Borne

“Once, it was different. Once, people had homes and parents and went to schools. Cities existed within countries and those countries had leaders. Travel could be for adventure or recreation, not survival. But by the time I was grown up, the wider context was a sick joke. Incredible, how a slip could become a freefall and a freefall could become a hell where we lived on as ghosts in a haunted world.”
Jeff VanderMeer, Borne

Chihuly Glass (click to enlarge)

 

I have now read all the Borne series of books and stories by Jeff VanderMeer, pretty much – as far as I know… but the thing is I read them out of order. And I think that was a good thing.

   First of all was the newest Borne book – The Dead Astronauts, which I read on behest of the Wild Detectives Book Club (back in the day when you would actually go to a book club). The book was incredibly weird – so difficult to read that I thought that would be the end of the Borne Dystopia for me.

    But before I finished The Dead Astronauts I stumbled across and online short story/novela written about the same world – quite a bit earlier as it turns out – The Situation. This detailed a very strange world but told the story in a familiar way – the destruction of everything told as a story of corporate back-stabbing. I really enjoyed The Situation and that led me to check out The Strange Bird from the library and devour that short novel. It too told a strange tale but was written in a familiar style – that of a quest or journey. It was set in the same world and had a few characters in common with the other two works – enough to continue to increase my interest.

    So, I bought a copy of the central novel in the series Borne – and finished it late last night. It was really good, a crackerjack of a novel. The most complete of the books, it explains a lot of what what mysterious and curious in the others… explains some, maybe not a lot, really, … and definitely not everything.

    At the book club discussion of The Dead Astronauts someone describe Borne as a love story.  And it is the typical girl finds odd plant in fur of giant bear, girl falls in love with plant, plant turns out not to be a plant but a ruthless killer, girl loses plant/killer, and finally girl discovers her love is something else entirely type of story. Yeah, it is a love story.

    Having read it last it was inevitable that I would read it trying to ferret out the connections with the other works. The three Dead Astronauts from their own epynomous novel made an appearance in Borne but they didn’t do much probably because they were dead. The story of The Strange Bird and Borne are dovetailed – the identical tale told from two different points of view and in very different styles – the same characters populate both.

   The Situation is a prequel to all the others. It contains the origin of the Giant Bear, Mord, along with other clues. In Borne, it is strongly hinted that Wick is the narrator of The Situation but I wasn’t absolutely sure. In researching this, I came across a graphic version of The Situation  from Tor books – where Wick is named explicitly. Now I wonder if Scarskirt is the Magician from Borne and The Strange Bird. She is described as someone who “stared at reflective surfaces all day” which is a connection. I don’t know – but it’s fun to speculate. At any rate, click that link and look at the drawings – they are very good.

  So now I’m done with Borne and I can get back to reading Zola. Except… now I’m thinking about VanderMeer’s Annihilation (I liked the movie) and the rest of its Southern Reach trilogy. We’ll see. So many books, so little time.

    By the way, I’ve been reading rumors that AMC has optioned Borne for a miniseries. Wow, I have no idea how this goes onto the screen. It would be like a science fiction version of Game of Thrones… except on acid.

Short Story Of the Day, I Can See Right Through You by Kelly Link

It’s hard for the demon lover to grow old.

—-Kelly Link, I Can See Right Through You

Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas, Texas

I first read about Kelly Link and her fiction when I read that Salon had named her collection of short stories, Stranger Things Happen, a book of the year. I tracked down the paperback and read it – and it was as good as advertised. I’ve been a fan of her work – a weird melange of oddly modern adult stories told as twisted fairy tales – ever since.

I’ve linked to two of her short stories before – Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (unfortunately, no longer online) and Catskin. Buy some of her books – and visit her publishing house – especially since she offers so much that she has written and/or published under a creative commons license.

So today I’ll link to I Can See Right Through You – it starts out fragmented and jumping around and then settles down and then veers into something a little unexpected. Worth it… genius, really.

