|Paul Alexis reading to Emile Zola, painted by Cezanne in 869/70.|
So here goes. First up is Emile Zola, who I read as a teenager, ploughing my way through Nana and Germinal because he was a Great Socialist Hero and a Man of Principle. But I didn’t like the books, and I’ve avoided him ever since. However, Paris in July seems an ideal opportunity to revisit Zola, so I’ve opted for The Fat and The Thin or, to give it the French title, Le Ventre de Paris which, apparently, means The Belly of Paris. And before anyone asks, no, I’m not reading this in French – my failed ‘O’ Level may equip me to order a meal and black coffee, or ask for directions, but there’s no way it’s up to the task of reading a book!
The novel is set in and around the great food market of Les Halles during the middle of the 19th century, in the days of the Second Empire, when France was ruled by Napoleon III. It follows the fate of Florent, who was arrested by mistake after a failed coup against the Emperor in 1851, and imprisoned at Cayenne, in Guinea. Seven years later he escapes and makes his way back to Paris, and it is at this point that the story begins.
|Historical photo of Les Halles from , courtesy of |
Florent finds shelter with his prosperous step-brother Quenu and Quenu’s wife Lisa. They pass him off as a distant relative, and reluctantly he accepts a position as inspector at the fish market and (less reluctantly) makes friends with a small group of like-minded socialists who spend their evenings discussing politics. They plot and scheme against the government, and one of them acquires a gun, while Florent makes red armbands.
Their uprising is doomed from the start - there is government manipulation, and agents provocateurs are at work. But in the end it’s human nature that brings Florent down. Idealistic and naïve, he fails to grasp that people don’t want to be free. They’re happy as they are, they’re deeply suspicious of anything (or anyone) new or different, and they don’t want their lives upset and they’ll do anything to protect their well-being.
Old scores are paid off, new rivalries are played out, and actions are governed by greed, petty jealousies, and spite. Rumour and gossip abound. Revenge and treachery are afoot. Even the would-be revolutionaries worry about their status, and as Florent becomes important previous leader leaves.
Florent unwittingly becomes a focal point for people’s fears and unrest. All their resentments and hatreds seem to focus on him, and there’s an unacknowledged conspiracy against him, as if he is in some way responsible for all the ills of society. By the time he is caught and sent back to Cayenne there’s a sense that he is a scapegoat, punished so others can thrive and enjoy themselves.
|An old postcard showing market women in Les Halles. From |
He’s definitely not a hero in the conventional sense (it’s fair to say there are no heroes or heroines in this novel) and he’s a very unlikely revolutionary. He’s ineffectual, a thinker rather than a doer, a sensitive man who finds it difficult to make friends. He’s had a hard life, but he makes hard work of it, if that makes sense.
There’s a cast of wonderful (if unlikable) characters, like placid, self-satisfied, passionless Lisa Quenu, constrained by her corsets and her outlook on life. Set against her is the tempestuous fish girl Louise, unrestrained in behaviour and appearance. And there are market traders and shopkeepers, malicious gossipy old women, street urchins, and a host of others, all brought vividly to life. Standing apart from all is Claude Lantier, the artist who befriends Florent, and warns him about the battle between the Fat and Thin, the haves and the have-nots.
The real hero of the book (if there is one) is the market of Les Halles. There are glorious descriptions of the huge wrought iron and glass pavilions and the vegetables, fish, meat and cheese piled high in market stalls and shops. It’s very sumptuous, very sensual, very enticing, but very overpowering. There’s a surfeit of riches. You feel sated reading about it, sickened by the excess. When Florent comes back to Paris he is starving in the midst of all this. He remains thin, and is abstemious about what he eats, so the theme of hunger and gluttony, poverty and riches, fat and thin is maintained throughout the novel.
Zola writes about the:
… luxuriant fullness of the bundles of artichokes, the delicate green of the lettuces, the rosy coral of the carrots, and dull ivory of the turnips…
Or what about this description of a butcher’s shop:
There was a wealth of rich, luscious, melting things. Down below, quite close to the window, jars of preserved sausage-meat were interspersed with jars of mustard. Above them were some small, plumped, boned hams. Golden with their dressings of toasted bread-crumbs, and adorned at the knuckles with green rosettes…
And I love his account of the hot soup seller:
Along the covered way women were now selling hot soup and coffee. At one corner of the foot-pavement a large circle of customers clustered round a vendor of cabbage soup. The bright tin caldron, full of broth, was steaming over a little low stove, through the holes of which came the pale glow of the embers. From a napkin-lined basket the woman took some thin slices of bread and dropped them into yellow cups; then with a ladle she filled the cups with liquor.
|A soup stall in Les Halles - customers used the cups, and handed them back|
for the next person. I downloaded this and lost the reference.
But there’s something faintly sinister about the richness, and Quenu’s kitchen made me feel positively queasy with its:
…perfect battery of deep copper saucepans, and swelling funnels, racks of knives and choppers, rows of larding-pins and needles – a perfect world of greasy things. In spite of the extreme cleanliness, grease was paramount; it oozed forth from between the blue and white tiles on the walls, glistened on the red tiles of the flooring, gave a greying glitter to the stove, and polished the edges of the chopping-block with the transparent sheen of varnished oak…
As you read on you become aware of what lies beneath the surface: the rotting vegetable, the slaughtered animals, the blood dripping and running through the market – symbolic, perhaps, of how Zola saw the government.
The novel was worth persevering with. It was interesting and, on the whole. I enjoyed it, although there were times when I was overwhelmed by the long descriptive passages (not something which usually bothers me – it’s one of the things I love about Dickens). Some episodes didn’t seem to add anything to the story. But I will read more of Zola’s work.
This made me realise how woefully ignorant I am about French history. I did discover there really was a coup against Napoleon III in 1851. Reprisals were very harsh indeed, and hundreds of people were transported to penal colonies in South America, where conditions were notoriously bad.
Napoleon III was responsible for the way Paris looks today. He ordered the massive rebuilding programme undertaken by Baron Haussmann, and the market (designed by Victor Baltard and constructed in the 1850s) was part of the modernisation.
But if there was a Napoleon III there must have been a Napoleon II, so who was he, and what happened to him? And how come the French, having staged a revolution and established a republic, abandoned ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’ and ended up with an emperor? And how did the country become a republic again? I need a decent book on French history…
PS: Just came across a French Bingo Reading Challenge 2015 at Words and Peace, It looks interesting, so I'm giving that a go as well! There are 25 ideas for books with a French link, so I've marked this off for 'part of a series'. And I reckon it qualifies for Paulette's weekly meme, Dreaming of France, at An Accidental Blog - though I'm not sure how long I can sustain my 'French Connection'! I'll post a bit about all three challenges, and what I'm hoping to read, later in the week. (Edited July 15, 2015).