Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Belly of Paris by Emile Zola

The Belly of Paris by Emile Zola (1873, 275 pages, translated by Brian Nelson)

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.

Mel u


Suzanne said...

My classics reading group is reading Germinal later this year.

The only Zola I've read so far is is J'accuse essay he wrote about the Dreyfus affair (also for the Classics Circuit) and I would like to read more; The Belly of Paris does sound interesting, but based on your description of it I might not read it while eating lunch!
I'm slowly improving my French skills so I might get brave enough to try reading him in the original language.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

One can still visit Les Halles, but now it's a shiny underground shopping mall. A little different. The original survived until 1971.

Guy Savage recently finished reading all 20 Rougon Macquart novels. I think he has a post about each one. He'll have some advice for you. He seems to be moving on (backwards) to Balzac.

They've all been translated, but some only once, a hundred years ago or more. There's a Whole Complicated Story about those old translations - obscenity trials and so on - but I don't really know it.

Mel u said...

Suzanne-it would be great to be able to read Zola in French-

Amateur Reader-I am pondering buying a Kindle (there are no true libraries here in Manila) -you can buy an E edition of complete translated novels of Zola for $3.99-most of the translations will be old public domain ones-all of Trollope for $5.95-I will check the posts of Guy Savage-thanks for the info-

Kelly said...

I took a course on Zola last Spring for school and we read 2 Zola novels in French. The Belly of Paris was one. I really loved reading your thoughts on it!

The other book we read was L'Assommoir (which I think is just the same title in English..) It was really good, but very depressing. It basically follows a woman in her slow descent into alcoholism.

I haven't read Germinal yet, but I really want to. It's my advisor's favorite Zola novel and she's read it multiple times.

I look forward to seeing what you decide to read next :)

JoAnn said...

The more Zola I read, the more I believe he should be included in the canon. The Belly of Paris will be my next Zola novel - there's a copy waiting on my shelf.

Therese Raquin is a fascinating psychological study on the effects of guilt. I'd recommend you read that one next. The Ladies' Paradise (about the rise of the modern department store) was one of my favorite novels read in 2010.

Mel u said...

JoAnn-I will start on Therese Raquin either today-I will be reading it via -thanks for the suggestion

Kelly-thanks so much for your comments-I am pondering reading all of the 20 novels in the cycle

Margot said...

I've always wanted to visit an old market area where people shop each day for that day's food. It sounds like I will get that, vicariously, in The Belly of Paris. I enjoyed reading your thoughts.

Hannah said...

As a foodie, I am so eager to read Belly. I knew of much of Zola's novels (although I have not read a single one), but I've only recently heard about this one. It and Ladies' Paradise are both high on my want-to-read pile. Nice to hear you enjoyed Belly.