Wednesday, April 24, 2013

La Lison in Snow - from La Bête Humaine

If there is one thing I like most from La Bête Humaine—besides the story and what laid beneath it, of course—it is the beautiful way Zola wrote the passages about La Lison’s adventures. La Lison is the name Jacques Lantier gave to his locomotive. Jacques is an engine driver of a railway company, and for an engine driver, his career depends on how he takes care of the engine. Jacques always takes care of La Lison as if she is his lover. He would clean her, caress her, and look after her needs. Jacques knows her character—yes, from my experiences of working in a machinery trading company, I believe engine has its own character—and he loves her for those characters. Jacques can always trust La Lison to work together and give a magnificent output that helps Jacques become one of the most successful drivers for the railway company.

In one of the most thrilling parts of the book, Zola makes La Lison as if she is a woman. It is when La Lison and Jacques must get through a quite heavy snow to get to Paris from Le Havre. I was amazed by how vividly Zola portrayed La Lison here; the scenes I want to capture forever in my memory. Here’re just several of them depicting La Lison in her last journey….

La Lison stood puffing steam and smoke, coupled to a train of seven coaches…. The wind was blowing from the east, and the engine met it head on, lashed by its gusts… But in the darkness the brilliant beam from the headlamp seemed to be swallowed up by the thick, wan drapes of failing snow. Instead of being lit at a distance of two or three hundred meters, the track appeared through a kind of milky fog, from which objects loomed into view only at the very last moment, as if from the depths of a dream.”


“(The speed) was dropping fast, La Lison was laboring, and (Jacques) could feel the increasing resistance of the snow against the plough… The needle on the pressure-gauge had rapidly gone back up to ten atmospheres; La Lison was producing all the power of which she was capable…But it soon recovered, and the engine was snorting and spitting like an animal being driven too hard, rearing and jolting so much one could almost hear its limbs cracking. And Jacques bullied her along as if she were an old woman whose strength was failing, someone he no longer loved as once he had.”


 And indeed at that precise moment Jacques was repeating in exasperation: “She’ll never make it unless we grease her.” And he did what he had seldom ever done, he grabbed the grease-gun to lubricate her while she was running…. And La Lison, with this man clinging to her side, pursued her breathless path into the night, opening up a deep furrow of herself through the fast blanket of white.”


 Up on the plateu, La Lison did in fact make good speed, and without undue difficulty. But she was flagging nevertheless. The driver had constantly to keep opening the firebox door as a sign to the fireman to put more coal on; and each time he did, there rose above the somber-looking train—itself black against all this white and covered in a shroud—the blazing comet’s tail, boring into the night.”


La Lison had just entered a cutting where she should have to plough through snow more than a meter thick. She was now making progress only under the utmost strain, and her whole frame shook with it. For a moment she faltered, as though she might grind to a halt like a ship running onto a sandbank. What weighed her down was the heavy layer of snow which had gradually accumulated on the roofs of the carriages."


On they rolled, black against white along a furrow of white, with their white pall stretched out above them; while La Lison herself was merely trimmed in ermine, that clothed her dark flanks where the snowflakes melted into watery trickles. Once again, despite the weight, she freed herself, and through she went. And up on the broad curve of an embankment, the train could still be seen running easily, like a ribbon of dark shadow lost in a wonderland of dazzling whiteness.”


But soon there were further cuttings… Once again the engine was losing speed. She had run between two banks, and the final halt came slowly, without a jolt. It was as though she had run into glue and it was sticking to every one of her wheels, holding her tighter and tighter till her breath was gone.”


Oh, how could I not falling in love with the man who wrote it? As I have written in my review, It feels as if Zola has painted his idea into a canvas called novel, instead of writing it!


  1. I love the two paintings you chose of trains in the snow: the Monet and the modern one by Colin Cartwright. My favourite type of composition is one with bold lines like in the Monet - the line of the train, the fence, the row of trees.

    I don't think I have time to read another Zola this month, but I like the sound of La Bete Humaine and it would be nice to read about Jacques seeing as I have already read about Etienne and Claude.

    1. Monet could capture Zola's La Lison quite perfectly in his painting.

      From the brothers, Claude and Jacques shared the same complexity, so yes, you should erad La Bete Humaine. To me, it's more interesting than The Masterpiece, and I like Jacques more than Claude.


What do you think?