zola’s inherited madness make for a lively time.

Simone Simon, in a publicity still from Cat People

Renoir’s genius is in his ability to make his characters come alive on screen. He also shows a wonderful respect for the working class folks that populate the story. Even at their worst – his characters have their reasons, they are driven by the sins of the past.

It did still have the trains, though. The plot moves along like a hot steam engine on a track. A lot of the film was done on location instead of in studio – which added a gritty realism to the story. The Criterion Channel had an interview with Peter Bogdanovich who said that the original impetus for the film was that the star, Jean Gabin, wanted to make a movie where he got to drive a train.

La Bête humaine

“Don’t go looking at me like that because you’ll wear your eyes out.”
― Emile Zola, La Bête humaine

Three generations. The smoking diesel pulling the steam Big Boy, while the electric DART train zooms by overhead.

It’s been awhile… since September, 2018, to be exact. For two and a half years I have been working my way through the 20 novels of Émile Zola’s Les Rougon-Macquart series. So far:

  • La Fortune des Rougon (1871) (The Fortune of the Rougons)
  • Son Excellence Eugène Rougon (1876) (His Excellency Eugene Rougon/ His Excellency)
  • La Curée (1871-2) (The Kill)
  • L’Argent (1891) (Money)
  • Le Rêve (1888) (The Dream)
  • La Conquête de Plassans (1874) (The Conquest of Plassans/A Priest in the House)
  • Pot-Bouille (1882) (Pot Luck/Restless House/Piping Hot)
  • Au Bonheur des Dames (1883) (The Ladies’ Paradise/Shop Girls of Paris/Ladies’ Delight)
  • La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret (1875) (The Sin of Father Mouret/Abbe Mouret’s Transgression)
  • Une Page d’amour (1878) (A Lesson in Love/A Love Episode/A Page of Love/A Love Affair)
  • Le Ventre de Paris (1873) (The Belly of Paris/The Fat and the Thin/Savage Paris/The Markets of Paris)
  • La Joie de Vivre (1884) (The Joys of Living/Joy of Life/How Jolly Life Is/Zest for Life)
  • L’Assommoir (1877) (The Dram Shop/The Gin Palace/Drink/Drunkard) and the movie Gervaise
  • L’Œuvre (1886) (The Masterpiece/A Masterpiece/His Masterpiece)
  • La Bête Humaine (1890) (The Beast in the Man/The Human Beast/The Monomaniac)
  • Germinal (1885)
  • Nana (1880)
  • La Terre (1887) (The Earth/The Soil)
  • La Débâcle (1892) (The Downfall/The Smash-up/The Debacle)
  • Le Docteur Pascal (1893) (Doctor Pascal)

Looking at this list, I realize I read L’Œuvre (1886) (The Masterpiece) this summer and never wrote a blog entry about it. Sorry. It was good, not the best of the series, but an interesting take on the artistic life and the madness behind it. I’ll write it up in the next few days, once I think about it and take a look at the text again.

I have been neglecting Zola lately, mostly because I’ve been participating in a Zoom group that is reading Dostoevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov (which I have been enjoying immensely). We took a bit of a break over the holidays and I used the time to devour La Bête humaine.

I had read a paperback copy of La Bête humaine years and years ago – but I remembered very little about it other than it had trains and murders.

WOW. This is one hell of a book. One surprising thing about the 20 books in the Rougon-Marquart universe is how wildly diverse they are. They range from frilly romance to gritty poverty to hopeless alcoholism to rampant greed. And now, we have this.

La Bête humaine is a book of murder(s). By the end of the story pretty much every major character is a killer, a victim, or both. All these murders sans one stem from the same cause – jealous rage. The one other example is a chilling description of a compulsive killer, consumed by powerful, mysterious violent urges of madness, insanity, and desire. The wheels of justice don’t help much – they turn slowly, then grind to a stop. The only innocent character is eventually blamed and convicted.

