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

  1. At least two days a week, here in Lyon, I go to markets and mostly just look, extensively, reveling in the beauty. It is one of the great pleasures of this city. I also buy, but there are budgetary limits – monetary, caloric – and anyway I will never be able to eat all of the varieties of cheeses and patés. So I look. I do not listen, since the cheeses, with refrigeration, no longer sing.

    Anyway, what a treat to read these posts.

    I happen to be reading a contemporary descendant of Zola, Philippe Delerm, who specializes in short descriptive prose about sensory experiences. The book that made his reputation is The First Throatful of Beer and Other Minuscules Pleasures / La Première Gorgée de bière et autres plaisirs minuscules (1997). More radical than Zola, he decided to just write the arias, the descriptions, and drop everything else. The title story is barely over a page, and is about exactly what it says. As with Zola, despite all the food and drink in his book, there is very little about taste. The taste of the beer is contained in a sentence. The taste of the banana split in “Un banana split” is ignored, since the great pleasure for an adult is really in the folly of ordering the ridiculous thing. Our vocabulary of eating, of taste, is so limited.

    The idea of order fits the politics of the narrator of Germinal. That Zola desperately wants to help the workers and the poor – he wants to help them become bourgeois, less filthy and promiscuous! Which is certainly one kind of help.

    Bleak House competes with Belly in greasiness, although the grease is concentrated in one character, possibly in one scene.

    • Thanks, Tom, for the kind words and the smart thoughts. I envy you those Lyon markets, but I take your point that refrigeration would kill the singing of the cheese.
      Germinal is on my list. It’s interesting what you say about it, because here he is so ambivalent (at best) about the bourgeois (or petit bourgeois, I guess–Lisa and her husband don’t own the means of production, right, so they aren’t bourgeois? I’m never sure how to use this term with precision.) Maybe Zola condemns the bourgeois more in novels that don’t feature the poor. Poverty is surprisingly absent in Belly.

    • Ah, sorry, I mean French bourgeois, not Marxist bourgeois. “Bourgeois in Flaubert’s sense is a state of mind, not a state of pocket. A bourgeois is a smug philistine, a dignified vulgarian.” (from Nabokov’s “Philistines and Philistinism“). Zola still loathes their philistinism and complacency.

      If Zola really believed that heredity was destiny, Marxism would not have many attractions. But I am not sure he really believed that. Nor am I entirely sure he believed what I wrote above. Ambiguous scraps pieced together.

      • That quote from Nabokov is helpful. The characters in Belly are plenty smug and Zola indeed seems to hate them.
        Good point about heredity as destiny being inimical to Marxism (and I don’t doubt the importance of heredity in Zola has been overstated–sounds like a critical commonplace). Though I guess there is a particularly doctrinaire Marxism that believes in *it* as a kind of destiny (Marxism as millenarianism) where those two concepts could align.

  2. OK, OK, I’m adding this to my list! The combined weight of your posts is irresistible!

    In response to the question about Madame Francois, it made me think about how in 19th century English literature, there are often pastoral scenes and images that are presented as an impossible or unrealistic ideal, as if authors are looking to the idyllic natural world for solutions even as they realize that these solutions are not really viable in the modern urbanized world. Is there any of that going on here? Is Madame François an ideal that could never be tenable in the belly of Paris? This doesn’t address the extreme orderliness of the vegetables though; conversely, is she a synthesis of the best parts of nature (wholesome vegetables) with the best parts of culture (order)? Sorry if these are stupid questions; without having read the book, I don’t know if this really makes any sense.

    • Glad we have sealed the deal!
      Not stupid questions at all. I think the idea of the synthesis makes a lot of sense–her idyll might be bucolic but it’s productive, not wayward or romantically wild.
      What I was trying to get at in my post was the mixed message the novel sends. It’s pretty clear Madame François is one of the only decent human beings in the book, and the day at her farm is the only break Florent gets on the inexorable path to his unhappy end. (Though since it’s Zola and that determinism is so powerful the chance that this idyll could be anything more than the briefest respite is never in doubt.)
      And yet the almost demonic energy of those long descriptive passages just isn’t there in the farm scene. I think the conscious of the book dutifully believes in the synthesis idea, but its unconscious is fixated on the charnel house of Les Halles.