Read it here:

I Can See Right Through You by Kelly Link

from McSweeney’s

Kelly Link Homepage

Small Beer Press

Kelly Link’s Twitter

The Strange Bird

For he had no typewriter ribbon left and only fifty sheets of paper and he counted on the stabbing imprint of the keys to make an impression like a branding, and when he had used the fifty sheets, front and back, he would start again, typing over what he had already impressed upon the page.

—- Jeff VanderMeer, The Strange Bird

 

Bird, Scavenging along an Interstate Highway in Texas

Back in the olden days, the days when we did things, I would go to a book club in a bookstore on the other side of town and join a group that would read the same book and discuss it. It seems so long ago.

One book we read was Jeff VanderMeer’s Dead Astronauts. I really can’t say I enjoyed the book – it was too, too difficult to read. I looked forward to the discussion. I was curious about what everybody thought – but the thoughts were jumbled. I asked, at the end of the evening, “Would anyone here have finished this book on their own – without the pressure of having book club?” The answer was a resounding NO.

Though I won’t say the book was enjoyable, it was interesting… and it was… haunting is the best I can come up with.

And when I came across an online short story written by VanderMeer – The Situation – I read it and wrote about it. It was another fabulous story but told in a more conventional way – not too difficult to get through.

And then… well, there’s this thing I do. I always like to have some short books laying around – something to read when I don’t have very much time, energy, or patience. What I do is I walk down the aisles of the library in the fiction section simply looking at the physical books. Then I pull the small and slim volumes out and see if they are something I might be interested in. This, again, was back in the olden days when there were libraries.

The last book like that I checked out – I looked at it and, surprise, it was another by Jeff VanderMeer – a short novel, novela really, called The Strange Bird.

And it, again was in a different style. It was a straightforward (though bizarre) tale told as a hero’s journey – like The Odyssey, or The Alchemist,  or The Hobbit, or something like that.  The protagonist is the eponymous “Strange Bird” – a creature that may have started out as a bird but had been manipulated in a horrific futuristic bio-tech lab – bits added from many different animals… and humans… fantastic properties and abilities… until what was left was an intelligent, damaged, powerful, fearful, beautiful, hurt and most of all – unique thing – the Strange Bird:

In the lab, so many of the scientists had said, “forgive me” or “I am so sorry” before doing something irrevocable to the animals in their cages. Because they felt they had the right. Because the situation was extreme and the world was dying. So they had gone on doing the same things that had destroyed the world, to save it. Even a Strange Bird perched on a palm tree on an artificial island with a moat full of hungry crocodiles below could understand the problem with that logic.

—- Jeff VanderMeer, The Strange Bird

Even though the styles are varied – the Strange Bird is a “Borne” novel and The Situation is a “Borne” novela and The Dead Astronauts is another “Borne” novel. They are set in a fantastic world established in the linchpin novel Borne by Jeff VanderMeer. This is a dystopian earth destroyed by the experiments conducted by The Company – a giant biotech conglomerate. The blasted world is left with the few remaining humans battling for survival with the genetic monsters created by The Company – now escaped and running amok.

There are characters and locations shared (though often at different times – different stages of their lives) – Charlie X, Rachel and her lover Wick (who sells drugs in the form of customized beetles that produce memories when shoved in one’s ear), the Balcony Cliffs, and especially the giant flying killer bear, Mord. Borne himself(herself? itself?) is mentioned briefly in The Strange Bird.

So, now, what choice do I have? I picked up a copy of Borne – will read it next.

