Exceptional Excerpts: The Belly of Paris, by Émile Zola

The Belly of Paris  was originally published in 1873 as Le Ventre de Paris; it was the third novel in the Rougon-Macquart series of novels and is centred around the busy Les Halles market in the centre of Paris.

This excerpt comes from a point about three quarters the way through the novel and takes place in Madame Lecoeur’s cheese storeroom. Also present is Mlle Saget and La Sarriette. Mlle Saget has found out some information about the main character, Florent. Although the reader of the novel already knows from the opening pages what this secret is I won’t reveal it here as I want to concentrate largely on the descriptive and lyrical prose of this section. It is, in total, about five pages long and begins with a page long description of all the cheeses in the storeroom, the women continue gossiping as the smells of all the cheeses in the enclosed room becomes overwhelming.

I would have liked to just quote the whole section but that might have been a bit excessive. Instead I’ve picked out some of the more descriptive text and left out most of the dialogue and gossiping, this is because the dialogue makes more sense as part of the plot, whereas the descriptive text more easily stands alone. I’ve indicated where I’ve skipped some text with an ellipsis in square brackets. I believe that this section was known as ‘The Cheese Symphony’ for reasons that will soon be clear.

All around them the cheeses were stinking. On the two shelves at the back of the stall were huge blocks of butter: Brittany butter overflowing its baskets; Normandy butter wrapped in cloth, looking like models of bellies on to which a sculptor had thrown some wet rags; other blocks, already cut into and looking like high rocks full of valleys and crevices. […] But for the most part the cheeses stood in piles on the table. There, next to the one-pound packs of butter, a gigantic cantal was spread on leaves of white beet, as though split by blows from an axe; then came a golden Cheshire cheese, a gruyère like a wheel fallen from some barbarian chariot, some Dutch cheeses suggesting decapitated heads smeared in dried blood and as hard as skulls – which has earned them the name of ‘death’s heads’. A parmesan added its aromatic tang to the thick, dull smell of the others. […] Then came the strong-smelling cheeses: the mont-d’ors, pale yellow, with a mild sugary smell; the troyes, very thick and bruised at the edges, much stronger, smelling like a damp cellar; the camemberts, suggesting high game; the neufchâtels, the limbourgs, the marolles, the pont-l’évèques, each adding its own shrill note in a phrase that was harsh to the point of nausea; […]
A silence fell at the mention of Gavard. They all looked at each other cautiously. As they were all rather short of breath by this time, it was the camembert they could smell. This cheese, with its gamy odour, had overpowered the milder smells of the marolles and the limbourg; its power was remarkable. Every now and then, however, a slight whiff, a flute-like note, came from the parmesan, while the bries came into play with their soft, musty smell, the gentle sound, so to speak, of a damp tambourine. The livarot launched into an overwhelming reprise, and the géromé kept up the symphony with a sustained note.

( The Belly of Paris, by Émile Zola, Oxford University Press, translated by Brian Nelson, 2007, p210-216)

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3 comments on “Exceptional Excerpts: The Belly of Paris, by Émile Zola

  1. Ah, cheese, glorious cheese! I have read this one before but only the old E. A. Vizetelly translation titled The Fat and the Thin. Although the cheese does not suffer in the Victorian translation, I have recently acquired the new one by Brian Nelson and am looking forward to reading it when it comes up at the Goodreads group. Dagny

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  2. Jonathan says:

    Zola actually takes the symphony further and has it ending in a cacophony of cheesy smells – I thought I’d end the quote on a more subdued note.

    This is a great book and it made me realise that the ‘minor’ books weren’t necessarily minor. Brian Nelson does a great job on the translation, though I haven’t read the Vizetelly version.

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  3. […] 1873 classic Le Ventre de Paris, the latest English translation of which was published in 2009 as The Belly of Paris. Cheese lovers will gobble up the scene widely known as “the cheese symphony”: a depiction of a […]

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