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.

 

A Love Episode

“It was always the same; other people gave up loving before she did. They got spoilt, or else they went away; in any case, they were partly to blame. Why did it happen so? She herself never changed; when she loved anyone, it was for life. She could not understand desertion; it was something so huge, so monstrous that the notion of it made her little heart break.”
Émile Zola, Une Page d’amour

A Love Episode, Emile Zola

 

I am now a good chunk 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 A Love Episode.

At this point I have finished the last of the books from the Mouret section of the Rougon Macquat books. The Rougon section dwelt mostly on the upper classes, especially on the mad ruthless speculation in L’Argent. Then came the Mouret branch of the family – middle class workers fighting to get ahead – and not always succeeding.  Now, after A Love Episode I will move into the Macquat  books – where poverty, drunkeness, and madness await. I’ve read four of these already – will have to decide whether to re-read them or not.

One characteristic of the last few books has been elaborate, extensive, florid, and detailed description. In A Love Episode this mostly consists of pages of description of the appearance of Paris out of the window of the protagonists suburban apartment. The changes in weather and light over the magnificent city reflect the inner turmoil that the main characters are experiencing.

It’s a short book, the easiest so far to read, that details… as the title suggests, a romance. The love story is between a beautiful young widow and the doctor that lives next door. He comes to her aid when her daughter falls ill. This is Paris, so the fact he is married is not an immovable obstacle, even though she is of sound moral character. The daughter, however, is sickly and very jealous, which leads to complications and, this being a Zola novel, an ultimate disaster.

A quick, fun, read… with a nice bunch of interesting characters – folks like those that you will still meet today.

If you look hard enough

The Ladies Paradise

“I would rather die of passion than of boredom.”
Émile Zola, The Ladies’ Paradise

Cover of Au Bonheur des Dames by Emile Zola

I am now a good chunk 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 Ladies Paradise.

The overall story is a very thin romance between a poor, country girl that comes to Paris and finds work in a new, rapidly expanding department store and the owner of the store. He is Octave Mouret, the relentless womanizer of the book before this one – Pot-Bouille. His desire to possess women has now metastasized into the need to dominate them commercially by creating a retail establishment that they cannot resist – literally a ladies’ paradise.

But the real protagonist of the story is the store itself – the eponymous Ladies Paradise. Large swaths of text are dedicated to detailed dreamy descriptions of the store, its wares, and the elaborate displays set up to show off the goods and lure in the women of Paris and, most importantly, to separate them from their money.

As the book progresses the store grows and grows, taking over building after building, until it dominates the area and all retail commerce. There is a heart-tearing description of the woeful ends of the various small shopkeepers of Paris – trying to scrape out a living selling cloth, shoes, or umbrellas – until they are inevitably ground under the heels of the behemoth growing through the streets – their owners are driven into bankruptcy, poverty, and madness.

The book was written a couple of centuries ago – but it is a story that is still going on today. We have all seen small businessmen destroyed by large corporate chains that offer lower prices, bigger selections, and spectacular shopping experiences. It is a story that could take place in the last couple of decades.

Except today, even those huge conglomerates are being driven out of business by a technology that Zola couldn’t even imagine – online shopping. Though, now that I think about it, The Ladies Paradise puts together a company of horse-drawn delivery vans, with advertisements plastered on the side, that resembles today’s fleet of Amazon-Prime vehicles.

The novel’s fictional department store was modeled after a real place – Le Bon Marché in Paris. The store is still open.

This was an enjoyable tome in the series, though the long, detailed descriptions of ranks upon ranks of goods placed on sale went on too long for my taste – but probably necessary to drive home the point of the plot. It was simultaneously a record of the past, an reverse echo of the present, and a warning of the future.

Pot Bouille

“When younger, he had been fun-loving to the point of tedium.”
Émile Zola, Pot Luck (Pot Bouille)

Pot Bouille, by Emile Zola

In September of last year (2018) I began the task of reading all twenty novels in Emile Zola’s Rougon Marquat cycle. There was a three month gap in this reading plan as I plowed through Gravity’s Rainbow with a reading group. But now I’m back at it – though not in too much of a hurry… I am reading other books too.

I finished The Conquest of Plassans (book number six) a week or so ago. It was an interesting read – especially how it began slowly as a story of small-town gossip and intrigue and built into a climax of madness, horror, and death. Now I am onto the seventh (in the recommended reading order), Pot-Bouille.