 

 

L’Assommoir

“While the storm was erupting, she stayed, staring at it, watching the shafts of lightning, like someone who could see serious things, far away in the future in these sudden flashes of light.”
Emile Zola, L’Assommoir

 I am now a good chunk (have been reading for a year and a half) into Emile Zola’s twenty volume Rougon Macquat series of novels. Attacking this pile of books in the recommended reading order:

  • La Fortune des Rougon (1871) (The Fortune of the Rougons)
  • Son Excellence Eugène Rougon (1876) (His Excellency Eugene Rougon/ His Excellency)
  • La Curée (1871-2) (The Kill)
  • L’Argent (1891) (Money)
  • Le Rêve (1888) (The Dream)
  • La Conquête de Plassans (1874) (The Conquest of Plassans/A Priest in the House)
  • Pot-Bouille (1882) (Pot Luck/Restless House/Piping Hot)
  • Au Bonheur des Dames (1883) (The Ladies’ Paradise/Shop Girls of Paris/Ladies’ Delight)
  • La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret (1875) (The Sin of Father Mouret/Abbe Mouret’s Transgression)
  • Une Page d’amour (1878) (A Lesson in Love/A Love Episode/A Page of Love/A Love Affair)
  • Le Ventre de Paris (1873) (The Belly of Paris/The Fat and the Thin/Savage Paris/The Markets of Paris)
  • La Joie de Vivre (1884) (The Joys of Living/Joy of Life/How Jolly Life Is/Zest for Life)
  • L’Assommoir (1877) (The Dram Shop/The Gin Palace/Drink/Drunkard)
  • L’Œuvre (1886) (The Masterpiece/A Masterpiece/His Masterpiece)
  • La Bête Humaine (1890) (The Beast in the Man/The Human Beast/The Monomaniac)
  • Germinal (1885)
  • Nana (1880)
  • La Terre (1887) (The Earth/The Soil)
  • La Débâcle (1892) (The Downfall/The Smash-up/The Debacle)
  • Le Docteur Pascal (1893) (Doctor Pascal)

The next one up (the thirteenth) was L’Assommoir – I picked up an excellent Penguin Classics translation by Robin Buss entitled The Drinking Den (there is no good English translation for the French word L’Assommoir).

L’Absinthe (detail) by Edgar Degas

From the article 10 Intoxicating Facts About Edgar Degas’s L’Absinthe

9. IT INSPIRED A LITERARY MASTERPIECE.

L’Assommoir by celebrated French novelist Émile Zola was an exploration of alcoholism among the poor of Paris. Zola must have seen the painting during its disastrous 1876 debut, as his book was published the following year. The author credited Degas for some of L’Assommoir ‘s imagery, telling him, “I quite plainly described some of your pictures in more than one place in my pages.”

It took me five months to finish  L’Assommoir – well, actually I read it in a week – I spent five months reading other stuff. I guess that’s all right.

After reading La Joie de Vivre  I had to decide –  I had already read L’Assommoir – along with four of the next five. Years ago, before the internet, I was able to get my hands on L’Assommoir, Germinal, La Bête Humaine, and Nana – but none of the others in the Rougon-Macquart Cycle. So, do I re-read L’Assommoir? Or skip ahead to L’Œuvre (which looks really interesting).

I decided to re-read the ones I had poured through already. At least with L’Assommoir I’m glad I did.

First of all it’s arguably (along with Germinal) the best book in the series. It’s a terribly sad story but an arresting one, full of fascinating full-blooded characters filling a complete world. We can’t live (thank God) in the world of the underbelly of Paris in the Second French Empire – but the book takes us there and we can feel the moments of passionate fun along with the grinding poverty and ultimate doom of a group of people we come to know well and care deeply about.

The story follows Gervaise Macquart, who we met briefly in the first novel in the series,La Fortune des Rougon, where she ran away from her country town of Plassans to Paris with her lover, Lantier. She works as a washerwoman and has two children with Lantier until he leaves her for another woman. Then she marries a non-drinking roofer, Coupeau and her life takes a turn for the better. She is able to put together the funds to open her own laundry, hire employees, and her daughter is born (Nana – who will have her own book later on, as will Gervaise’s other two children) – everything is going great. This is Zola, however, and he accounts for the madness in the Rougon-Macquart family and after Coupeau is severely injured in an accident they go on a long, heartbreaking, alcohol-fueled fall into abject poverty, disaster, and madness.