It is a novel of the railroad. Specifically, the nineteenth century steam engines that ran between Paris and the coast at Le Havre. Zola’s prodigious powers of description are used to paint portraits of the stations, the line, and especially the powerful engine “La Lison” which becomes practically a living character imbued with almost sexual powers.

Finally, it is a novel of arresting and amazing set pieces. The entire chapter where a wagon containing two huge hunks of rock is pushed into the path of “La Lison” is one of the most sensational and electrifying chunks of text I have ever read. There are horrifying killings, terrifying betrayals, and moments of sexual tension surprising for a classic novel. The final scene, especially, is chilling and horrific, even though it ends before the inevitable apocalypse.

There are free public domain versions of the novel available (from Project Gutenberg and other places) but I am glad I bought the excellent Roger Pearson translation from Oxford World Classics. It is written in a modern style, which fits this story very well.

So this was an enjoyable, if horrific, read. And now, on to Germinal, arguably the best in the series. I’ve already bought a good translation and am ready to go. However, I will wait until the end of January, have to finish The Brothers Karamazov first.

So little time, so many books.

Short Story (Flash Fiction) Of the Day, Six Dreams About the Train by Maria Haskins

Then you wake up and look at me and you smile and I know who I am again, that I am real, that you are real, that this is the world as it is supposed to be.

—-Maria Haskins, Six Dreams About the Train


There is something primal about a train. I read the story and I think of six trains from my life: the DART commuter trains sliding between the crystal towers of the downtown skyscrapers wet with rain, a steam powered narrow gauge from the past chugging upwards from a hundred degree day to a lunch in the snow, a classic diesel-electric taking a small child alone across the Kansas Prairie, the burning of a derailed chemical train in the lowlands of rural Louisiana, a high school band crossing the forty five miles from Atlantic to Pacific (ironically going west to east) for a football game, a child’s ride around the periphery of a rundown theme park… the memories (even the recent ones) take on the misty confusion of a dream. Everything is starting to do that.

Read it here:

Short Story (Flash Fiction) Of the Day, Six Dreams About the Train by Maria Haskins


From Flash Fiction Online

Maria Haskins Twitter

Maria Haskins – Writer and Translator


“We start off with high hopes, then we bottle it. We realise that we’re all going to die, without really finding out the big answers. We develop all those long-winded ideas which just interpret the reality of our lives in different ways, without really extending our body of worthwhile knowledge, about the big things, the real things. Basically, we live a short disappointing life; and then we die. We fill up our lives with shite, things like careers and relationships to delude ourselves that it isn’t all totally pointless.”
― Irvine Welsh, Trainspotting

My son, Nick, is home for a few days before he heads back to school. I told him I was going to do, “A stupid Dad thing.” I said I was going to drive down into South Dallas and sit around and wait until I could see an old train engine go by.
“Yes,” he said, “That sounds like a stupid Dad thing.”

When our kids were little, I used to take them down to Fair Park. It’s an underused and unappreciated piece of our city. We would stop off at the Age of Steam museum on the north side of the park. That was a little-known, overcrowded spot where they had an amazing collection of rolling stock – a true history of the American railroads.

Big Boy 4018, in Fair Park, a few years ago.

Big Boy 4018, in Fair Park, a few years ago.

Big Boy 4018, next to a slight lesser engine, in Fair Park, a few years ago.

Big Boy 4018, next to a slightly lesser engine, in Fair Park, a few years ago.

Big Boy 4018, behind the wire in Fair Park

Big Boy 4018, behind the wire in Fair Park

The museum was always neglected by the city and actively discouraged by Fair Park officials. It became more and more threadbare and run down. I was worried that it would fade away. But, eventually, the city of Frisco came through and decided to build a brand-new, spacious Museum of the American Railroad. It seemed to take forever, but the thing finally came together. I can’t wait to visit the place when it opens.

One challenge was to move all the rolling stock from the Fair Park sidings all the way out to Frisco. No mean feat – over the last few years they have been using slack time in the various railways across the Metroplex to move their cars and engines out to their new digs.

