Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Zola is a big show-off - Claude stopped in his tracks, uttering little cries of admiration

The belly of Paris is a farmers market, Les Halles, built in the 1850s as one of the many massive and rapid changes to the city from which Zola gets so much juice.  The Belly of Paris is set in 1858 or so, fifteen years before its publication, when the modern glass and iron building is novel, when the society that forms around and within it is new.  The structure was gargantuan, worthy of the city of Rabelais.

In a fit of insanity, urban planners tore it down in 1971 and replaced it with a sterile park and tony, useless underground shopping mall.  This in a country with the gastronomic heritage of France.  Perhaps they will rebuild it someday.  In a spirit of full disclosure, you are reading someone who, when in Europe, will go to a market every day if possible.

Florent, “remarkably long and as thin as a rake” (4), has escaped from Devil’s Island and made his way back to France where – I have to interrupt and mount one of my many colorful hobbyhorses.  Here we have another of the strangely plentiful French novels with a protagonist who has escaped from prison.  At least he is not super strong.  Although other characters in the novel are super strong ("He likes to do a strong-man act; he's got a magnificent physique," 20).  I do not get it.

So the thin, starving Florent is deposited in Les Halles.  He was imprisoned for political crimes (so this is a novel of 1848 and thus also a novel of 1871), and eventually becomes tangled up in politics again, giving the novel something of a story.  The Fat consume the Thin.  Honestly, a third of the way in I had no idea what the story as such was going to be, nor did I care much, nor, based on the wandering way he tells it did Zola.  He was busy with other things.

Boy, as I leaf through the first chapter, I feel like I could quote almost anything.  It is a long, continuous scene that takes the character to and around the market, showing it off to Florent and to me, and showing Zola off in the process.

On the footpath in the Rue Rambuteau there were some enormous piles of cauliflowers, stacked symmetrically like cannon balls.  Their soft white flesh spread out like huge roses in the midst of their thick green leaves, and they looked rather like bridal bouquets displayed on giant flower stalls.  Claude stopped in his tracks, uttering little cries of admiration.  (17)

Claude is me, reading this chapter.  By the way, does “giant flower stalls” sound weird?  “[A]lignés dans des jardinières colossales”?  The translation is British, so perhaps “stalls” sound fine in British English.

Remind me to return to Claude.  He is a painter, and likely an extrusive element in the novel, an unnecessary representative of Art, but he also supplies a scene as impressive and insane as the Symphony of Cheeses.

…  the opening to the Rue Rambuteau was blocked by a barricade of orange pumpkins in two rows, sprawling at their ease and swelling out their bellies.  Here and there gleamed the varnished golden-brown of a basket of onions, the blood-red of a heap of tomatoes, the soft yellow of a display of cucumbers, and the deep mauve of aubergines; while large black radishes, laid down in funereal carpets, formed dark patches in the brilliance of the early morning.

Claude clapped his hands at the sight.  (26)

Maybe, given this kind of passage, the painter is the omniscient narrator.  And maybe, given a revolutionary plot, there is some foreshadowing here – cannon balls, street barricades, “blood-red,” “funereal carpets.”  True, there is, but every reader and I know that there weren’t no revolution in 1858.


  1. "Stalls" is not right at all.

    One just has to sigh looking at Les Halles today (or even tomorrow, if the current transformation of it is going to be anything like what it appears it's going to be). Fortunately, one can still find a few significantly downsized yet still spectacular markets around Paris entirely capable of inspiring Zola-like cries of admiration.

  2. A fine Parisian treat is to visit the giant flower stalls around the corner from Notre Dame, but I could not see how that made sense in this context.

    You would think - I mean I would - that the foodie tourism alone would justify a rebuilt Les Halles, a Paris-scaled version of something like what Paul Bocuse organized in Lyon.

  3. "Still Life on an Empty Belly."

    When is the last time tomatoes were local and healthy enough to be blood red? Here, they're all a demoralized orange.

  4. Those black radishes are hard to find, too, but I have seen them with my own eyes. Perhaps there is something going on with the light effects in this passage. Zola had the eye of an Impressionist painter.

  5. What, no black radishes in your local markets? They're rather bland raw, but are very nice roasted with other root vegetables, preferably with garlic and butter. (I think this post calls for recipes...)

  6. Black radishes, no, almost never. Roasted radishes are common fare in our home in season.

    Recipe: Clean, trim, oil, salt, roast.