“A Whole World Drowned in Fat”: Émile Zola’s The Belly of Paris

A long time ago now, fifteen years anyway, I went through a bit of a Zola phase. I remember reading Nana and L’assomoir and my favourite, Au Bonheur des Dames. (Although my very favourite Zola is Thérèse Raquin, which isn’t part of the big Rougnon-Macquart cycle, and as dark as anything written by Simenon or Jim Thomson.) I’ve always wanted to return to Zola, and in the meantime a number of his books have found their way to my shelves. So when my friend Keith (a specialist in modern French art and culture) and I started talking about reading something together, Zola seemed a natural fit. We settled on The Belly of Paris (1873) the third in the cycle, which I read in a recent (2007) and, it seems to me, admirable translation by Brian Nelson.

If you haven’t already done so, you should read Keith’s post. Not only is it excellent, but it also offers a concise summary of the novel’s plot, freeing me to be more impressionistic in my comments.

Like most readers of this novel, I was most taken by its extraordinary descriptions. In fact, this tendency seemed even more excessive than in the other, later works I’d read. Tom wrote a few years ago that Belly is really just an excuse for extended descriptions, and that seems exactly right. The plot isn’t up to much; it’s not suspenseful; there’s a good joke at the end, admittedly, but there’s not much reason to read the book just for what happens.

It’s when nothing is happening, and the narrator is simply describing stuff, food mostly, or things that could become food, the whole Leviathan that makes up the food market of Les Halles, that the novel dazzles.

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Here, for example, a character dozes at his poultry and game stall:

Above his head, fat geese were hanging from spiked bars, the hooks sunk into bleeding wounds in their long, stiff necks, while their huge bellies, reddish beneath a fine down, ballooned out obscenely between their linen-white tails and wings. Also hanging from the bar were grey rabbits, their legs parted as though in readiness for some gigantic leap, their ears flying flat, with a tuft of white tail, and their heads, with sharp teeth and dim eyes, grinning with the grin of death. On the counter plucked chickens displayed their fleshy breasts, stretched taut on the spit; pigeons, packed tightly together on wicker trays, seemed to have the soft skin of newborn babies; ducks, with rougher skin, splayed out their webbed feet; and three magnificent turkeys, shadowed with blue like a clean-shaven face, their throats sewn up, slept on their backs in the broad black fans of their tails. On plates close by were giblets, livers, gizzards, necks, feet, and wings; while in an oval dish was a skinned and cleaned-out rabbit, its four legs wide apart, its head bespattered with blood and its belly slit to reveal its kidneys; a trickle of blood, running down to its tail, had fallen drop by drop, staining the white dish. Marjolin [the man at the stall] had not even bothered to wipe the carving board, next to which the rabbit’s paws were still lying. His eyes were half closed, and he was surrounded, on the three shelves at the back of the stall, by further piles of dead birds, birds in paper wrappers like bouquets, such a regular pattern of folded legs and rounded breasts that they confused the eye. Amid all this food, with his large frame, his cheeks and hands and powerful neck seemed as soft as the flesh of the turkeys and as plump as the breasts of the geese.

Now, this might not be an appetizing passage (not like the one with the fruit stand Keith quotes in his post) but it’s pretty amazing. There’s just so much muchness here, especially the brute facticity/physicality of the animals’ bodies. Although I introduced the quote by referring to a character’s action (that is, his sleeping), most of the passage has nothing to do with human qualities. Marjolin’s half-consciousness here moves him closer to the inanimacy of the corpses that engulf him. Indeed, the final sentence compares him to those foodstuffs (his body as soft as the flesh of the turkeys, as plump as the breasts of the geese), just as the descriptions of the slaughtered animals reference human physiognomy (the pigeons that have the “soft skin of newborn babies” or the turkeys that are “blue like a clean-shaven face”). The boundary between the human and the non-human—those that eat and those that are eaten—is blurred.
But the main point of the passage isn’t to proffer that equivocation. Instead, it’s to gape at the commodities on display. (And display, even more than their being for sale, is what matters.) The “regular pattern” of the bodies is so dazzling that it “confuses the eye.” You’re supposed to look at the overwhelming displays of Les Halles, but the more you look, the more confused you get. I find these scenes hard to envision, and also hard to read. The sentences cascade onward, clause after clause, adjective after adjective. I’m tempted to compare these passages to an aria in an opera: a place to pause, to revel in beauty, to ignore the on-rushing, self-consuming demands of plot, except that arias are more legible than Zolan description.