The second reason I was glad I re-read the book is that I was able to get a good great translation. As I’ve written before all Zola’s books are available for free in ebook form from Project Gutenberg. However, these translations done by  the Vizetelly family are not the best. Henry Vizetelly was imprisoned over the publication of his translation of La Terre, which was considered offensive. Subsequent editions of all of Zola’s novels were heavily edited by his son Ernest in order to avoid further prosecutions.

I have learned to bite the bullet and buy a modern translation if one is available. This is especially true of L’Assommoir. It is filled with street slang and risque scenes which are omitted from the Vizetelly versions. The Penguin edition I had was translated by Robin Buss and was very well done. I’m going to look for his translations of any French novels in the future.

The arc of the story of L’Assommoir is heartbreaking but I loved the structure of the novel. It is built around a series (pretty much one per chapter) of set pieces. In keeping with Zola’s style of literary naturalism these scenes are finely detailed, rollicking, and the reader feels in the heart of the action. The wedding  (with a tumultuous visit to the Louvre), Gervaise’s triumphant feast (the zenith of her life which also contains the seeds of her downfall), and the final battle with alcoholic madness of her husband Coupeau, are some of the most famous – but there are more.

So, if you want an introduction to the seedier side of Paris, an introduction to Zola and naturalist literature, with a great (although heartbreaking) story – you can’t do better than L’Assommoir.

 

 

Can You Spare A Square?

“The worst job in the whole world must be recycling toilet paper.”
Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

I always stop at a handful of Little Free Libraries on my bike rides around my ‘hood. I don’t pick up books (though I look to see if there is an especially interesting one – there hasn’t been) – rather, I drop books off. That helps me deal with my natural bookish hoarder tendencies.

Today, at one near my house, I spotted this extra addition.

Little Free Library near my house – with extra goodies.

Little Free Library near my house.

Six rolls of precious toilet paper tucked in among the tomes.

So if you live on the east side of Richardson, and are desperate for a roll, contact me and I’ll give you the location.

One Book In My Hand And A Stack Of Others On the Floor

“I like best to have one book in my hand, and a stack of others on the floor beside me, so as to know the supply of poppy and mandragora will not run out before the small hours.”
Dorothy Parker, The Collected Dorothy Parker

Recycled Books, Denton, Texas (taken a long time ago, obviously)

There was a time when we could go to bookstores. Especially big ol’ huge used bookstores (like Recycled Books) with rooms – a confused labyrinth of passages between towering shelves – that odd quiet of millions of sheets of paper adsorbing the sound – the slight smell of mold and ancient wisdom. I would stand in a place like that (or the library) and feel panic because I would never live long enough to read one percent of this – so much knowledge that I would never possess – haunted by the thought that somewhere in there – in that massive agglomeration – is the one book that would enlighten me and tell me exactly what I need to know and I don’t know enough to find it and wouldn’t know it if I saw it.

It feels like those days are so long in the past – it seemed like we could do anything (except smoke in the elevator) – the memories are fading – will those days ever come back again?

Recycled Books
Denton, Texas

Recycled Books Records CDs
Denton, Texas
(click to enlarge)

Recycled Books, Denton, Texas

 

 

Joy Cannot Fend Off Evil

“But, in the end, joy cannot fend off evil.
Joy can only remind you why you fight.”
Jeff VanderMeer, Dead Astronauts

(click to enlarge)
Mural, Deep Ellum
Dallas, Texas

OK, it was Monday, the end of work, I was so very tired, I didn’t have my car with me, I had to get clear across town, if I really wanted to go there, it was cold, it was raining, it was dark,  I thought about not going, I would get back home so very late, here’s how I would have to travel:

