Friday, April 26, 2013

That was my masterpiece. The best thing I’ve ever done. - the art of The Belly of Paris

The painter, Claude Lantier, young and ambitious, is the character who does not belong in The Belly of Paris, who is an outsider to Les Halles.  He is what is now called a point-of-view character, someone who can offer his eyes to the book’s reader, like a pair of binoculars.  Whenever Zola wants to go for a stroll through Les Halles he drops the painter into the novel as a guide.  Lantier is the one who sees like Zola sees.

But he never felt the elbows digging into him, he stood in ecstasy before the lungs and lights that hung from the auction hooks.  He often explained to Cadine and Marjolin that there was no sight more beautiful than this.  The lights were a tender rose-pink, deepening gradually and turning at the lower edges to a bright crimson.  Claude compared them to watered satin, finding no other term to describe the silken softness of the flowing lengths of flesh which fell in folds like the caught-up skirts of a dancer.  (164-5)

And Zola is not quite done with Lantier’s rapture, but that seems like enough.  Plus I have become distracted by metaphor – “ox hearts as solid as church bells,” “yellow sauerkraut that looked like old lace.”  Zola uses this kind of language throughout the novel, whether or not the painter is present.  It is only the painter, though, who approaches the world with the same sort of appreciative aesthetic distance as the narrator.

His reward is a scene that rivals the Symphony of Cheeses.  He describes what happened when his aunt lets him decorate the window of her charcuterie:

“I had plenty of strong colours to work with – the red of the tongues, the yellow of the hams, the blue of the paper shavings, the pink of the things that had been cut into, the green of the sprigs of heather, and the black puddings – a magnificent black, which I’ve never managed to produce on my palette.  And, of course, the caul, the sausages, the andouilles, and the crumbed trotters gave me a very subtle range of greys.  With all that I created a real work of art.”  (187)

The resulting portrait-in-foodstuffs is crowned by “a huge turkey with a white breast, marbled under its skin by the black truffles,” “magnificent, like  a huge belly,” and also “primitive and ironic.”  This is the first truffled turkey I have encountered since I started Wuthering Expectations, which is exciting.  The aunt “thought the turkey was so obscene that she threw me out.”

“Never mind!  That was my masterpiece.  The best thing I’ve ever done.”  (188)

The word "I" might refer to more than one person, only one of them fictional.  Thirteen years later, Lantier will star in his own novel, The Masterpiece, in which he likely surpasses the sausage shop window in some way or another.   I assume the later novel works quite differently than The Belly of Paris, that as Lantier becomes the object of study another character will have to step into the role of observer and tour guide.  Who will tell me which passages are particularly good?


  1. I have eaten Brillat-Savarin, but I really have to read him now.

    I've found turkey to be one of the more baffling foodstuffs to understand in France. Like corn, it's almost never on a menu, and I've even seen people pout when it's been proposed for dinner. Turkey rarely seems to be a pick for a special occasion, taking a very definite backseat to goose, pheasant or duck. The exception, though, seems to be Dinde Truffeé, so I must assume that it's the truffles everyone's after.

  2. Brillat-Savarin's book is full of crazy foodie stories - he is the crazy foodie, the stories are about himself.

    I have had turkey in France, at a Thanksgiving dinner (I contributed the green bean casserole). But, sadly, it was not truffled. How I yearn for a big jar of truffled turkey.

  3. This post somehow made me hungry.

  4. That display would get me in that sausage shop, that is for sure!

  5. I found this page while seeking a definition for the word 'lights' as used to describe body parts, most usually (or perhaps exclusively?) parts of a body that has been cut up. When I was young I thought it meant 'eyes', but I've since read things like "eyes or teeth, lights or limbs" which seems to exclude that possibility. Even in the quote above I'm not sure exactly what they are referring to, and it's one of those frustratingly ungoogleable terms, like when a band chooses a common noun for a name.

    How do you interpret the word, as used above?

  6. The funny things that Google turns up, huh?

    To a butcher, "lights" are lungs. But then, you ask, why does Zola say "lungs and lights"? He does not, actually. He wrote "des grands mous." OK, then, why does the translator say "lungs and lights"? My understanding is that this is a phrase used by British butchers. It is redundant but expressive.