Keith Bresnahan is Associate Professor in the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences at OCAD University in Toronto, where he also directs the Graduate program in Contemporary Art, Design and New Media Art Histories. He is also an all-around good human being and a friend of mine from way back. At the end of last year, we talked about reading something together, with the idea of each writing about it for the blog. We settled on Émile Zola’s The Belly of Paris, and I’m pleased to share Keith’s wonderful essay below. I’ll offer some thoughts of my own in a day or two.
Émile Zola, Belly of Paris [Le Ventre de Paris] (1873)
Translated by Mark Kurlansky (Modern Library, 2009)
‘What bastards respectable people are!’
This seems like as good a place as any to start, at the very end of Zola’s book, with the painter Claude Lantier’s exasperated cri de coeur at the good health and happiness of the bourgeois denizens of the Parisian district of Les Halles —their round bellies, ample breasts, and well-fed smiles.
The novel tells the story of Florent Quenu, who has escaped to Paris after some seven years of wrongful imprisonment in French Guiana, for his presumed participation in street riots of 1851. When the book opens, we see him lying in the road, emaciated and exhausted, his body blocking the passage of a midnight train of farm-carts and wagons loaded with produce destined for the central market of Les Halles. Rescued by the widowed farmer Mme François (she throws him in back, on top of the vegetables, in the first of the novel’s equations of bodies with food), Florent makes his way into the city and into the lives of his half-brother Quenu and sister-in-law the ‘Beautiful Lisa’, who run a bustling charcuterie near Les Halles.
Embroiling himself both in neighborhood spats and a disastrous radical politics, by the novel’s end Florent has once more been arrested and deported back to Guiana in what is essentially a death sentence. The novel’s final scene, providing the context for Lantier’s declamation, shows us the morning after Florent’s deportation; it is late summer, and Les Halles is bustling with happy activity, a return to order after this temporary shake-up:
The day had risen like a white fountain from the depth of rue Rambuteau. The sun was spreading its rosy light above the rooftops, bright expanses washing the pavement even at this early hour. And Claude sensed a cheerful mood awakening in these vast echoing marketplaces filled with their piles of food. It was like the pleasure of recovered health, the brightening sound of people at last relieved of a heavy burden weighing on their stomachs… All around him he could see nothing but Fats, growing, bursting with health, saluting a new day of lovely digestion.
The Belly of Paris is the third novel in Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series, and incidentally the third I’ve read (after La Bête humaine and Au bonheur des dames). It was my favorite to date, maybe the first in which the characters felt less like ciphers of some Second Empire social type, and more like people in whose lives I could immerse myself.
Its historical setting, like those of the other Rougon-Macquart novels, is the Second Empire (1852-70), as played out through the lives of a few generations of the Rougon-Macquart family (here, Lisa is née Macquart). The temporal distance between the novel’s setting in 1858 and Zola’s writing of it in 1872 feels significant; he’s writing from the other side of the Empire, which concluded with the abdication of Napoleon III during the Franco-Prussian war, but also of the 1871 Commune and its brutal repression by Versaillais forces. While these more recent historical events come after the events depicted in the novel, of course, I couldn’t help but see echoes of them here, in Florent’s fantasies of a people’s revolution and his deportation to a penal colony (in 1871, it was New Caledonia), and in smaller details peppered throughout the novel: cabbages piled like cannonballs, vegetables and market-carts forming ‘barricades,’ and so on.
The book is, of course, centered on food: its transport, display, production, and sale; the sights and smells and sounds of Paris’s central market; the overflowing displays of food in shop windows; and, somewhat hidden behind all this, hunger and privation. Zola always tells us whether a character is fat, or thin: Mme François’ donkey, Balthazar (shades of Bresson?) is ‘an overweight beast’, while Mme François herself has ‘thick arms’; Florent is thin, a beanpole (a fact that makes him immediately suspicious in the eyes of Lisa and others in the market). Lisa and Quenu’s charcuterie window, which displays “a world of good things, mouthwatering things, rich things,” is reflected in Quenu’s clean-shaven ‘pig-like’ face and Lisa’s ‘ample bosom’, her “wonderful freshness…her plump neck and rosy cheeks…echoing the pastel of the hams,” and when the childlike orphan Marjolin covets Lisa, he imagines himself taking her into his arms “as though plunging his hands into an olive barrel or a cask of dried apples.”