Work Shuttle – DART Red Line – walking downtown – Dallas Streetcar to Bishop Arts – Walk to Restaurant – eat a hamburger – Walk to BookstoreWild Detectives Book Club discussion of Dead Astronauts – Walk to Streetcar – Streetcar downtown – walk to DART station – Red Line to Spring Valley Station – wait for bus – DART bus 402 – walk home from Belt Line and Yale

Maybe I shouldn’t have gone, today is the next day and I’m tired I didn’t get enough sleep last night

 

But I realized I had to go because the book was so difficult and so WEIRD that I had to find out what the others thought about it. Also, I had fought my way to the end of a tough read – I had earned the trip and the meeting.

 

I asked the group, “Would you have finished this if you weren’t in a reading group? If there weren’t other people shaming you into plowing ahead and getting to the end?” Everyone (and I mean Every-One) replied enthusiastically “Hell No!”

 

What do I think about difficult books? What do I think about WEIRD books? What do I think about books that stretch the envelope of what text can do? What do I think about books that play with illustration and typography in odd and confusing ways? (think House of Leaves)

 

I did say that, usually, I judge difficult and WEIRD books… in the end… by an emotional connection. I don’t care if the plot makes no sense I don’t care if there is a conventional resolution I don’t care if the theme is obscure(d) – but I prefer it if I have some kind of emotional connection or some sort of inner payoff at the end

 

With Dead Astronauts there was some (but not a lot) especially in the Sarah section and at the very end. Was there enough? Is Batman a transvestite? Who knows

 

Now, the next big question is should I read more VanderMeer? (I did really like The Situation – a protoBorne novella)  Should I read Borne? (set in the same world as Dead Astronauts but different – the people in the group that had read it said it was character-driven) Should I read Annihilation?( I saw the movie without knowing it was from a book and thought it was very cool) Should I read the whole Southern Reach Trilogy (A guy sitting next to me said he really liked Annihilation but the sequels left him cold because they resolved too much of the mystery of Annihilation)

 

So Maybe I’ll read Annihilation and skip the rest of the Trilogy. I think I will read Borne.

 

But first… I have to read L’Assommoir – Have to keep troopering through my Zola project – and then, in March there’s another Wild Detectives Difficult Book Club project – we’re going to tackle The Brothers Karamazov (about six weeks of work)………………….

So little time, so many books.

 

 

The Joy of Life

“Did not one spend the first half of one’s days in dreams of happiness and the second half in regrets and terrors?”
Émile Zola, The Joy of Life

 I am now a good chunk (have been reading for over a year) into Emile Zola’s twenty volume Rougon Macquat series of novels. Attacking this pile of books in the recommended reading order:

  • La Fortune des Rougon (1871) (The Fortune of the Rougons)
  • Son Excellence Eugène Rougon (1876) (His Excellency Eugene Rougon/ His Excellency)
  • La Curée (1871-2) (The Kill)
  • L’Argent (1891) (Money)
  • Le Rêve (1888) (The Dream)
  • La Conquête de Plassans (1874) (The Conquest of Plassans/A Priest in the House)
  • Pot-Bouille (1882) (Pot Luck/Restless House/Piping Hot)
  • Au Bonheur des Dames (1883) (The Ladies’ Paradise/Shop Girls of Paris/Ladies’ Delight)
  • La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret (1875) (The Sin of Father Mouret/Abbe Mouret’s Transgression)
  • Une Page d’amour (1878) (A Lesson in Love/A Love Episode/A Page of Love/A Love Affair)
  • Le Ventre de Paris (1873) (The Belly of Paris/The Fat and the Thin/Savage Paris/The Markets of Paris)
  • La Joie de Vivre (1884) (The Joys of Living/Joy of Life/How Jolly Life Is/Zest for Life)
  • L’Assommoir (1877) (The Dram Shop/The Gin Palace/Drink/Drunkard)
  • L’Œuvre (1886) (The Masterpiece/A Masterpiece/His Masterpiece)
  • La Bête Humaine (1890) (The Beast in the Man/The Human Beast/The Monomaniac)
  • Germinal (1885)
  • Nana (1880)
  • La Terre (1887) (The Earth/The Soil)
  • La Débâcle (1892) (The Downfall/The Smash-up/The Debacle)
  • Le Docteur Pascal (1893) (Doctor Pascal)