      • Great post, Dorian.
        I love your description of Zola’s descriptions, their too-much muchness, and the way they seem to subvert their realist/naturalist aims, in becoming nearly illegible (glad I’m not the only one who finds them difficult to process). These descriptive caesurae really do interrupt the narrative — when they end, and the narrative (such as it is) resumes, I always find myself slightly disoriented, having to go back and recover the thread. Except, as you say, the description really does seem to be the thing itself. But it’s tricky to figure out just what it’s doing.

        I felt differently about this in Au bonheur des dames, where the overwhelming descriptions of consumer goods on display — organized by the master salesman/showman Octave Mouret — puts the reader in the same position as his hapless customers, flummoxed and amazed as this excess. There, the effect of all this description actually seemed to serve the aims of the narrative, rather than its own aims, as it does here. Though the tendency toward the grotesque, in both passages you quote, does seem to suggest that Zola finds something unsettling about all this matter, all this flesh, the blood and the skin and the too-close parallels with our own bodies.

        I’m glad you brought up Madame François, the good-natured heart of this novel. You call her ‘the old lady,’ but the novel has Florent guessing her age at about 35 (not young, perhaps, but not old, either!). I had a pretty clear sense that her invitation to Florent to stay at the farm was at least partly a romantic proposal — not that he noticed, or would take her up on it if he did. We haven’t discussed Florent’s relations with women, but these are another intriguing aspect of his character; he’s at once intimidated by them, frightened by the unsubtle physicality of the market-women, and seemingly totally indifferent to sexual matters. Indeed, his lack of a sexual persona and almost genderless character are just another way in which he appears out-of-step with nature, and with social norms, a misfit in the world of the novel: think of Lisa’s amazement on entering the room he’s occupied for months, to find it still smelling like the shopgirl who previously lived there, unstamped by any trace of masculinity.

        Then there’s the dead woman from 1851, whom he idealizes, at least until his would-be paramour the Beautiful Norman comments on how she must look now and his image of her is turned into a grossly funereal one of rotting flesh. Not unlike, perhaps, the transformation of the idyllic garden-plot on Mme François’ farm into the stacks of vegetables in Les Halles, and then into rotten scraps used for compost? But at least here there is a cyclical regeneration whereby compost feeds new growth, whereas Florent is left merely with death and decay.

        In any case, as regards Madame François, you’re right that this idyll, with its gentle descriptions, is never presented as a real possibility for Florent or Lantier; they can visit this world, but are incapable of staying in it. Lantier is too much a creature of the city he loves, but Florent is already on the other side of something, too far gone to entertain a thought of pastoral escape. Even if he now sees Paris as Mme François does, as a charnel-house, a malignant influence, he can’t escape its centripetal force. Ill-at ease in the city, he must go back — to suffer in Les Halles, to give vent to his spleen in the conspiratorial group at the local bar, and plan destruction in his little room.

        The pleasant, healthful order of nature on Mme François’ farm contrasts with the ordered disarray of the market, and this is reflected in the modes of description we see in each case: if there’s a kind of ordering in Les Halles, whereby each vegetable, fruit, fish or meat is set into in its place, this is just a temporary victory over the will to entropy and degeneration that dominates here. In the end, whatever its bucolic origins, it’s all just so much stuff once it sits or hangs there for sale, matter transformed — if the hanging birds still retain something of their living origins, how much less so the closed-circuit of flesh in Lisa’s charcuterie, where pork, endlessly turned into multiple forms, is endlessly repeated in the mirrored phantasmagoria.

        There are characters here who do seem to escape this imposed order, who appear much closer to the immediacy of their desires, and I suggested in my post that Zola’s sympathies lie with them (Muche, Cadine and Marjolin, and even the oblivious, good-humored Quenu). But Florent is not one of them. Ill-fitting, uncomfortable with bourgeois comforts, he’s also no nature-boy: and his planned rebellion is as orderly as all get-out, down to the highly specific designs of colored arm-bands for the troops.