I can’t resist quoting one more moment of description. This time of a person, though here too food is omnipresent. Florent, who passes for the novel’s protagonist, is looking at his sister-in-law, Lisa, the proprietor of a charcuterie. What begins ordinarily enough disintegrates into a confused, phantasmagoric, even repellent vision:

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. As Florent continued to gaze at her he began to feel intimidated, disturbed by the dignity of her carriage; and instead of openly looking at her he glanced furtively in the mirrors around the shop which reflected her from the back, the front, and the side; and the mirror on the ceiling reflected the top of her head, with its tightly drawn bun and the little bands over her temples. The shop seemed to fill with a crowd of Lisas, showing off their broad shoulders, powerful arms, and large breasts so smooth and passionless that they aroused no greater desire than the sight of a belly would. At last Florent’s gaze came to rest on a particularly pleasing side view of Lisa which appeared in a mirror between two sides of pork. All down the marble of the walls, and all down the mirrors, sides of pork and strips of larding at hung from hooks; and Lisa, with her thick neck, rounded hips, and swelling bosom, looked like the queen of all this dangling fat and meat.

The passage is about objectification, but it’s not sexual, unless meat turns you on. (That explains what could otherwise be puzzling—the narrator’s claim that bellies aren’t enticing.) The detail that most gets me here, though, more than the vision of Lisa as Queen of the Fats, more than the disorienting crowd of Lisas, their reflections composed of so many chopped-up body parts, is the passing reference to a mirror on the ceiling. On the ceiling! That place must be creepy as hell to shop in!

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Zola is famously a naturalist and naturalism famously says that insides (people’s character, desires, psychology, etc) are determined by outsides (environment, surroundings, genes/heredity, etc). So the places people inhabit, the trades they practice, the atmosphere they breathe are the engines of meaning. This tactility has practical consequences. From reading Belly you can learn a lot about how to make sausages and the like—this novel exemplifies that pleasure of realist fiction that Philip Roth talked about wanting to bring into those scenes of the glove factory in American Pastoral.

Zola even solves the “info dump” problem by transferring the tendency on to his characters, as in a scene in which Marjolin, the young man last seen sleeping in his stall, sublimates his sexual attraction to Lisa, Queen of the Fats, by “rapidly explaining the business of slaughtering,” forcing her “to feel the feathers lying in heaps on the blocks” (adding the exact price the highest quality feathers receive after being sorted and weighed), urging her “to sink her arms into the big baskets of down,” and making her stoop over “the drain which carries everything away” (there’s so much blood cleaners have to come every two hours to scrub the place down). “There was no end to the information he gave,” the narrator deadpans. Indeed. It’s a neat trick, to legitimate your own obsession by giving it to another: a meta-info-dump. It’s as though Zola is taking the narrate/describe distinction and reversing it. Here narration is the digression from description rather than the other way round.

And yet description is certainly doing something in the novel. It is there both for its own sake—to be admired, reveled in, exclaimed at (the aria idea again)—and to make a point. Reading the novel I wasn’t really sure what the point was, couldn’t figure out how to put it in words, anyway. Then I read Keith’s observation about how little eating there is in the book. No feasts, that’s for sure. The pleasures of bourgeois life—if they are pleasures: mostly Zola presents them as seductions that are ultimately gross, in both the historical and current sense: they are coarse, and fat, and yucky; has any novel ever had so much grease in it?—are connected to plenitude, no question, but having so much to eat so ready to hand doesn’t seem to make anyone happy, the way even the simplest meals can in Dickens, say.