The next one up was The Joy of Life (La Joie de Vivre/The Joys of Living/Joy of Life/How Jolly Life Is/Zest for Life).

It is a sort-of sequel to The Belly of Paris. The protagonist is Pauline Quenu – the daughter of the owners of the successful Paris charcuterie in that novel. Between the two novels she is orphaned, and sent at nine years of age, along with her substantial fortune inherited from the business, to live with distant relatives in a dismal seaside fishing village. She moves in with an older couple, the Chanteaus, and their 19 year old son, Lazare.

The title, The Joy of Life, is an ironic one – there is little joy in the Chanteau household. The old man is crippled with gout and his wife crippled by regret. The son is a dilettante and flits from one grandiose scheme to another – each one a greater disaster than the last. Pauline is a generous, good person – and is taken advantage of over and over by everyone else in the story. Her fortune is slowly wasted away, spent on wild ideas and hopeless charity until everyone is left in abject poverty. As she comes of age she inevitably falls in love with Lazare, which is the worst thing that could possibly happen to her.

The detailed portrait of Lazare and his wasted life is a fascinating chronicle of mental illness written before our modern understanding. Lazare suffers not only from depression, anxiety and ennui – but from what we would now call OCD:

With all this were mingled certain ideas of symmetry. He would take three steps to the right and then as many to the left, and touch the different articles of furniture on either side of a window or door the same number of times. And beneath this there lurked the superstitious fancy that a certain number of touchings, some five or seven, for instance, distributed in a particular fashion, would prevent the farewell from being a final one.

I guess it’s not surprising, given the detailed and heartbreaking description of mental illness and its disastrous consequences – The Joy of Life was the favorite book of  Vincent van Gogh and is included in two of his paintings: Still Life with Bible and Vase with Oleanders and Books.

Still Life with Bible, Vincent van Gogh (1885) including a copy of The Joy of Life, by Zola

Vase with Oleanders and Books, van Gogh (1888) with The Joy of Life, by Zola

 

The book was interesting for its characters and dire setting, but isn’t one of the better books in the series. It’s relentless pessimism becomes predictable and repetitive – it makes its point about human weakness and disaster over and over – hammering it home with no subtlety or relief.

Another problem is that I only had access to the contemporary Vizettely translation and the most dramatic part of the book – a nine page section of chapter ten outlining a terribly difficult birth scene – was cut out and replaced with one short paragraph:

There came a cruel and affecting scene. It was one of those dread hours when life and death wrestle together, when human science and skill battle to overcome and correct the errors of Nature. More than once did the Doctor pause, fearing a fatal issue. The patient’s agony was terrible, but at last science triumphed, and a child was born. It was a boy.

It seems that a depiction of childbirth was too much for the delicate English-speakers of the time.

At any rate – I did enjoy the book and found it very interesting even though it became a bit of a depressing slog.

But now I have a decision to make – the next book in the series, L’Assommoir – along with four of the next five – I have already read. Years ago, before the internet, I was able to get my hands on L’Assommoir, Germinal, La Bête Humaine, and Nana – but none of the others in the Rougon-Macquart Cycle. So, do I re-read L’Assommoir? Or skip ahead to L’Œuvre (which looks really interesting).

The thing is, I have other reading to do – a lot of reading. So I should take a break and by skipping the three I have already read I’m only four books from the end.

