Saturday, April 27, 2013

He found a splendid subject for a painting - what The Belly of Paris is about

Of course I emphasize the aesthetic argument of The Belly of Paris, since that is what I usually do, but I do not believe that I overemphasize it.  Gustave Flaubert is still alive and writing in 1873, and this is a novel by a disciple.

My suspicion is that The Belly of Paris is written primarily for passages like the ones I have been writing about, that the plot and characters and so on serving as frames and picture-hanging wire.

He would rejoin them on the opposite side of the street, where he found a splendid subject for a painting: the stallkeepers under their big faded umbrellas, red, blue, and mauve, which, mounted on poles, formed little humps of colour throughout the market, catching the fiery glow of the setting sun, before it faded away over the carrots and turnips.  One vendor, an old woman of about a hundred, was sheltering three scrawny lettuces under a battered umbrella of pink silk.  (171)

I wonder if this is stolen from an actual painting, a Murillo or something like that.

Frankly, I have trouble taking Zola seriously on any subject but art.  I have only read three Zola novels, and none of those the right novels, which I think by reputation would be Nana and Germinal, so I know I am missing a lot.

Zola was a great champion of the poor, or so I understand, but none of these novels have been about the poor.  The Kill is about the nouveau riche, Thérèse Raquin and The Belly of Paris about bourgeois shopkeepers.  L’Assommoir is about poor people, isn’t it – that one comes four years after Belly, and it’s then another eight years to Germinal.  I am just saying that you would not think of Zola as any sort of crusader based on the three books I have read.

The Belly of Paris is also a novel about politics, with a plot about a group of radicals planning to overthrow Louis Napoleon’s government, which is portrayed as, essentially, a police state.  This part of the story features an outstanding twist which would have made Kafka laugh, and the resolution of the story is good, too, with the women of Les Halles, the shopkeepers, at open war with the radicals, using the strongest weapon they have, which turns out to be gossip.  I am only giving away a surprise to readers unfamiliar with French history.  In 1858 a plan for revolution can only fizzle or dissolve; it will not explode.

I do not doubt Zola’s contempt for Louis Napoleon’s oppressive government or for the fat, complacent bourgeois.  Apparently fearing I will miss the point, he gives the painter a monologue about the Battle of the Fat and the Thin, “two hostile groups, one of which devours the other and grows fat and sleek and endlessly enjoys itself” (191).  The book has eighty pages left, but the ending is no longer in doubt, even setting aside the fact that the revolutionaries are complete fools.

My suspicion, based on what I know about the author but to some degree sniffed out from some of the ambivalences in this novel, is that Zola was aware that he was one of the Fat – thus the loving descriptions of food, the marvelous excess of the writing – but had a novelist’s sympathy for the Thin.  But I am likely just projecting, since I am also one of the Fat.


  1. I think Zola aspired to depicting teh entire range of French society across teh Rougon-Macquart novels. "L'Assommoir" does indeed deal with poor people in the Parisian slums; "Germinal" deals with miners, who are poor; and "La Terre" deals with peasants, many of whom are poor (and those who aren't are nasty, mean, grasping bastards).

    I do enjoy Zola, but do feel that compared to a Flaubert, his vision was, perhaps, a bit limited. Nonetheless, I enjoy his trademark over-the-top set pieces, and also his love of shocking the reader. And he does shock: the final chapters of "La Terre" still give me nightmares!

    I think you're right in that Zola was one of teh Fat, and, despite his genuine sympathy with the Thin, enjoyed being Fat. (Me too! Me too!) But ola did behave with extraordinary courage and integrity in the Dreyfus Affair, and was very likely murdered because of it.

  2. Yeah, my question is why Zola wanted to depict the whole range etc. I am sliding over into a heretical answers to that question. Still, just three books, all early, who knows. Zola had a long career left. The Dreyfus Affair was 25 years after The Belly of Paris. A lot can change.

  3. I have only read two Zola books, Germinal and Au Bonheur des Dames. Before I read these I also thought of Zola as a socialist and a champion of the poor. Germinal certainly fits this idea, but Au Bonheur des Dames is different. It is about the rise of the department store and how it put smaller shops out of business. In this book he was fairly sympathetic to the rise of the big shops, though he was also very sympathetic to the concerns of the employees. But overall that book was certainly not anti-capitalist though it does not pretend that the department store owner is altruistic.

  4. That is so interesting - that is just the impression I got from The Belly of Paris. What is a good way to put it. Zola appears to loathe the shopkeepers (for their complacency and pettiness), but not shopkeeping. He is not against charcuteries and produce stands!

  5. I so far agree that Zola is not crusading against the poverty of Paris as maybe Dickens was of London. He is trying to prove his points about heredity determine destiny.

  6. I've got to read one of Zola's books about poor people and get my head straight.