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.

 

No Drink Was Strong Enough

“He was in Guanajuato, Mexico, he was a writer, and tonight was the Day of the Dead ceremony. He was in a little room on the second floor of a hotel, a room with wide windows and a balcony that overlooked the plaza where the children ran and yelled each morning. He heard them shouting now. And this was Mexico’s Death Day. There was a smell of death all through Mexico you never got away from, no matter how far you went. No matter what you said or did, not even if you laughed or drank, did you ever get away from death in Mexico. No car went fast enough. No drink was strong enough.”

― Ray Bradbury, The Candy Skull

Cozumel, Mexico

The Drummer

Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed, and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.
—-Henry David Thoreau

Trans.lation Market, Vickery Meadows, Dallas, Texas, part of the Nasher Exchange Exhibition

Vickery Meadows, Dallas, Texas (click to enlarge)

Vickery Meadows, Dallas, Texas
(click to enlarge)

Veggies in the Farmer’s Market

A vegetable garden in the beginning looks so promising and then after all little by little it grows nothing but vegetables, nothing, nothing but vegetables.

—-Gertrude Stein

This last weekend, after grabbings a couple shots of the fashion shoot next door, I met up with my friend and we wandered the Dallas Farmer’s Market, Nikons in hand, taking photographs of what caught our eye. What I saw first was the vegetables (other subjects to follow in the dreary days ahead).

Some sheds at the market feature fresh local produce, others produce dealers – so I suppose what you get isn’t too much different than what you see in your local supermarket, but it looks so much more ripe and delicious lined up there in split-wood baskets in front of the trucks with hand-lettered cardboard signs. The vendors hawk their wares – holding out sample chunks of melon or wedges of grapefruit they cut in front of you with pocketknives. You can’t help but smile and salivate at this cornucopia of wonderfulness.

Filling bags with food to take home is one thing – buying fruit and eating while you walk around is another, a sweet treat – blueberries, tangerines, peaches and plums – all designed to nibble and stroll, packaged in their own skins, ready to give up their juice and pulp.

An onion can make people cry but there’s never been a vegetable that can make people laugh.

—- Will Rogers

One vendor features tomatoes. The back of his slot is filled with pallets of tomatoes. Lots and lots of tomatoes.

Ripe vegetables were magic to me. Unharvested, the garden bristled with possibility. I would quicken at the sight of a ripe tomato, sounding its redness from deep amidst the undifferentiated green. To lift a bean plant’s hood of heartshaped leaves and discover a clutch of long slender pods handing underneath could make me catch my breath.

– Michael Pollan

Shall I not have intelligence with the earth? Am I not partly leaves and vegetable mould myself.

—-Henry David Thoreau

In our gardens, Lord Ganesha sends His power through fruits and vegetables, the ones that grow above the ground, to permeate our nerve system with wisdom, clearing obstacles in our path when eaten. The growers of them treat it like they would care for Ganesha in His physical form.

—- Hindu Deva Shastra, verse 438, Nature Devas

I bought some of these - the broccoli and asparagus in the lower right.

I think of New York as a puree and the rest of the United States as vegetable soup.

—-Spalding Gray

Dried peppers and tomatillos

This cabbage, these carrots, these potatoes, these onions … will soon become me. Such a tasty fact!

—-Mike Garofalo

Poblano and Habanero peppers with some tomatillos.

Cabbage: a familiar kitchen-garden vegetable about as large and wise as a man’s head.

—-Ambrose Bierce

Apples, peaches, and plums. I love these dark, Texas plums - I love to have a cold bag of them to eat while I drive long distances.

Imagination is the real and eternal world of which this vegetable universe is but a faint shadow.

—-William Blake