‘Le Ventre de Paris’ Cover Images

Le Ventre de Paris was first published in 1873 and has been translated as The Belly of Paris, The Fat and the Thin and Savage Paris.

For images of other covers please look on the Images page.

Exceptional Excerpts: The Belly of Paris #2 by Émile Zola

The Belly of Paris cover

The Belly of Paris

The majority of the novel takes place in the Parisian food market, Les Halles which is ‘the belly of Paris’. This excerpt is from the final page of the book and is an excellent ending to the story, symbolising the defeat of the ‘Thins’ by the respectable ‘Fats’, the petit bourgeois shop keepers. Although it consists of the final few paragraphs, I don’t think reading this excerpt will ruin the book for anyone that hasn’t read it.

On his left, La Belle Lisa, looking out from the charcuterie, occupied the entire width of the doorway. Her linen had never been as white as it was now; never had her pink, refreshed complexion been so neatly framed in smooth waves of hair. She exhibited the deep calm of repletion, a massive tranquillity unruffled even by a smile. She was a picture of absolute quietude, of perfect bliss, not only untroubled but lifeless, as she bathed in the warm air. She seemed, in her tightly stretched bodice, to be still digesting the happiness of the day before; her plump hands, lost in the folds of her apron, were not even outstretched to grasp the happiness of the day, for it was sure to fall into them. And the shop window beside her seemed to display the same bliss. It too had recovered; the stuffed tongues lay red and healthy, the hams were once more showing their handsome yellow faces, and the strings of sausages no longer had the sad look that had so upset Quenu. Hearty laughter rang out from the kitchen at the back, accompanied by the joyful rattle of saucepans. Once again the charcuterie exuded health, a kind of greasy health. The great strips of bacon and the sides of pork that hung against the marble brought to the picture the rounded contours of the belly, the belly triumphant, while Lisa, standing there, motionless and imposing, greeted Les Halles with her large, well-fed face.

Then both ladies turned to each other. La Belle Madame Lebigre and La Belle Madame Quenu exchanged a friendly greeting.

Claude, who had no doubt forgotten to have any supper the night before, felt angry at seeing them both looking so well and so respectable, with their great breasts thrust out before them; tightening his belt, he muttered bitterly:

‘Respectable people… What bastards!’

(The Belly of Paris, by Émile Zola, Oxford University Press, translated by Brian Nelson, 2007, p.275)

The Belly of Paris

bellypfparis_ZolaThe Belly of Paris is Les Halles, the great food market celebrated by Emile Zola in this 1873 novel. The only previous book I have read by Zola is the more famous Nana. I liked this one better because — I was about to say –of the more realistic people and situations. That’s not quite it. Zola is called a realist, but he uses his very sensual descriptions to make emotional points. For example, when the old gossips get together to tittle tattle with each other they meet in the cheese market.

All around them the cheeses were stinking…. A parmesan added its aromatic tang to the thick, dull smell of the others…. Then came the strong-smelling cheeses…. and, finally, stronger than all the others, the olivets, wrapped in walnut leaves, like the carcasses of animals which peasants cover with branches as they lie rotting in the hedgerow under the blazing sun.

Florent, an idealistic revolutionary, has escaped from his unjust imprisonment on Cayenne (Devils Island) and returned to Paris where he works in Les Halles and plans the downfall of the very Bourgeois government. He knows the sumptuous market is not the place for him. In his very difficult life he has become thin and he identifies with the thin people. Les Halles is the place of supply for the fat people, and the fat people include his half brother, his sister-in-law and all the people who mock his ideals. Florent is not eloquent but his artist friend is.

Claude shook his fist at them. He was exasperated by all this joyousness in the streets and on the rooftops. He cursed the Fat people, for they had won. All around he could see nothing but Fat people, increasing ins size, bursting with health, greeting another day of eating and digesting.

The sadness of the ending is not just that Florent’s impractical schemes have failed. The sadness is that the fat people prefer eating and drinking to the pursuit of justice.

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)