Exceptional Excerpts: The Belly of Paris #3 by Émile Zola

There are so many wonderful passages in Le Ventre de Paris that I am joining Jonathan and posting an excerpt. This is only part of the lengthy, but interesting, description of Gavard. It appears early in the second fifth of the book. The translation, by Ernest Alfred Vizetelly,  is titled The Fat and the Thin, and is available free from Project Gutenberg.

Fat-and-the-Thin_Aegypan_GR02

 

As he was in the habit of visiting the Quenu-Gradelles almost daily, he determined to take up his residence nearer to them, and came to live in the Rue de la Cossonnerie. The neighbouring markets, with their noisy uproar and endless chatter, quite fascinated him; and he decided to hire a stall in the poultry pavilion, just for the purpose of amusing himself and occupying his idle hours with all the gossip. Thenceforth he lived amidst ceaselesstittle-tattle, acquainted with every little scandal in the neighbourhood, his head buzzing with the incessant yelping around him. He blissfully tasted a thousand titillating delights, having at last found his true element, and bathing in it, with the voluptuous pleasure of a carp swimming in the sunshine. Florent would sometimes go to see him at his stall.

And a few sentences later:

At last, in the middle of the alley, near the water-taps, he found Gavard ranting away in his shirt-sleeves, in front of his stall, with his arms crossed over the bib of his blue apron. He reigned there, in a gracious, condescending way, over a group of ten or twelve women. He was the only male dealer in that part of the market. He was so fond of wagging his tongue that he had quarrelled with five or six girls whom he had successively engaged to attend to his stall, and had now made up his mind to sell his goods himself, naively explaining that the silly women spent the whole blessed day in gossiping, and that it was beyond his power to manage them.

 

Advertisements

‘Rome’ (Part 1) by Émile Zola

Zola_Rome_fcX-700pxI’m halfway through Rome, the second volume of the Three Cities trilogy by Zola, and I have to admit it’s a slow slog. After Lourdes I thought I knew what to expect, I knew it wasn’t going to be top-class Zola but I thought it would be readable in its way, but Rome may defeat me yet. I’m taking a break and I may continue at a slower pace, maybe a chapter or two every week or so, or I may just pack it in.

Rome continues the story of Abbé Pierre Froment, who first appeared in Lourdes, and who seems to have regained his faith in some sense. I can never quite understand the Froment character as he seems to have lost his faith before Lourdes began only to accept by the end of that novel that, ok, he’s not a believer but he may as well carry on as a Priest as he can’t do anything else. By the beginning of Rome he’s regained a sense of faith in the form of Catholic Socialism and he’s off to Rome to meet the Pope in order to convince him that he and the Catholic hierarchy should renounce all earthly pleasures and return to a purer form of christianity and help the poor. Now, I’m pretty sure that every reader then, and now, would be certain that in no credible version of the Universe would the Pope agree to such a scheme. So Pierre has the impossible task of convincing the Pope of his plans; but before that he has to arrange a meeting with him and to convince him to get his book, New Rome, taken off the Index of banned books. He has to battle his way past the Papal bureaucracy which seems determined to thwart him at every step.

From the short synopsis this seems quite appealing to me; it sounds similar to Kafka’s The Castle, a tale of a fight against a powerful bureaucracy or one of my favourite films, Patrice Leconte’s Ridicule where the main character has to battle his way through Louis XVI’s court to gain access to the king and ultimately to get funds to drain a mosquito-ridden swamp back home. But Rome consists largely of Zola’s travel notes from his visit to Rome in 1894. We get a tourist’s guide to many of Rome’s buildings at the beginning of the novel, a guide of some of Rome’s ruins, the Appian Way, the catacombs, the Sistine chapel together with a comparison between Michelangelo and Botticelli, the view from St Peter’s and we witness a public Papal event called Peter’s Pence Fund, amongst others. In an attempt to add some drama to the book he invents a Shakespearian subplot that involves Benedetta and Dario who are in love with each other; only there’s a slight problem because Benedetta is already married. As the marriage was never consumated she is trying to get divorced, thus introducing her own battle with the Papal authorities. And so, the first half of Rome reads as a pretty dull tourist’s guide to Rome combined with a bit of history and a melodramatic love story. The book only becomes slightly interesting when Pierre is encountering the obstructive Papal bureaucrats or when they all go to visit some of the ‘lower classes’, even if Zola’s description of them portrays them as little better than lazy pigs rolling about in filth.

It’s interesting to see what others thought of Rome. In the introduction to the physical book I have (see image) the author has this to say of Zola’s work after the Rougon-Macquart series:

…the Three Cities and the Four Gospels will subsequently prove to be fairly mechanically assembled, with plot subservient to ideas. Characters now tend to be stereotypes or mouthpieces, and to recur not in the Balzacian sense – from novel to novel – but at regular and predictable intervals within each.

This is a fair point. With Lourdes Zola seems to be just using the form of the novel because that is what he’s familiar with, whereas it would have worked better as a piece of journalism. With Rome all the tourist stuff and the love-story are just add-ons to make the piece look like a novel; he could have expressed his ideas better in an essay if he could no longer be bothered with plot or character. One of the main criticisms I had with the book is that we rarely know what Pierre, or any of the other characters, are thinking so that all we get are third person descriptions of objects and events. Graham King is a bit more sympathetic to Zola and Rome:

Rome is a long, wide-ranging and complex novel with more merits, I think, than deficiencies. The problem for the modern reader is that it suffers from a marked loss of topicality…Its historical background, vital then, is irrelevant now: Pope Leo XIII’s emerging social conscience, which brought about the establishment of Catholic trade unions.

And so, I’m faced with the decision to continue or not. Because I’ve read the introduction to the book and biographies of Zola I know how Rome ends, so I may just take the less painful way out and abandon it. The next decision will be whether to continue with the final volume, Paris.

This was cross-posted on my blog Intermittencies of the Mind.

Lourdes-Rome-Paris

‘Lourdes’ by Émile Zola

Zola_Lourdes_fcXC-700pxLourdes was first published in 1894. Zola first conceived of the book when he visited Lourdes in September 1891 and was taken aback by the number of pilgrims that visited the shrine to the Virgin Mary. He returned the following year during August, which is the busiest period for pilgrimages, and in Zola’s typical fashion he spent time with the pilgrims, carrying out interviews and observations to form the basis of this book.

The book is set over a five-day period starting on Friday 19th August, with each day covering approximately a hundred pages each. The main characters are the Abbé Pierre Froment and his childhood sweetheart Marie de Guersaint, who has been paralysed since the age of thirteen when she fell from a horse. Day one covers the trip by train from Paris to Lourdes and we are introduced to a whole host of characters mostly made up of those pilgrims who have a variety of ailments and who are hoping for a miracle cure at Lourdes. Pierre’s and Marie’s story is revealed early on in the novel and it is noted that Pierre has lost his faith. Marie is aware that Pierre has lost his faith but she is optimistic that she will be cured at Lourdes and that such a miracle may help Pierre believe again. So, if Pierre has lost his faith, why doesn’t he leave the priesthood? He reasons that he is permanently marked as different than other men and that having kept his vow of chastity he should be able to conquer his mind as well. As for Marie’s illness, the doctors are not agreed on the cause of it and are unable to cure her, indeed one young doctor suggests that it is psychosomatic and that a cure at Lourdes may be possible if she believes in it herself.

He even predicted how the miracle would come about; it would be like a lightning stroke, an awakening, an exaltation of the entire being, whilst the evil, that horrid, diabolical weight which stifled the poor girl would once more ascend and fly away as though emerging by her mouth.

When the pilgrims arrive the next day they settle in to their accommodation and eagerly wait for their visit to the Grotto at Lourdes. Pierre meets an old friend Dr. Chassaigne, whose story mirrors Pierre’s, in that he has lost his ‘faith’ in medicine following the deaths of his wife and daughter; his own inability to save either has crushed his spirit and his only hope is for God to re-unite them with his death.

Many believe that bathing in the waters at Lourdes will cure them of their illnesses. This belief is so strong that even the corpse of a man that died on the train is immersed in the waters at the piscina in the hope that he will live again. Pierre is persuaded to help some of the patients enter the waters and here Zola describes the state of the waters in which the sick are to bathe:

…the water was scarcely inviting; for, through fear lest the output of the source should not suffice, the Fathers of the Grotto only allowed the water of the baths to be changed twice a day. And nearly a hundred patients being dipped in the same water, it can be imagined what a terrible soup the latter at last became. All manner of things were found in it, so that it was like a frightful consommé of all ailments, a field of cultivation for every kind of poisonous germ, a quintessence of the most dreaded contagious diseases; the miraculous feature of it all being that men should emerge alive from their immersion in such filth.

Meanwhile Marie visits the Grotto and prays to the Virgin Mary to be cured. Over the next couple of days Pierre visits the Verification Office, where all claims of miracles are assessed by a team of doctors, visits some of the local shops that sell all sorts of souvenirs, accompanies Marie’s father to a communal eating establishment run by some nuns and visits a local barber who rants constantly against the ‘new’ Lourdes that has appeared since the pilgrimages, despite making money by taking in lodgers.

The story culminates with Marie’s cure during a night-time vigil at the Grotto. Pierre arrives in the morning to take Marie back to their accommodation and witnesses Marie’s cure:

But all at once, when the Blessed Sacrament passed by, and she saw the star-like monstrance sparkling in the sun, a sensation of dizziness came over her. She imagined herself sruck by lightning. Her eyes caught fire from the glare which flashed upon her, and at last regained their flame of life, shining out like stars. And under the influence of a wave of blood her face became animated, suffused with colour, beaming with a smile of joy and health. And, suddenly, Pierre saw her rise, stand upright in her little car, staggering, stuttering, and finding in her mind only these caressing words: “Oh, my friend! Oh, my friend!”

The crowd cheer and applaud her, she sobs, and walks, Pierre sobs as well. After all the jubilation Marie ends up at the Verification Office and after much debate it is declared a miracle; only Pierre, who knows the true nature of her illness, is sceptical. And so the last day consists of the return trip; Pierre and Marie have to decide what they want to do with their lives. Will it be together or will they stay apart?

The book is split into five chapters, one for each day, and then each chapter is split into five sections as well. The last section of each chapter recounts the story of Bernadette Soubirous who is the girl to whom the Virgin Mary appeared to eighteen times in 1858 and is the source of the fame of Lourdes as a holy site. Theses sections are interesting enough and give some important background information to the reader. Zola is brilliant at crowd scenes and one is included here, where a whole chapter is devoted to a night procession. There are also some funny episodes and some analysis of the Lourdes phenomena from an outsider’s perspective; but I must admit I had problems reading Lourdes, it proceeds at such a slow plodding pace that it was quite tedious to read at times. It felt so static and the structure of the novel was too restrictive, especially where two of the five chapters are taken up with the train journey to and from Lourdes. At times it felt more like a piece of journalism than a novel and may have been better if it had been written up as an article. Unlike Zola’s previous novels where his extensive research added to the stories, here it just bogged it down in too much detail as he tried to cram everything in. The other criticism is that there is no tension to the story; we know Pierre has lost his faith, we’re pretty sure that Marie will be cured and because Pierre accepts that her illness is psychosomatic he is unlikely to consider her ‘cure’ a miracle and therefore it is not likely to help him regain his faith. Even the multitude of characters is a bit repetitive as they’re all defined by their illnesses.

I was intrigued to see what other critics thought of Lourdes and as always I found Graham King‘s summary the most accurate and entertaining:

Why then isn’t Lourdes read today? With its potentially explosive ingredients, it should be ticking away like a time bomb, even after all these years. The trouble is that despite the proliferation of characters, the swirling, nervous crowds and the fascinating conflict between the sacred and secular activities, the narrative has lead boots, with one foot anchored firmly in a single location, Lourdes, and the other, equally immobile, in Pierre Fromant’s mind. It is a little like being confined to a dreary little holiday hotel for days on end because of bad weather; even though we are in the company of a raconteur who desperately tries to entertain us, it isn’t what we came for.

Although I had a physical copy of the novel (the one pictured) I ended up reading most of it on my kindle, partly because of the ease but also because the print was so small in the book. Both were versions of the Vizetelly translation which can be found at Project Gutenberg. The translation is a bit old-fashioned and stuffy and the book could do with a more modern translation but it was still quite readable and I don’t think it would have been bowldlerised that much, if at all.

Despite the faults with Lourdes I shall continue with the others…next stop Rome.

This was cross-posted on my blog Intermittencies of the Mind.

Lourdes-Rome-Paris

‘L’Argent’ Cover Images

L’Argent was first published in 1891 and has been translated as Money by Vizetelly and more recently by Valerie Minogue for Oxford University Press.

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

Creative Disruption in Paradise

ParadiseOn-line commentators have now discovered creative disruption – or, more aggressively, creative destruction – the price of progress as new technology and methods disrupt the comfortable status quo. The innovation is not usually the result of customer demand, but of imaginative foresight by some entrepreneur. As Henry Ford is said to have said, “If I asked the customer what he wanted, he would have said ‘a faster horse.’”

You can find a startling example of 19th century creative disruption in Emile Zola’s The Ladies’ Paradise (Au Bonheur des Dames), published in 1883, but set in the time of Louis Napoleon about 20 years earlier. Baron Haussmann is dismembering the old Paris of narrow streets and opening up the broad avenues we enjoy today. Light, air, fast movement – shopping! An ambitious young man,Octave Mouret, foresees how it can be and comes into the resources to make it happen. Don’t stock your goods and wait for your price – turn them over once, twice, thirty times a year, taking a small profit each time. The system depends on volume and volume comes from wooing the customer, giving the ladies (for whom this paradise has been designed) reasons to return again and again. The individual shopper may feel seduced, but Mouret has actually created a machine oblivious to humane desires.

But the furnace-like heat with which the shop was ablaze came above all from the selling, from the bustle at the counters, which could be felt behind the walls. There was the continuous roar of the machine at work, of customers crowding into the departments, dazzled by the merchandise, then propelled towards the cash-desk. And it was all regulatedwith the remorselessness of a machine: the vast horde of women were as if caught in the wheels of an inevitable force.

Some critics, including Mouret’s fictional enemies, believe that he really hates women and his retail machine is a form of revenge, but I don’t think it is as simple as that. As he tours his emporium, Mouret expresses joy in the successful logic of his creation. He has power and he has been able to work his will to control a great enterprise. He is satisfied to be what he is.

He repeated that he was a man of his own time. Really, people would have to be deformed, they must have something wrong with their brains and limbs to refuse to work in an age which offered so many possibilities, when the whole century was pressing forward into the future.

Young Denise, the naïve sales girl from the country works in the Paradise and experiences it with a total lack of the control which gives Mouret such pleasure. She sees what it costs, yet regards it as inevitable.

While pretending to joke, Denise produced sound arguments: the middlemen – factory agents, representatives, commission-agents – were disappearing, this was an important factor in reducing prices; besides, the manufacturers could no longer exist without the big shops, for as soon as one of them lost their custom, bankruptcy became inevitable ; in short, it was a natural development of business, it was impossible to stop things going the way they ought to, when everyone was working for it, whether they liked it or not.

Although Denise sees the Paradise as a natural development, a single destination where everything is for sale, she alone is not for sale. She never really explains why except to say that that is what she is, just as Mouret is what he is. You must read the novel to see how Zola successfully maneuvers the final disruptions of the relationship between Mouret and Denise.

 

‘Pot-Bouille’ Cover Images

Pot-Bouille was first published in 1882 and has been translated as Pot Luck, Piping Hot!, Restless House etc.

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

‘Thérèse Raquin’ Cover Images

Thérèse Raquin was first published in 1867.

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

‘Au Bonheur des Dames’ Covers

Au Bonheur des Dames was published in 1883 and has been translated as The Ladies’ Paradise, Ladies’ Delight, Shop Girls of Paris etc.

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