Food in this novel is primarily for smelling and, especially, for seeing, but only secondarily for eating. Which leads Keith to argue, brilliantly, that the book uses food as a cover for its real interest in order. The petit bourgeois denizens of Les Halles value order above all (above liberty, equality, and fraternity, that’s for sure; there’s little in the way of social justice in the novel). And Zola is skeptical of this ordering mania, finding it conservative, even deadening, though he also has no time for what passes in the novel for political radicals. Florent’s arrest in the protests against Louis-Napoleon in 1851—the act that leads him to be imprisoned in a penal colony from which he returns, more than half dead, on the novel’s first page—comes about from bad luck and mistaken identity instead of anything he does (the police find him covered in the blood of a woman who was shot next to him and mistake this happenstance as evidence of murderous violence). And the would-be radicals Florent spends his evenings with are so hapless (the ones who aren’t on the take, that is) they make the anarchists of Conrad’s The Secret Agent look organized.

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So where are the novels sympathies? Only in description, I would argue. But description is a kind of ordering. At least, I think it is. Maybe when it becomes the main event it starts to become disorderly? It certainly disorders plot.

Perhaps an answer can be found in the character of Madame François, the only wholeheartedly sympathetic person in the book, in fact the only person with a heart. (In the book’s fantastic opening pages—a hypnotic description of the convoys of wagons, laden with produce, that slide silently, through the night towards the markets in Paris—Madame François rescues the starving Florent, who has passed out on his way back to the capital; yet even her affection is brusque: she throws him on her cart with the vegetables.) Three quarters of the way through the book, Florent and his artist friend, Claude Lantier, apparently modeled on Zola’s boyhood friend Cézanne, join the old lady for the day at her farm near Nanterre.

Together the men help Madame François with the manuring, Lantier reflecting with satisfaction that “vegetable peelings, the mud of Les Halles, the refuse that had fallen from that giant table” would nourish new vegetables “Paris,” he reflects, “made everything rot and returned everything to the earth, which never wearied of repairing the ravages of death.”

Florent is more pessimistic: “Les Halles now seemed to him like a he ossuary, a place of death, littered with the remains of things that had once been alive, a charnel house reeking with foul smells and putrefaction.”

The idyll at Madame François’s offers the most conventionally uplifting and neat description. Her garden offers “a pleasant atmosphere of drowsiness and fertility,” in which lettuces, onions, leeks, and celery are planted in rows “like little regiments of solders on parade” and “not a single weed could be seen.” Here is food as it should be, Florent concludes: instead of being bruised by the jolting of the carts that take them to market, the cabbages “shine with well-being,” the carrots look “bright and cheerful,” and the lettuces “lounge[ ] with an air of carefree indolence.”

Can this scene of obedient plenitude offer a key to understanding both what the book values about its society and about the kind of literature that should depict that society? For the order of this scene feels so different from the order of the descriptions of Les Halles (think of the game arrayed in Marjolin’s stall, for example). Does this moment of modest delight that the book seems so in sympathy with offer a vision of the world the novel can get behind? Could it be an allegory for the “new form of art” Lantier knows is on its way but that, to his great frustration, he feels he cannot describe? Can the right kind of description be the basis of an organic criticism? Can it organize without ordering?

But if this the world of Madame François’s farm is a vision of a better world, how come this moment is so brief, and how come its descriptions, charming as they are, have none of the force of the extended set pieces set in that ossuary of Les Halles? The lounging lettuces are lovely; the manuring feels healthy. But those carcasses (and the stinking cheeses, oozing fruits, and gleaming fish I could have cited but didn’t), well, they dominate the book.

