Monday, September 24, 2012

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.

        “LE VENTRE DE PARIS” (“THE BELLY OF PARIS”) by Emile Zola (first published 1873)

            In this week’s “Something New” I have, among other things, been looking at the work of poets who are interested in a sense of place and who evoke it by a piling-on of physical detail. It occurs to me that there are some novels in which a sense of specific place is more decisive and central than characterisation, plot and those other things that we tend to make our focus in novels. One such novel is Emile Zola’s Le Ventre de Paris. The title means literally The Belly of Paris – and the novel was finally translated into English under this title only recently. Earlier translations bore the more questionable titles The Fat and the Thin (which relates to a fable of wealth and poverty that one character tells in the novel) and Savage Paris.

            The most interesting thing about the novel is its vivid depiction of Les Halles, old Paris’s central food markets.

            I must say a word about my relationship with Emile Zola (1840-1902). Years ago I read his Therese Raquin, Germinal and La Bete Humaine (which I still think is his most powerful work). But I didn’t begin to read my way systematically through his 20-volume Rougon-Macquart series until about six years ago. I happened then to have a short-term lectureship in History at Otago and I fell into conversation with (as far as I know) New Zealand’s sole academic expert on Zola, resident at that university. I tried to convert her to the One True Church of Balzac, but she talked up Zola so I decided to give him a proper trial. I determined to do it the hard way by reading Les Rougon-Macquart in sequence and in the original French. Tackling them at the rate of about two a year, I’m still only halfway through the series.

            With my usual crude judgemental-ism, I’ll jump in and give an opinion on Zola. No matter how detailed his social documentation may be, his social philosophy is bunkum. A determinist and essentially a pessimist, he has a mechanistic view of human beings as little more than instincts and social conditioning. This is implicit in the whole theory of Naturalism. His parade of psychotics, alcoholics, thugs, whores, ineffectual dreamers and political schemers makes no room for altruism (it’s hard to find that quality in many of his characters) and little room for real intellect. Though he may have been a supporter of the democratic French republic, he comes close to saying that the mass of its human material is ordure. (The novels were written during the Third French Republic but are all set earlier, in dictatorial Napoleon III’s non-democratic Second Empire – however, the point still stands). Zola is a zoologist looking down on maimed human animals. His strident anti-clericalism is tiresome propaganda, his plots are often resolved by wild melodrama, the psychology of his characters is crude and his most consistent tone is sustained contempt.

            And yet – damn and blast the fellow – he is very readable. Indeed far more readable than many more self-consciously ‘literary’ novelists. Wincing at his simplifications, I still find myself reading his works with interest, dragged along by his crowded plots and his detailed physical descriptions and his sense of specific time and place, until the mood is sated and I wait another six months before taking up another in the series. I also salute a man who had such energy as a writer and who was producing some of his most mature works when he was still in his thirties.

            Le Ventre de Paris is the third of Les Rougon-Macquart and is far from the best or best-known. (La Curee, L’Assommoir, Nana, Germinal and La Bete Humaine tend to be the ones that are most often singled out for praise, or are turned into movies.)

            Though it is crowded with incidental characters, its plot is simplicity itself. Florent is a political dissident – a republican opponent of Napoleon III - who has managed to escape from Devil’s Island and return illegally to Paris. The artist Claude Lantier (more-or-less the novel’s only sympathetic character) looks after him and directs him to the charcuterie (grill) run by Florent’s half-brother Quenu and Quenu’s very petite bourgeoise wife Lisa. The two of them offer Florent a share of their inheritance and try to coax him into becoming part of the business. Florent, however, has no desire to join the bourgeoisie and takes a job as an inspector of fresh fish in the markets, Les Halles.

            Not a very muscular sort of chap, Florent gets teased mercilessly by some of Les Halles’ rougher traders -   the young fish-seller called “la Normande”, the nosey woman Mademoiselle Saget and others. Zola follows his typical Naturalist method by telling us exactly what the trade of each is and what it entails. One element of the plot has Florent idealistically offering basic tuition to a young illiterate guttersnipe. Another concerns the roving foundlings Marjolin and Cadine who know all the secret passages and by-ways and hidey-holes of Les Halles. 

            But alone in his room at night, Florent still dreams of revolutionary glory and writes of his sufferings at the hands of the regime. Zola defines his plans for revolution dismissively as “cette conception a la fois enfantine et scientifique” (“this idea at once childish and scientific”). Florent joins a republican discussion group conducted in a bistro. Here loud-mouthed plotters, who seem to be mainly hot air, draw up elaborate and unrealisable plans to curse the emperor, overthrow the government, etc. etc.

            Florent’s life falls apart, however, when rumours of his revolutionism start circulating around Les Halles. His sister-in-law Lisa is shocked to discover red revolutionary banners and brassards in Florent’s room. Concerned for her comfortable lower-middle-class life, and not wishing to be condemned by association with a dissident, Lisa persuades herself that she is doing the right thing by going to the police prefect and informing on Florent and his revolutionary group. The silly woman is shocked to discover (even if we aren’t) that the imperial police have been following Florent’s every move since he returned to France. They already have a thick file of denunciations of him, written by all Lisa’s neighbours and supposed friends. In the typical Zola universe – so much for neighbourly solidarity!

