As regular readers know, I’m a bit of a ‘foodie’ so I was expecting to really enjoy The Belly of Paris, (Le Ventre de Paris – also translated as The Fat and the Thin; Savage Paris; or The Markets of Paris). First published in 1873, it’s the 11th novel in the recommended reading order for Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle, and it’s set in Les Halles de Paris, the huge fresh food market in the heart of the city that was a mecca for food-lovers until it was (unwisely) demolished in 1971.
Now, I like buying food, cooking food, admiring the presentation of food, and exploring different cuisines – but I am not especially interested in reading descriptions of food. And so while I recognise that The Belly of Paris is a favourite of many and it was the first time a food market had been used as a poetic symbol of bourgeois consumerism, I found myself becoming a bit tired of the descriptions of food which litter this novel. The plot, on the other hand interested me very much.
The central character, Florent Quenu finds himself inadvertently caught up in an insurrection during Louis-Napoleon’s 1851 coup-d’état and falsely accused of murdering a young woman. He serves many years as a prisoner on the galleys at the notorious Devil’s Island, eventually escaping to Paris where he finds the city unrecognisable under Haussman’s urban reconstruction program. His half-brother Quenu takes him in, and despite his reservations about the gluttony symbolised by the markets, Florent eventually takes a position as an inspector at the fish market, reluctantly becoming part of the great market economy that was transforming Paris at the time.
His inertia, and his disdain for money, decent clothing and the bourgeois values that underlie the expansion of the markets, place Florent in conflict with his family and the stallholders. Quenu’s wife Lisa is proud of the respectability of her charcuterie, and she is suspicious of anything or anyone that might sabotage it. (As well she might, given the political instability that characterised French history in this period).
What Zola shows so cunningly in this book is the power of the mob. The plump, placid people of the market harbour doubts about Florent because he is thin – his very physique symbolises his rejection of The Good Life that they sell to Paris in their food stalls. While some of his actions are imprudent, it’s the whispering campaign that becomes a roar that leads to his downfall.
I also enjoyed Zola’s representation of the artist Claude, prefiguring the later novel The Masterpiece which led Cezanne to rupture his long-standing friendship with Zola. Many of the scenes are like still life paintings made with words and you can visualise the composition of the pictures as you read. (I am really looking forward to reading The Masterpiece, I love reading novels about art and artists. )
The translation by Brian Nelson for the Oxford World’s Classics edition is excellent, and I really like the cover image which is a detail from The Square in Front of Les Halles by Victor-Gabriel Gilbert. It’s a remarkable contrast with my copy of the 1955 Elek edition cover at left, which emphasises Zola’s theme of the Fat in conflict with the Thin! (You can see more lurid and tasteless covers of this title in Jonathan’s amazing collection at The Works of Emile Zola). Gilbert’s lovely painting – which for some reason still has copyright restrictions so you can only view the complete painting by visiting one of the sites that sells prints of it is one of a series of paintings of the markets by Gilbert, and I was able to use the ones at Wikigallery since this blog is not a commercial site. I have used the collection to make the slide show below. There are also wonderful B&W photos of the markets here (click to enlarge each image).
Author: Emile Zola
Title: The Belly of Paris
Publisher: Oxford World’s Classics, 2009
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Fishpond.
Fishpond: The Belly of Paris (Oxford World’s Classics)
Cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers