36. The Belly of Paris, by Émile Zola

30 Oct

I am reading this book entirely wrong.

Émile Zola was a social critic, best known for his work detailing the horrors of the lives of the working class miners in Germinal. The Belly of Paris chronicles the struggles of the Thin battling the Fat—i.e. the virtuous poor vs the fat bourgeoisie—in the rapidly industrializing Paris of the 1850s. The book’s centerpiece is Les Halles, the old food markets in Paris which were torn down in the 1970s, but were new at Zola’s time. To Zola they were a marvel and horror of the industrializing world.

….like some vast modern machine, a steam engine or a cauldron supplying the digestive needs of a whole people, a huge metal belly, bolted and riveted, constructed of wood, glass, and iron, with the elegance and power of a machine working away with firey furnaces and wildly turning wheels.

The emergence of mass society horrified Zola, and many of his descriptions submerge humans into the industrial landscapes surrounding them. He also pretty clearly doesn’t want the food to sound tasty. We get “swelling hearts of the lettuces,” carrots that “glowed blood-red,” turnips that “became incandescent in the triumphant radiance of the sun,” and cartloads of cabbages “being discharged,” among many other descriptions of the slimy, stinking foul food.

But this is why I’m reading it wrong, because from Brooklyn 2015, Les Halles looks rosy. All that food coming in fresh every day from the countryside! An entire vast metropolis eating without refrigeration! I find myself looking past the author’s incandescent turnips and bloody carrots to all those amazing piles of food, and not thinking what I’m supposed to think. And I’m aided by this in the enormous amount of realistic description of the daily life of the market in the novel. It’s supposed to be a technique to convey the crushing scale of modern life in the 1850s, but it’s also a pretty cool historical document.

Nor do I sympathize with the right characters. The novel’s “fat” bourgeoisie are supposed to be bad. Zola is critical of their gluttony, and spends many passages excoriating the evil, complacent, plump woman who owns the sausage shop and who is the foil for his “thin” main character, Florent. But to me her successful small business and pride in her craft make her more of a figure of admiration than scorn. So what, she’s plump!? She makes artisinal blood sausage.

Here’s a selection from a passage in which she’s described as “the queen of all this dangling fat and meat”:

Lisa remained standing at her counter, her head turned slightly in the direction of Les Halles…. Around her rose the smell of all the cooking meats; she was as if enveloped, in her heavy calm, by the aroma of truffles. She looked beautifully fresh that afternoon. The whiteness of all the dishes heightened the whiteness of her apron and sleeves, and set off her plump neck and rosy cheeks, which had the same soft tones as the hams and the same transparent pallor as the fats.

Yuck. But I still like her.

Some of the tension I’m feeling is inherent in the book, too, and possibly in Zola’s social perspective. His good “thin” character, Florent, is a vaguely dissatisfied man who is wrongly arrested by the regime, spends time in a penal colony, and escapes to return to Paris. Les Halles makes him sick, but he never tries even to leave the neighborhood. Eventually, when he fails to look for other work, his successful shopkeeper relative (Lisa) takes him in, treats him with fairness, and gets him a job there. Florent finds this situation intolerable, and gets everyone in trouble with more vague political action. If he’s the alternative to the bourgeoisie, he seems to be intentionally an infantile and ineffectual one. The bad-guy fishwives and shop-keepers look good by comparison.

When Florent is deported again and everyone goes back to making sausage, I was not disappointed.

4 Responses to “36. The Belly of Paris, by Émile Zola”

  1. Amateur Reader (Tom) October 30, 2015 at 1:27 am #

    Zola is one of the Fat – and he knows it.

    • Ivalleria October 30, 2015 at 1:47 am #

      Is he really!? I guess that would explain it!

    • Ivalleria October 30, 2015 at 1:47 am #

      Oh, hey, I think I read this book because you read it, by the way. Love your blog.

    • Amateur Reader (Tom) October 30, 2015 at 1:54 am #

      That is a pleasant thing to hear!

      You highlight the contradictions of the novel quite well.

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