But the other thing is… L’Assommoir is a great book – one of the best books I’ve ever read – better than the others in the cycle (so far). I’m sure I would get a lot out of it reading it as an old man and having read all the novels leading up to it. Likewise, Germinal is a classic, La Bête Humaine a heart-stopping thrill ride and Nana a guilty pleasure. So I’ll probably take a break – read my Dostoevsky – and then take up Zola’s cycle in full.

Wish me luck.

 

Short Story of the Day – Big Blonde, by Dorothy Parker

Men liked her, and she took it for granted that the liking of many men was a desirable thing. Popularity seemed to her to be worth all the work that had to be put into its achievement. Men liked you because you were fun, and when they liked you they took you out, and there you were. So, and successfully, she was fun. She was a good sport. Men like a good sport.

—- Dorothy Parker, Big Blonde

Deep Ellum Brewing Company – Dallas Blonde

Big Blonde is considered Dorothy Parker’s best, most literary work – as opposed, I guess, to her usual stuff that is considered witty.

You can read it online here: Big Blonde at Project Gutenberg Canada. It’s still under copyright in the US, so don’t print or distribute it.

Under the thin veneer of Dorothy Parker’s signature sparkling prose – this is a very sad story of a very sad and very hapless woman.  It is a well-known work (it won the O. Henry award as the best short story of 1929) with a lot of discussion about it on the internet. A lot of modern discussion is about the story’s criticism of traditional female roles and, of course, its harrowing description of alcoholism (or at least drunkenness) and depression. It is these things in spades, but I think it is more.

Hazel Morse is a hopeless drunk that is used and abused by men – but I don’t think she is an idiot and I think she had some choices. She is depressed to the edge of suicide, but is she depressed because of her life or does she live that life because of her depression? Probably a little of both. It’s also more than a little autobiographical – though I don’t think Hazel Morse would inspire so many people after all these years as Dorothy Parker does. Hazel’s parties aren’t quite up to the intellectual quality of the Algonquin Round Table.

I have been reading a bit about how struggle gives meaning to life… to the extent that life is the struggle. A corollary of this is how having happiness as the main goal of life is a recipe for disaster. Hazel and all the people in her life seem to have moment to moment happiness as their only reason for getting out of bed in the morning and as a consequence sometimes don’t even do that. They avoid struggle at all costs and end up in a hopeless struggle against the ever-present void.

The story was written and is set in 1929 – the last year of the roaring twenties. I can’t help but think about how different the story would be if it took place a couple years later. How is the Big Blonde going to make it through the Great Depression? It’s not a pretty thought.

Here’s mud in your eye.

The Belly of Paris

“Respectable people… What bastards!”
Émile Zola, The Belly of Paris

Cover of The Belly of Paris, by Emile Zola, translated by Mark Kurlansky

I am now a good chunk (have been reading for about a year) into Emile Zola’s twenty volume Rougon Macquat series of novels. Attacking this pile of books in the recommended reading order:

  • La Fortune des Rougon (1871) (The Fortune of the Rougons)
  • Son Excellence Eugène Rougon (1876) (His Excellency Eugene Rougon/ His Excellency)
  • La Curée (1871-2) (The Kill)
  • L’Argent (1891) (Money)
  • Le Rêve (1888) (The Dream)
  • La Conquête de Plassans (1874) (The Conquest of Plassans/A Priest in the House)
  • Pot-Bouille (1882) (Pot Luck/Restless House/Piping Hot)
  • Au Bonheur des Dames (1883) (The Ladies’ Paradise/Shop Girls of Paris/Ladies’ Delight)
  • La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret (1875) (The Sin of Father Mouret/Abbe Mouret’s Transgression)
  • Une Page d’amour (1878) (A Lesson in Love/A Love Episode/A Page of Love/A Love Affair)
  • Le Ventre de Paris (1873) (The Belly of Paris/The Fat and the Thin/Savage Paris/The Markets of Paris)
  • La Joie de Vivre (1884) (The Joys of Living/Joy of Life/How Jolly Life Is/Zest for Life)
  • L’Assommoir (1877) (The Dram Shop/The Gin Palace/Drink/Drunkard)
  • L’Œuvre (1886) (The Masterpiece/A Masterpiece/His Masterpiece)
  • La Bête Humaine (1890) (The Beast in the Man/The Human Beast/The Monomaniac)
  • Germinal (1885)
  • Nana (1880)
  • La Terre (1887) (The Earth/The Soil)
  • La Débâcle (1892) (The Downfall/The Smash-up/The Debacle)
  • Le Docteur Pascal (1893) (Doctor Pascal)

