In April I read and posted on Nana by Emile Zola (1840-1902, Paris) as part of the Classics Circuit Zola month. Nana is a near photo-realistic look at prostitution in Paris during the middle of the 19th century. In Nana men are treated as if their only motive for economic activity was to have enough money to hire prostitutes. Women are seen as nearly all prostitutes of one form or another. It does not depict a pretty world and it in no way glamorises the lives of prostitutes. their clients or those who are parasites on them. Zola's descriptions of the lead character, Nana, preforming in the brothel/theater where she works, had a strong visual and visceral impact.
The Belly of Paris is set in a giant recently developed food market in Paris known as , " Les Halles". Zola goes into great detail describing the foods in the market. Some of the descriptions of the food makes you appreciate the beauty of the bounty of fruits and vegetables and some of the descriptions of the slaughter houses are very horrific. It is said that you will enjoy a great French sausage much more if you know nothing about how it is made and Zola for sure drives that point home.
The food market is so huge it is like a small town. I kept in mind as I was reading that in 1873 people shopped everyday. People, or their servants, had a butcher, a baker, a seller of poultry, a fish monger and a vegetable stall that they saw every day. The merchants and their customers knew each other. There were always a tremendous amount of gossip and scandalous going ons among workers and patrons of the market.
I thought the best thing about The Belly of Paris were Zola's marvelous descriptions of some of the people of the market. When Zola wrote about a well off man who took a stall in the market to sell vegetables but really just wanted to hear all the gossip it was completely real to me. I admit I laughed out loud when I first heard his story. The man goes on to become a successful merchant. There is also about ten pages devoted to a relationship between a boy and girl, near orphan children living in the food market that is simply wonderful. When Zola is at his best he is nearly as good as it gets. There also numerous social themes and satires in the book. Being fat is equated with being rich, thin poor. (That has really changed in the 21th century!)
The people in The Belly of Paris are not quite as nasty as those in Nana. ( Both novels are part of Zola's series of 20 novels Les-Rougon-Macquart. The Belly of Paris is work number three in the series These works depict the underside of life in Paris in the middle of the 19th century. Reading these novels would be a great reading project, assuming all have been translated.) I am not sure which of these two I like best. If one wanted you could stop by the part of Paris depicted in Nana for some entertainment and then take a carriage over to the markets of The Belly of Paris to gossip a bit with the butchers, bakers, and the fish mongers while picking out the ingredients for a great meal. As I was reading The Belly of Paris I noticed there were dozens and dozens of references to large breasts. One has to see this as tying up sexuality and food together.
I really liked The Belly of Paris. I recommend it without reservations of any kind.
I want to read more Zola. I do not know if I can fit in his 20 volume cycle in my reading plans in the years to come or not so if anyone has any suggestions as to a third Zola, please leave a comment. Also let us know if you think Zola belongs in the canon of world literature.