What, in other words, are the novel’s politics? Is Zola an heir to the Flaubert of Sentimental Education, valuing nothing but the excoriation of value? Is there anything here to hold on to? Nothing, it would seem, less slippery than the grease that drips over every surface, down to very nails, in the Quenus’s charcuterie, “a whole world,” Zola disgustingly and hypnotically renders it, “drowned in fat.”

 

 

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“Political Fanatics Get Nothing to Eat”: Émile Zola’s The Belly of Paris (Guest Post by Keith Bresnahan)

Keith Bresnahan is Associate Professor in the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences at OCAD University in Toronto, where he also directs the Graduate program in Contemporary Art, Design and New Media Art Histories. He is also an all-around good human being and a friend of mine from way back. At the end of last year, we talked about reading something together, with the idea of each writing about it for the blog. We settled on Émile Zola’s The Belly of Paris, and I’m pleased to share Keith’s wonderful essay below. I’ll offer some thoughts of my own in a day or two.

Émile Zola, Belly of Paris [Le Ventre de Paris] (1873)

Translated by Mark Kurlansky (Modern Library, 2009)

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‘What bastards respectable people are!’

This seems like as good a place as any to start, at the very end of Zola’s book, with the painter Claude Lantier’s exasperated cri de coeur at the good health and happiness of the bourgeois denizens of the Parisian district of Les Halles —their round bellies, ample breasts, and well-fed smiles.

The novel tells the story of Florent Quenu, who has escaped to Paris after some seven years of wrongful imprisonment in French Guiana, for his presumed participation in street riots of 1851. When the book opens, we see him lying in the road, emaciated and exhausted, his body blocking the passage of a midnight train of farm-carts and wagons loaded with produce destined for the central market of Les Halles. Rescued by the widowed farmer Mme François (she throws him in back, on top of the vegetables, in the first of the novel’s equations of bodies with food), Florent makes his way into the city and into the lives of his half-brother Quenu and sister-in-law the ‘Beautiful Lisa’, who run a bustling charcuterie near Les Halles.

Embroiling himself both in neighborhood spats and a disastrous radical politics, by the novel’s end Florent has once more been arrested and deported back to Guiana in what is essentially a death sentence. The novel’s final scene, providing the context for Lantier’s declamation, shows us the morning after Florent’s deportation; it is late summer, and Les Halles is bustling with happy activity, a return to order after this temporary shake-up:

The day had risen like a white fountain from the depth of rue Rambuteau. The sun was spreading its rosy light above the rooftops, bright expanses washing the pavement even at this early hour. And Claude sensed a cheerful mood awakening in these vast echoing marketplaces filled with their piles of food. It was like the pleasure of recovered health, the brightening sound of people at last relieved of a heavy burden weighing on their stomachs… All around him he could see nothing but Fats, growing, bursting with health, saluting a new day of lovely digestion.

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The Belly of Paris is the third novel in Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series, and incidentally the third I’ve read (after La Bête humaine and Au bonheur des dames). It was my favorite to date, maybe the first in which the characters felt less like ciphers of some Second Empire social type, and more like people in whose lives I could immerse myself.

Its historical setting, like those of the other Rougon-Macquart novels, is the Second Empire (1852-70), as played out through the lives of a few generations of the Rougon-Macquart family (here, Lisa is née Macquart). The temporal distance between the novel’s setting in 1858 and Zola’s writing of it in 1872 feels significant; he’s writing from the other side of the Empire, which concluded with the abdication of Napoleon III during the Franco-Prussian war, but also of the 1871 Commune and its brutal repression by Versaillais forces. While these more recent historical events come after the events depicted in the novel, of course, I couldn’t help but see echoes of them here, in Florent’s fantasies of a people’s revolution and his deportation to a penal colony (in 1871, it was New Caledonia), and in smaller details peppered throughout the novel: cabbages piled like cannonballs, vegetables and market-carts forming ‘barricades,’ and so on.