            In the upshot Florent and about twenty others (some innocent of any politics) are put on trial as the government claims to have discovered a huge conspiracy. Florent is once again transported. But, as Zola tells it, after a brief uproar Les Halles goes back to its “fat” smug life. There is no proletarian nobility here. There is no lower-middle-class nobility. The sympathetic Claude Lantier feels a wave of disgust. The final words of the novel are his angry cry “Quels gredins que les honnetes gens!”, which could be fairly translated as “What bastards law-abiding people are!

            As read by Zola, Les Halles is a massive symbol of the flourishing lower-middle-class and their proletarian employees who themselves are the “belly” of Paris as they make themselves comfortable and consume without any thought for ideals, betterment of their fellows or social improvement. Zola essentially sees them as the willing material on which dictatorships are built. The attitude they implicitly express is “I am comfortable, so why should I worry about politics and other people’s sufferings?”. And yet, as in Zola’s other overtly political novels, the spirit of the democratic opposition isn’t particularly admirable either. Florent, the chief representative of republicanism, is an impractical dreamer. The subversive people he associates with are poseurs who run away at the first threat. “La Belle Normande”, who seems at one stage likely to join Florent’s opposition to dictatorship, is easily bought off with a married life of material comfort.

            Read in these terms, then, this is another Zolaesque demonstration of the greed, self-interest and depravity of human animals.

            And yet in another sense, this is a complete misrepresentation of Le Ventre de Paris. For the fact is, its feeble wisp of plot (impractical revolutionary comes to Les Halles, observes it, and then is shopped back to deportation) is as much the pretext for long and elaborate descriptions as it is the pretext for social commentary.

            Take the opening chapter. It chronicles Florent’s return to Paris, but most of it is taken up with a presentation of the markets as they wake up before dawn and set up for business selling fruit, vegetables, flowers and meat. When, in a later chapter, we get to the charcuterie, its work and its materials and its sights and sounds are meticulously chronicled – the making of black-pudding, the hissing of pans of fat and lard, the particular cuts of meat that are being prepared. Of course Zola being Zola, he can’t help overlaying this with a certain sordor. To an inquisitive child,  Florent tells the tale of his escape from Devil’s Island at the very time that Quenu is engaged in making black pudding. So the images of blood dripping into a pan are counter-pointed with images of bodies ripped up and savaged by sharks, a shipwrecked man having his guts eaten out by crabs and so forth. Carnivorous man, in Zola’s telling, is at one with nature red in tooth and claw. Once Florent is an inspector of fresh fish in the markets, every fish on display is described for us, as are the methods of sale by auction, the hooks upon which some wares hang, the (pre-refrigeration) methods used to keep food fresh. The wanderings of the two free-ranging ragamuffins Marjolin and Cadine in Les Halles allow descriptions of the architecture of the markets, the hiding places they find, the workers there and the foodstuffs.

            So dominant is physical description in this novel (even more dominant than the description of railways in La Bete Humaine; even more dominant than the descriptions of Paris being ripped up and rebuilt in La Curee) that Zola sometimes emerges as the last thing one would expect him to be – a poet. There is an odd sort of lyricism in the piling on of physical detail and yet more physical detail. It is like a dizzying materialist poem. This is the position Robert Jouanny takes in the introduction to the (French-language) Flammarion edition of the novel (1971) in which he gives a detailed account of Zola’s meticulous research methods and then notes with amusement that most contemporary critics tired of the novel’s sordid descriptiveness. ( The decadent “Satanic Catholic” Barbey d’Aurevilly complained “aujourd’hui on nous donne de la charcuterie, demain ce sera de la vidange” – “today we’re given a grill; tomorrow we’ll get the contents of a night cart”).

            For all the negative things I’ve said about Zola, I give him the benefit of the doubt for this particular novel.

            Forgive me both for my word-processor’s lack of French accents, and for not providing translations (I’ve read this one only in the original), but Zola’s opening judgement on Les Halles sets up his moral perspective:

 “…. elles apparurent comme une machine moderne, hors de toute mesure, quelque machine a vapeur, quelque chaudiere destinee a la digestion d’un people, gigantesque ventre de metal, boulonne, rive, fait de bois, de verre et de fonte, d’une elegance et d’une puissance de moteur mecanique, fonctionnant la, avec la chaleur du chauffage, l’etourdissement, le branle furieux des roues.” (Chapter One).

            Florent’s judgment underlines this perspective:

 “Les Halles geantes, les nourritures debordantes et fortes, avaient hate la crise. Elles lui semblaient la bete saitsfaite et digerant, Paris entripaille, cuvant sa graisse, appuyant sourdement l’Empire. Elles mettaient autour de lui des gorges enormes, des reins monstrueux, des faces rondes, comme de continuels arguments contre sa maigeur de martyr, son visage jaune de mecontent. C’etait le ventre boutiquier, le ventre de l’honnetete moyenne, se ballonnant, heureux, luisant au soleil, trouvant que tout allait pour la mieux, que jamais les gens de moeurs paisibles n’avaient engraisse si bellement.”(Chapter Three)

            I hope some good English translations get the flavour of this.

            Le Ventre de Paris is a novel in which place itself is characterised and arrests our attention far more than plot or the psychological development of characters do. For all the Zolaesque sordor, the profusion of detail is oddly lyrical, even if Zola cannot help being disgusted. It conveys sounds, smells and sights the way a good poem does.

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