The next one up was The Belly of Paris.

One reason I am reading this long series is that the books are available in ebook form for free from project Gutenberg. This is a good thing… a fantastic thing actually, but there is only one catch. The free, public-domain English Zola texts from Gutenberg are all contemporaneous translations by Henry Vizetelly (and his son Ernest Alfred Vizetelly). Now Vizetelly was a hero – he believed in the Zola books and paid a huge price for translating them and publishing them in England, however, the translations aren’t really all that good. They are written in an anachronistic language, hard on the modern eye, and, worst of all, are censored. The original French stories can be pretty racy and he had to cut the best parts out to get the books published in England. Still, he was prosecuted twice and imprisoned  for obscene libel because of his translations of Zola’s work.

Before reading The Belly of Paris (also know as Une Page d’amour, The Fat and the Thin, Savage Paris, The Markets of Paris) I discovered that there was a modern translation by Mark Kurlansky. I have read two of his non-fiction books, Salt and Cod and really liked them. Salt in particular was very interesting to me, my first job out of college was working as a chemist at a salt mine and evaporation plant in Hutchinson, Kansas (the plant is gone now – but the mine is still working and you can take a tour).

So, I bought a copy of the Kurlansky translation and it was very good.

There is a plot arc to The Belly of Paris – Florent escapes from Devil’s Island (similar to the more famous modern story of Papillon)  and returns to Paris. He spends the book trying to reestablish his life and struggling with his radical political leanings. This story is really a framing device to enable Zola to immerse the reader in the eponymous Belly of Paris. The Belly of Paris is the immense food market at Les Halles.

The vast food market at Les Halles in Paris, the setting of The Belly of Paris

Design of Les Halles in 1863, By Victor Baltard – Image from Wikimedia

Constructed in the 1850’s, Les Halles was a series of gigantic sheds full of stalls where every kind of food was sold – and Zola uses every excuse to tour every nook and cranny of the market – from vegetables to poultry, meat to fish, bread to spices, candy to charcuterie, the movement, preparation, and sale of every imaginable foodstuff is set down in detail. The people involved are hard working and full of human foibles – gossipy, jealous, and headstrong. These complex relationships form the real heart of the story and the conflict of the novel.

Imagine a huge city, a Paris of millions of (French, and food-obsessed) inhabitants that have to be fed, every day, in a world without gasoline, trucks, electricity or refrigeration. It starts in the dead of night with horse-drawn carts drawn to the city in caravans carrying the bounty of the countryside. The vegetables are prepared, the animals are slaughtered, the fish are cleaned, the salted meat is salted, the charcuterie is cured, the bread is baked – then everything is set out for sale as the population of Paris descends to buy their daily meals. Zola lays it all out in a fantastic kaleidoscope of food – sights, sounds, smells, and taste – and the characters that handle it.

The book is full of contrasts – the Fat and the Thin, Beautiful Lisa and The Beautiful Norman, political radical Florent and his comfortable brother. The Belly of Paris isn’t known as one of the series’ best – but I found it fascinating. Like The Ladies Paradise and modern retail I can’t help but compare the market at Les Halles with a modern Whole Foods or other mega grocery store.

Interesting stuff. And now on to La Joie de Vivre.