That title doesn’t translate to English very well. I’ve seen it as Pot Luck and other things. From Wikipedia:

The word pot-bouille is a 19th-century French slang term for a large cooking pot or cauldron used for preparing stews and casseroles and also the foods prepared in it. The title is intended to convey a sense of disparate ingredients, the various inhabitants of the building mixed together, to create a potent and heady mix like a strong stew. The impression is to hint at the greed, ambition and depravity which lies behind the pretentious façade of the outwardly well behaved bourgeois apartment block. There is no equivalent word in English to convey this. The closest English term would probably be an expression such as melting pot.

In the film The Life of Emile Zola, the novel’s title is rendered as Piping Hot.

So, I think of the book as being called “melting pot.”

It seems to be a complicated story about numerous residents in a multi story rental house in the center of Paris – most related to each other in one way or another. To help with the book I spent a few hours and complied a list of characters I could refer to… then discovered somebody else had already done it.

I’m on the road and working hard for the next week, but I should be able to find some slivers of time and finish the book. Then on to the next, Au Bonheur des Dames – a direct sequel to Pot-Bouille.

 

Money (L’Argent) by Zola

Money (L’Argent) by Emile Zola

“In love as as in speculation there is much filth; in love also, people think only of their own gratification; yet without love there would be no life, and the world would come to an end.”
― Émile Zola, L’Argent

 

Ok, for awhile now I’ve been working my way through Zola’s Rougon-Marquat 20 novel series of French life in the Second Empire – Reading them not in the order that they were written, but in the recommended reading order.

Money (L’Argent) is the eighteenth book written, but it is a sequel to La Curée, the 3rd book in the recommended order, so I read Money as the fourth. It has the same cast of characters – a little older but definitely no wiser.

I really enjoyed the book. It is a tale of rivers of money, oceans of gold, all stolen, gambled, speculated on. It is, of course, more relevant today than it was when it was written. I couldn’t help but do some re-research into the latest financial crisis and how similar the disaster was to the greed and insanity described in the novel.

In La Curée Aristide Saccard (he changed his last name from Rougon to avoid embarrassment to his powerful politician brother) rose and fell on naked ambition and audacious financial manipulations. In the sequel he finds himself broke, but with the same greed, reckless daring, and collection of equally devious connections. He sets out to turn the world on its head. The story of speculation and deceit is fascinating and engrossing and worth the careful reading it takes.

The whole adventure comes down to a final cataclysmic battle between Saccard’s bulls and the bears that oppose him. I still don’t completely understand how the bears make money – other than the destruction of Saccard and his allies – I didn’t read much about how they went about short selling for example – but I’m sure it’s in there somewhere.

So now it’s on the the next, The Dream (Le Rêve). I have already taken a look, started it, and it seems to be completely different in style and theme from the rest of the series. We’ll see.

 

La Curée

“This was the time when the rush for the spoils filled a corner of the forest with the yelping of hounds, the cracking of whips, the flaring of torches. The appetites let loose were satisfied at last, shamelessly, amid the sound of crumbling neighbourhoods and fortunes made in six months. The city had become an orgy of gold and women.”
― Émile Zola, La Curée

La Curée (The Kill), Emile Zola

La Curée (The Kill), Emile Zola

A couple days ago I finished the next book in Zola’s Rougon Macquart series,  La Curée – or The Kill in English. It was the 2nd book written but the 3rd in the suggested reading order, which I am following.

The Kill in the title refers to the way the hunting dogs fall upon the remains after a hunt. It’s a good description of a book that describes the corrosive damage of unbridled and unprincipled greed, lust, and decadence set free in a city like Paris. During this time of France’s Second Empire Paris is being torn up and rebuilt with an unlimited opportunity for corruption and graft.

The story concerns the “career” of Aristide Saccard, the brother of Eugene Rougon who was the protagonist of the book before this, Son Excellence Eugène RougonSaccard changed his name from Rougon to avoid dragging his powerful brother down into his own scandals and to disguise the relationship between the two ambitious kinsmen.

It is a story of a certain sort of wealth – wealth born of speculation and borrowing, where the appearance of decadent affluence is more important than actual prosperity. The people in this story live in incredible luxury while having to scramble constantly to maintain the illusion, never sure where the next sous is coming from or when their creditors are going to call their debts in and ruin them.