      • I’m shocked by what you say about Madame François–by which I’m shocked by my misreading of her character. I absolutely thought of her as old, somehow missing entirely his estimation of her age (35 being older then than now, but not *that* old…). I can’t even put this down to having read the book several weeks ago: I just misread her. It’s got me re-evaluating to see what else I missed. (Maybe her being a widow fed into my sense of her as older?) I just read the scene at the farm again and you are right, she does seem to be extending him a romantic/sexual/financial offer. I’m like Florent himself–totally clueless!
        You make a number of other excellent points in your reply. Agreed that Zola’s descriptive mania works differently, and more effectively, in Au bounheur des dames, since it matches the disorientation the department store is designed to incite.
        And your point about the highly ordered nature of his rebellion is well taken. Another sign of how it is doomed to failure, to turn to shit all the highly patterned, arranged, and ordered and yet nonetheless decaying leftover food.
        About Zola’s interest in Muche, Cadine and Marjolin, yes, I guess I see it. But does their connection to their bodies–their readiness to satisfy their desires (and not just to consume)–amount to anything? Maybe I’m too much under the sway of the idea of order and productivity we’re interrogating here, but I don’t see the novel finding much to value here. Does Zola put characters like these at the center of any of the other books in the series?

  3. To be fair, I had to keep reminding myself that Madame François was 30-something: she does seem much older, part of which is that Zola makes her such a maternal figure to Florent, a woman of solid wisdom imparting advice and care to him.

    Here’s my take on the free sensuality and antics of Muche, Cadine, Marjolin; they’re the only characters here who seem to totally escape the otherwise pinched, ordered, spiteful networks of Les Halles, and Zola takes total pleasure in them. But they’re not exemplars for others to follow, this would be impossible: they just are how they are. Their desires are so much closer to a free nature, but this can’t be taught. Thus, the shocking freedom they take never really amounts to a scandal, because they operate as individuals somehow outside of the norms of the neighborhood. If I can draw a parallel to another phrase in the novel, I think these characters ‘tickle’ Zola, just as Claude Lantier, rejecting Florent’s arch-serious politics, argues that the latter plays with revolution because it tickles him, just as art tickles this Cézanne-by-another-name (they both want to shock the bourgeoisie, but more for the thrill it would bring them).

    • Nice points, especially about how their freedom doesn’t create a scandal. So you’re saying these figures aren’t even the exception that proves the rule (the steam the system has to let off), but are outside the rules altogether?

  4. Also, I think it’s interesting — but right — that neither of us have even mentioned what others might see as the main conflict of this novel? i.e. the rivalry between Beautiful Lisa and the Beautiful Norman, and the neighborhood gossip that circulates around it. For me, at least, this felt (excuse the fishy pun) like a red herring, a distraction from the real concerns of the book, despite the attention it receives.

  5. I can’t add anything to the learned conversations above as I’ve only read Therese Raquin and that was many years ago. I was, however, pleased at the coincidence of your post and my increasing belief that I should have my own Zola phase, partly driven by just how much is easily available in translation. A quick check revealed a further two titles coming from Oxford this year!

    • Yes, please do. I think Keith & I might read more and I welcome anyone who wants to join! Good news about OUP. I just looked those up. It’s great: I think they are going for the whole series. Excellent news.

  6. I can’t wait to read this. I’m no authority on French literature, but am struck by the proximity of these descriptions to the Decadent movement – and with The Belly of Paris falling sort of halfway between Fleurs du Mal and Huysmans.

    The Gursky photos are a great touch, Dorian. I’m particularly thinking of an observation, maybe from Gursky himself, about that first photo, that digital photography for the first time allowed a rectangular frame to have the same degree of detail everywhere on the surface without distortion. I’m guessing Zola would have loved that. And looking at those photos, I wonder if the equivalent title for a post about a Belly of Paris-esque contemporary novel might be “A Whole World Wrapped in Plastic.”

    • Great observation, Scott. I’m ignorant of French decadent literature, but i can see what you’re saying based on what I’ve heard about, say, Huysmans. I guess the big difference is that Zola is ambivalent about his excesses and Huysmans eats them up.
      I love what you say about Gursky. My idea in pairing them with this piece was naive–a mere similarity in content. Much more satisfying to think about a connection in form, too.
      Yes, even our fats (and sugars) come wrapped in plastic…
      I hope you are able to get to the Zola, since I’m curious what you’ll make of it. BTW, Keith and I are continuing on to The Fortune of the Rougnons if you (or anyone else) want to join in…

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