The book is, of course, centered on food: its transport, display, production, and sale; the sights and smells and sounds of Paris’s central market; the overflowing displays of food in shop windows; and, somewhat hidden behind all this, hunger and privation. Zola always tells us whether a character is fat, or thin: Mme François’ donkey, Balthazar (shades of Bresson?) is ‘an overweight beast’, while Mme François herself has ‘thick arms’; Florent is thin, a beanpole (a fact that makes him immediately suspicious in the eyes of Lisa and others in the market). Lisa and Quenu’s charcuterie window, which displays “a world of good things, mouthwatering things, rich things,” is reflected in Quenu’s clean-shaven ‘pig-like’ face and Lisa’s ‘ample bosom’, her “wonderful freshness…her plump neck and rosy cheeks…echoing the pastel of the hams,” and when the childlike orphan Marjolin covets Lisa, he imagines himself taking her into his arms “as though plunging his hands into an olive barrel or a cask of dried apples.”

And then there are Zola’s lapidary descriptions of fish, meats, vegetables, fruits, and cheeses, which are one of the great pleasures of the novel: fins of skates, “cinnabar red striped with Florentine bronze, in the somber palette of toads and poisonous flowers,” salmon “gleaming like well-buffed silver…etched by a burin on a polished metal plate,” “shiny carp from the Rhine, all bronzed in beautiful rust-colored metallic, each scale like a piece of cloisonné enamel,” not to mention the Roquefort cheeses like aristocratic faces marred by disgraceful disease, or the frankly sensual description of La Sarriette’s fruit-stand, her wares and her person merging in a singular, heady sensuality:

The strawberries exhaled a scent of youth…while the baskets of grapes in weighty bunches, heavy with drunkenness, swooned over the edge of the trellis, their colors deepening in spots where they were touched by the sun’s voluptuous warmth. This was where La Sarriette lived, in an orchard of intoxicating perfumes. The less expensive fruits—cherries, plums, strawberries—were piled in a flat, paper-lined basket in front of her. They bruised one another, staining the stand with juice, a strong juice that vaporized in the heat. On those sweltering July afternoons her head would spin with the powerful, musky odor of the melons. Then, slightly inebriated and showing some more flesh under her shawl, barely ripe and still fresh from springtime, her lips pouted: many had the urge to plunder those lips.

If Zola’s novel provides an encomium to the visual and olfactory pleasures of food, the pure sensuality of ripe fruit or jewel-like fish, the book strangely has almost nothing to say about taste, or eating. I’ve tried, and failed, to remember a single extended description of taste in the whole of the book; we see people eating, but that’s all. A starving Florent muses that it had not occurred to Lantier “that all those beautiful objects were there for people to eat. He loved them for their colors.” It’s hard not to think of Zola himself. Or, indeed, of our own ‘foodie’ age, where Instagrammable plates and an obsession with artisanal production so often seems to displace the actual pleasures of eating.

In this sense, I think food is not so much the theme, but the alibi for Zola’s real interest in order (and its opposite): the characters mostly yearn for it, in the form of good profits, stable politics, marriages and family, while Zola seems to harbor a clear affection for disorder, in the overwhelming mountains of food in Les Halles, the noise of the fish auction, the innocent pleasures of the market-urchin Muche, who fills Lisa and Quenu’s daughter’s pockets with dirt and soaks himself in fountains, or the free sensuality of the orphaned lovers Marjolin and Cadine.

Zola doesn’t seem to side with Florent’s radicalism, exactly (his revolution remains a delusional adolescent fantasy) but he also turns a critical eye onto the bourgeois obsession with order and calm that manifests itself in the speech and behavior of the denizens of Les Halles. As Lisa puts it, ‘I support a government that’s good for business. If they commit acts of evil, I don’t want to know.’ When she goes to the prefecture of police to turn in her brother-in-law, she finds that half the neighborhood has beat her to the punch, assuaging whatever guilt she might have had. And when Marjolin attempts to rape Lisa, what might have been the basis for melodrama (she strikes him, causing him to hit his head on a stone table and reducing him to a permanent state of idiocy) is defused, all simply seems to be for the best: Marjolin has entirely forgotten what happened, and if anything is happier than before.