And then there are Zola’s lapidary descriptions of fish, meats, vegetables, fruits, and cheeses, which are one of the great pleasures of the novel: fins of skates, “cinnabar red striped with Florentine bronze, in the somber palette of toads and poisonous flowers,” salmon “gleaming like well-buffed silver…etched by a burin on a polished metal plate,” “shiny carp from the Rhine, all bronzed in beautiful rust-colored metallic, each scale like a piece of cloisonné enamel,” not to mention the Roquefort cheeses like aristocratic faces marred by disgraceful disease, or the frankly sensual description of La Sarriette’s fruit-stand, her wares and her person merging in a singular, heady sensuality:
The strawberries exhaled a scent of youth…while the baskets of grapes in weighty bunches, heavy with drunkenness, swooned over the edge of the trellis, their colors deepening in spots where they were touched by the sun’s voluptuous warmth. This was where La Sarriette lived, in an orchard of intoxicating perfumes. The less expensive fruits—cherries, plums, strawberries—were piled in a flat, paper-lined basket in front of her. They bruised one another, staining the stand with juice, a strong juice that vaporized in the heat. On those sweltering July afternoons her head would spin with the powerful, musky odor of the melons. Then, slightly inebriated and showing some more flesh under her shawl, barely ripe and still fresh from springtime, her lips pouted: many had the urge to plunder those lips.
If Zola’s novel provides an encomium to the visual and olfactory pleasures of food, the pure sensuality of ripe fruit or jewel-like fish, the book strangely has almost nothing to say about taste, or eating. I’ve tried, and failed, to remember a single extended description of taste in the whole of the book; we see people eating, but that’s all. A starving Florent muses that it had not occurred to Lantier “that all those beautiful objects were there for people to eat. He loved them for their colors.” It’s hard not to think of Zola himself. Or, indeed, of our own ‘foodie’ age, where Instagrammable plates and an obsession with artisanal production so often seems to displace the actual pleasures of eating.
In this sense, I think food is not so much the theme, but the alibi for Zola’s real interest in order (and its opposite): the characters mostly yearn for it, in the form of good profits, stable politics, marriages and family, while Zola seems to harbor a clear affection for disorder, in the overwhelming mountains of food in Les Halles, the noise of the fish auction, the innocent pleasures of the market-urchin Muche, who fills Lisa and Quenu’s daughter’s pockets with dirt and soaks himself in fountains, or the free sensuality of the orphaned lovers Marjolin and Cadine.
Zola doesn’t seem to side with Florent’s radicalism, exactly (his revolution remains a delusional adolescent fantasy) but he also turns a critical eye onto the bourgeois obsession with order and calm that manifests itself in the speech and behavior of the denizens of Les Halles. As Lisa puts it, ‘I support a government that’s good for business. If they commit acts of evil, I don’t want to know.’ When she goes to the prefecture of police to turn in her brother-in-law, she finds that half the neighborhood has beat her to the punch, assuaging whatever guilt she might have had. And when Marjolin attempts to rape Lisa, what might have been the basis for melodrama (she strikes him, causing him to hit his head on a stone table and reducing him to a permanent state of idiocy) is defused, all simply seems to be for the best: Marjolin has entirely forgotten what happened, and if anything is happier than before.
There’s a message here: the comfortable morality of the bourgeois shop-keepers, their support for whatever is ‘good for business’, is equated with the ready availability of food, which acts as a political soporific. And it’s seductive: in one of the novel’s best passages, when Florent accepts (at Lisa’s urging) a job as inspector of the fish market, he feels himself giving in not only to this single request, but to a great wave of contentment:
It was as though he were permeated by the smell of the kitchen, the nourishment of all the food that had been loaded into the air. He slid into the happy lethargy that is brought on by eating well and living in fat…He felt a tingling on his skin, the seduction of fat slowly invading his entire being, rendering him soft and easy like a contented shopkeeper. At this late hour of night, in this overheated room, all his bitterness and determination melted away… he found himself wishing for more, for an endless succession of such evenings, slowly fattening him.
It is above all Les Halles, that ‘gluttonous beast’, the beating heart of a Paris wallowing in fat, which props up a grotesque Empire by rendering all, like fat itself, soft and easy: “it was the belly of shopkeepers, the belly of ordinary people puffing themselves up, celebrating in the sunshine, declaring that everything was for the best, since passive people had never been so well fattened.” Those who are full, forget their complaints. And political fanatics, Lisa notes, get nothing to eat.