Only one piece of equipment remained – but that was a doozy. Union Pacific Big Boy 4018. One of twenty-five “Big Boy” coal-fired steam engines built in the early forties – arguably the largest steam locomotives in the world. 133 feet long, and weighing one and a quarter million pounds (with its tender) – that’s a big hunk of iron to move across a giant modern city.

I wanted to see this.

For months now, the move has been scheduled and canceled – due to technical and scheduling problems. Finally, this Sunday, it looked like the thing was going to go off. I followed on facebook and twitter and made sure it was going to be leaving home – then packed up my bicycle, folding chair, camera, notebook and pen, and some cold water and headed out.

The route was available online and I picked out a spot in South Dallas where the rail line ran along a deserted stretch of grass and trees – that still had a road (Railroad Avenue) right next to it. When I arrived, I realized I must have picked a good spot – there were quite a few folks there, including news reporters, official rail line photographers, railroad dispatchers on their days off, and a good gaggle of serious train fanatics.

Unfortunately, there were some serious delays and we waited for several hours while a number of other trains sped by, but no Big Boy.

While we were waiting some other trains came by. All the folks on this Amtrack were looking out the windows wondering why everyone was standing there with cameras.

While we were waiting some other trains came by. All the folks on this Amtrack were looking out the windows wondering why everyone was standing there with cameras.

Train fans, waiting for Big Boy.

Train fans, waiting for Big Boy.

A freight train stopped on the track, blocking the route, waiting for clearance ahead and we all realized it would be several hours more – so I took off and went to a favorite place in Exposition Plaza – Pizza Lounge – for a slice, an IPA, and watch the Rangers get beat on the television over the bar. I was able to keep up on twitter – and when it looked like the train was moving again I headed out.

The crowd at Scyene Road, under the DART bridge, waiting.

The crowd at Scyene Road, under the DART bridge, waiting.

This time I stopped at Scyene road, near the DART station. The train would reach that spot first, and there was a good crowd of folks still waiting. It still took about another hour, but it was pretty darn cool – worth the six-hour wait. Several serious railroad fans were saying, “Seeing an engine like this moving on the tracks is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

Of course, it wasn’t under its own power. There was talk once of restoring this engine to operating condition, but it would be prohibitively expensive, nobody wants coal burning trains around, and there isn’t much track left that can take this size of machine. It was pulled along by a diesel engine, and was hooked to a long line of tank cars to provide braking and stability.

Three generations. The smoking diesel pulling the steam Big Boy, while the electric DART train zooms by overhead.

Three generations. The smoking diesel pulling the steam Big Boy, while the electric DART train zooms by overhead. (click to enlarge)

Big Boy 4018

Big Boy 4018 (click to enlarge)

The massive drive wheels on Big Boy 4018 (click to enlarge)

The massive drive wheels on Big Boy 4018 (click to enlarge)

Big Boy 4018 (click to enlarge)

Big Boy 4018 (click to enlarge)

Big Boy 4018

Big Boy 4018

I was expecting the size but not the fantastic complexity. The size, number, and beauty of all those parts spinning as the train went by was incredible. Now I understand why the train fans wanted to see it move. When you look at these things in a static museum it’s easy to forget and hard to comprehend that they were built to move, move fast, move long distances, and pull unimaginably heavy loads.

Once it went by I drove back to Railroad Avenue, and as I pulled in, the Big Boy was already passing. I managed to get a shot of it as it went over Bexar Street.

Big Boy 4018 (click to enlarge)

Big Boy 4018 (click to enlarge)

The Union Pacific photographer told me of a spot where I could get a picture of the train with the Dallas skyline in the background, but there was another tall container train on a siding blocking the view. The train still had a long way to go, but I was getting tired and needed some water, so I headed home.

“Choose a life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television. Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers… Choose DSY and wondering who the fuck you are on a Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit crushing game shows, stucking junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away in the end of it all, pishing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked up brats you spawned to replace yourself, choose your future. Choose life… But why would I want to do a thing like that?”
― Irvine Welsh, Trainspotting