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.
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!
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.
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.”