It is also a story of promiscuity and sex – of debauchery and incest. Surprisingly racy for something written a century and a half ago. It is not pornographic in the modern sense – the actually moment is never described exactly, but there is no doubt about what is going on. It contains pages of description that skirt a little bit around… and that makes it even more effective.

“Endless love and voluptuous appetite pervaded this stifling nave in which settled the ardent sap of the tropics. Renée was wrapped in the powerful bridals of the earth that gave birth to these dark growths, these colossal stamina; and the acrid birth-throes of this hotbed, of this forest growth, of this mass of vegetation aglow with the entrails that nourished it, surrounded her with disturbing odours. At her feet was the steaming tank, its tepid water thickened by the sap from the floating roots, enveloping her shoulders with a mantle of heavy vapours, forming a mist that warmed her skin like the touch of a hand moist with desire. Overhead she could smell the palm trees, whose tall leaves shook down their aroma. And more than the stifling heat, more than the brilliant light, more than the great dazzling flowers, like faces laughing or grimacing between the leaves, it was the odours that overwhelmed her. An indescribable perfume, potent, exciting, composed of a thousand different perfumes, hung about her; human exudation, the breath of women, the scent of hair; and breezes sweet and swooningly faint were blended with breezes coarse and pestilential, laden with poison. But amid this strange music of odours, the dominant melody that constantly returned, stifling the sweetness of the vanilla and the orchids’ pungency, was the penetrating, sensual smell of flesh, the smell of lovemaking escaping in the early morning from the bedroom of newlyweds.”
― Émile Zola, La Curée

Strong stuff. A portrait of a time not unlike our own. Despite the fact there is no character in the book that could be described as sympathetic and the downfall of poor Renée is obvious from the start (though she does have a lot of wicked fun along the way) the book is still worth the read.

I was able to find a modern translation and I wonder how much different the bowdlerized contemporaneous English version was (the English weren’t as open to salacious and shocking prose as the French) – but I still have a lot of books to go in the series.

So next it is on to  L’Argent (Money) – one of the last books in the series written, but the next in the recommended order as it is a direct sequel to La Curée.

 

Son Excellence Eugène Rougon

“He [Eugène Rougon] believed exclusively in himself; where another saw reasons, Rougon possessed convictions; he subordinated everything to the incessant aggrandisement of his own ego. Despite being utterly devoid of real self-indulgence, he nevertheless indulged in secret orgies of supreme power.”
― Émile Zola, His Excellency

Virginia Oldoini, Countess of Castiglione, real life basis for Clorinde Balbi, from the book His Excellency, by Emile Zola

I just finished another book in Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle. This one was Son Excellence Eugène Rougon (His Excellency, in English). This was the sixth book written, but the second one in the recommended order – that I am following. The book was excellent (even though I was reading an inferior translation) although I didn’t enjoy it as much as the first book The Fortune of the Rougons.

The book is a finely-drawn portrait of the highest reaches of power during France’s Second Empire. It follows the rise and fall and rise and fall and rise of Eugène Rougon – a power mad politician and one of the branches of the Rougon trunk of the Rougon-Macquart family that spreads across the twenty novels. Rougon has a diverse crew of hangers-on that depend on his influence for their ill-gotten gains – but are more than ready to throw him under the bus at any time.

His main rival is Clorinde Balbi – a young, beautiful ambitious woman that is forced to depend on her own skills and machinations – all behind the scenes – to advance her own cause and bring her revenge upon Rougon – who rejects her and marries her off to one of his friends. She is by far the most interesting character in the novel – a woman before her time doing the best she can. Still, the novel is more of a portrait of an age and place than a gripping story – its one weakness is that none of the characters are really worth caring about. I am glad I read it, though – it does a great job of transporting the reader to an exotic time and place – one that in its corruption and grubbing for power is still frighteningly familiar.

I finished the book on vacation, on a Caribbean cruise. The last few pages were turned (more accurately clicked – I was reading on a Kindle) lounging on a remote uncrowded deck, while the turquoise waves rumbled past. Reading on vacation seems like a waste of precious leisure time, but I enjoy it immensely. What could be better than being in one exotic location (on a ship at sea) and being transported to another – Paris in the Second Empire?

Now, on the the next, La Curée (The Kill). This one looks especially good.