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There’s a message here: the comfortable morality of the bourgeois shop-keepers, their support for whatever is ‘good for business’, is equated with the ready availability of food, which acts as a political soporific. And it’s seductive: in one of the novel’s best passages, when Florent accepts (at Lisa’s urging) a job as inspector of the fish market, he feels himself giving in not only to this single request, but to a great wave of contentment:

It was as though he were permeated by the smell of the kitchen, the nourishment of all the food that had been loaded into the air. He slid into the happy lethargy that is brought on by eating well and living in fat…He felt a tingling on his skin, the seduction of fat slowly invading his entire being, rendering him soft and easy like a contented shopkeeper. At this late hour of night, in this overheated room, all his bitterness and determination melted away… he found himself wishing for more, for an endless succession of such evenings, slowly fattening him.

It is above all Les Halles, that ‘gluttonous beast’, the beating heart of a Paris wallowing in fat, which props up a grotesque Empire by rendering all, like fat itself, soft and easy: “it was the belly of shopkeepers, the belly of ordinary people puffing themselves up, celebrating in the sunshine, declaring that everything was for the best, since passive people had never been so well fattened.” Those who are full, forget their complaints. And political fanatics, Lisa notes, get nothing to eat.

 

 

 

 

Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau is 4!

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WordPress sent me a message last week telling me it’s been four years since I started Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau. Blog years being, I suspect, like dog years, this puts the blog well into its adult years. And these days, when some of the book blogs I love best (though thankfully not all of them) have gone away or fallen into, one hopes, temporary dormancy, I think there’s value in my still being here. Not that I’m especially persistent. My number one regret is that I don’t blog nearly as much as I’d liked to. (My number two regret is that my blog causes me so many regrets.) Unfortunately, barring an unexpected change in career or life fortune I don’t think that’s going to change in the coming year.

But I have a few ideas in the works. Last year I inveigled a couple of friends into guest posting—see here, here, and here—and I enjoyed that dialogue. I’ll be continuing that experiment this year, starting with a smart post from a smart friend on Émile Zola any day now. (If you’d like to contribute a guest post, drop me a line in the comments.) In the past I’ve had fun co-organizing reading groups (I seem to do better with those than with ones I blithely agree to participate in on Twitter: those invariably defeat me), and I’m always up for more of those.

As well as adding other contributors to the blog, I’d also like to broaden the kinds of things I write for it. I recently learned I’ve been awarded a three-year grant from my institution to design experiential learning projects for students on the topic of Holocaust Literature and Education. I plan to incorporate the blog into that process, starting in the fall.

And looking even further ahead, I want to organize a series of events (readalongs, online reference posts, reviews, who knows what else) to celebrate the centenary in 2019 of the chemist, writer, and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi. Levi is one of my intellectual heroes; I’d love to organize something analogous to Heavenali’s Muriel Spark centenary. (In fact, her celebration seems so well organized, I may just have to steal her format).

Along the way, I’ll keep writing reviews as I’m able. I’ll keep melding memoir and analysis when it seems relevant. And I’ll keep writing the occasional post about a writer’s work more generally. (I have something in mind about Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series and why I love it so.)

I can’t say I’ll write to order— I’m so slow, I wouldn’t last a day as a proper working writer—but I would certainly like to know what you want to read. More of the same? Something new? Please share your thoughts.

Most importantly, I want to thank everyone who’s visited, nosed around a little, read a post or two, maybe even left a comment. (And apologies again to everyone who lands here because they want to hike the Swiss Alps.) I’m especially grateful to those who follow me and/or are regular readers. Becoming part of the online community of readers and writers has been one of the best things that’s happened to me in the last few years. Your interest and support means a lot. I promise I’ll keep plugging away as best I can.

Back to climbing the book mountain…