Review of The Belly of Paris (Les Rougon-Macquart, #3) by Émile Zola

The Belly of Pairs represents a splendid artistic development in the French novel. Combining the down and out urchin tales of Hugo and Sue, with Zola’s own brand of reportage.

It is easy to forget how teeming the streets are throughout history. Especially in Paris at this time. Legions of gossip peddlers, flower sellers, ragamuffins, illicit performers, and an infinite array of characters call the streets their home.

Putting some of the tenants of Impressionism into his work, Zola’s writing is characterized by a high level of detail. He writes with the sensibility of a painter, describing scenes as if he were composing a painting with words, including the tones, color, light, and composition of the scene. It will delight many readers, even today, like a very accurate, meticulous old film.

Zola cultivates a compulsive precision of atmosphere. In terms of his writing ability, one gets the sense he is showing off. What it lacks in lyricism it compensates for with sheer content. He has a remarkable range, and brings the marketplace of Les Halles to life.

The story of Marjolin and Cadine was precious and worthy of Hugo when it finally made its appearance in the second half of the novel. Before these characters arrived there was less focus on story and simply a ceaseless accumulation of nitty-gritty set-pieces. Of course, there are many charming segments of satire and humor throughout the book. Zola finds the joy of discovery in everything. Mixing the charm and grotesquerie of the lives of these poor urchins and the folk on the streets, scraping together a living by haggling over cabbage and pig’s feet, the essence of life is distilled, and the writing flows. It’s easy to get swept away in it.

One cannot ignore the all-pervasive meat-stink, the literal ripeness of this novel. There is an underlying fester, with the swill of blood and the cracking of bones as soundtrack. Fitting for a Post-revolutionary literary landscape, one might suppose.

Cleverly, Zola draws so much attention to butchers and fishwives, the market squabbles, and the struggling working class, it is easy to forget the political backdrop, the threat of another revolution like the one in ’48, and Florent’s unjust imprisonment.

Balzac’s shoes were still warm when Zola already started to fill them. His 20-volume cycle (Les Rougon-Macquart) took up less space than Balzac’s Human Comedy, was more methodical in structure, more researched, and more detailed in certain respects. Political, financial and artistic contexts form a multigenerational saga, and the relish and steamy splendor of the age is palpable, if not as controlled as Balzac’s subdued literary experiments.

Zola’s writing is reminiscent of D. H. Lawrence’s. It is almost teasing, as if the author is baiting you, daring you to call his work obscene. Of course, like Lawrence, Zola was charged with publishing pornography, even though the subjects he describes are merely sensual, and not even provocative by today’s standards. Still, there is a lot of flesh in this novel, most of it animal, and hanging from hooks, dripping blood onto the pavement. There are plenty of women, of course, amply described, who sort of grip the setting of the novel with their blood-doused hands. As Zola contrasts the fat and the thin in his work, most of the females are bulky, and the males tend to be frail, and foolishly ambitious. At least in this novel, the woman are working far more, sweating, putting muscle into the economy, and the men are chasing skirts and getting knocked in the head by the people in the skirts.

Zola is inexhaustible. Bringing to bear the fruit of months of research, observation and the production of his own imagination to conjure the panoply of cabbages, carrots, characters, scoundrels, drayhorses, merchantmen, and the endless catalogue of items, accessories, gewgaws and literary props, which he bandies about and piles up into two-page paragraphs stuffed with adjectives like a Dagwood sandwich. It reads like a Fellini film – if Fellini were given an infinite budget, and the film were six hours long.

Zola gravitates toward what we now call the encyclopedic mode, without quite attaining the excesses we have achieved in today’s monolithic novels. To categorize his excessive inclusions, Zola nonetheless depleted the materials of his time. The central themes of the work only become clear by degrees, concealed as they are by mounds of fleshy tripe and what not.

Less subtle than Balzac, Zola is effusive, exuberant, brazen, but well-equipped for satire and straight-faced storytelling. Why does he spend so much time writing about lard, veal and glistening hare pâté? you might wonder. As a device, as a distraction, and as a mode of communication, this description serves him well. He buries his true intention, and asks that you devour his language in order to uncover the messages lying at the bottom. Zola occupies the opposite end of the spectrum to Proust, who explored interiors and didn’t leave his bedroom for 200 pages. Natural and social history, that is what Zola wrote about. Laying the groundwork for the movement in literature called Naturalism, you cannot ignore Zola’s impressive contribution. How to represent a diseased society, how to depict human behavior as a product of its environment, and how to do it in a way that had never been done – that is the sum of Zola’s achievement. The frantic pursuit of pleasure, the mask of propriety in the empire of ill-gotten freedoms – that is what Zola observed. The voracious appetite that Balzac alluded to is given free reign in the pages of Zola.

Great literature parallels life in some way. It discusses human beings confronting their own messes, both psychological and physical. The social decomposition of Paris in the 19th century is nowhere more evident than in this documentary-esque exploration of the great city, where history bleeds from the stone walls, where the people are encumbered by pounds and layers of heavy adversity.