Zola. If anyone knew how to combine lust and public transport, it was him.
La Bête Humaine is a very readable classic. It has an actual plot and everything. Adultery and murder ahoy!
It also has a lot to do with trains, their engineering, maintaining, driving, and even scheduling. And it is a testament to Zola that at no point did all this steam train talk make me want to poke my own eyes out with knitting needles, as is my usual reaction to in-depth detail about gauges and steam levels and zzzzzzzzzzzz…
Lison (a train) is personified in such a way I am cheering for her as she battles a snow storm more than any of the characters she carries, as quite frankly, they’re a bunch of selfish reprobates that have made their own lust-filled beds, and can lay in them, but Lison!? She’s being driven into, then reversed, then again batted into snow drifts that smother her into a frozen halt. She cracks and bends, and while she may not have a face like Thomas The Tank Engine (or his annoying naivety) I find myself genuinely caring how she will cope. And what if another train misses the signal in the snow and smashes into her? There’s no red-petticoat-wearing Jenny Agutter to save the day!
I first read La Bête Humaine when I was about fifteen, and quite a lot of it went over my head, but one image stayed with me very clearly for these last twenty three years, and that is the sickly Aunt Phasie, steeping iron nails in a beaker of water to them drink for her health. I have told people ever since that this was a practise, and no one has ever believed me. For the sake of this piece I Googled it, and found nothing. Often ground wells and pipes add iron to water, but it seems deliberately using nails has fallen out of human memory. Or Zola completely made it up. Irn-Bru apparently has iron real in it, but regardless of the fact I live in Scotland and it’s the best-selling soft drink here, I’d rather drink the nail water than that bright orange toxic waste.