Monday, November 1, 2010

Anatomy of the Belly

Zola's Le Ventre de Paris (1873), the third novel in the Rougon-Macquart series, is a mix of two distinct genres of prose fiction. First. there is a pretty straightforward novel, where the protagonist (Florent), escapes from imprisonment in Devil's England, gets a job through family connections in the Les Halles, and after getting caught up in a socialist conspiracy, is arrested and sent off again.

The second stream in the book is what Northrop Frye in His Anatomy of Criticism (1957) termed "anatomy". Among other things, literary anatomies take delight in cataloguing and describing the features of the world around it. If novels are aimed at describing the social world, anatomies dwell on the objects that make up the material world.

Le Ventre de Paris is an in-depth portrait of the newly upgraded central food market, literally from top (the glass and cast iron roofing) to bottom (the sub-basements),. a prose poem delighting in vivid descriptions and long lists of the goods on sale. The tour ranges from a loving look at the contents of the Quénu charcuterie to the sights and and smells of the market for fresh-and salt-water fishes. It includes in-depth visits to the vegetable sellers, the fruiterers, the florists, the cheese sellers, the butchers, the bakers, and so on.

Part of this description is painterly. We see in part through the eyes of Claude Lantier, an avant-garde (Cézanne-like) painter who will figure as the hero of his own book later in the series (L'Oeuvre). We are meant to see vividly the colors, the shimmering of the goods, even in the darkness of pre-dawn and the shimmering of gas-light.

But Zola engages all our senses: smells (both pleasing and putrid but mist notable in the so-called "Cheese Symphony"), tastes (blood sausage to carrots), textures (as the various workers get their hands in the products they make prepare and serve), and noises (the early-morning cacophony, the bustle and gossip of the workers).

For the non-native reader, the vocabulary mountain is high, and while one might be tempted to skip over the various fishes or sausages, the fact is that the poetry, and the point, is in the details. This poem – which has no logical beginning pr end, run in parallel with the more traditional narrative of Florent's modest rise and fall.

The tone is Rabelaisian, both in terms of the wide and concrete vocabulary, and the sense of connection to the real, multi-sensory word, both wondrous and nauseating -- after all, the belly is at the center of both Gargantua and Le Ventre de Paris. Zola reintroduces the Rabelaisian into French literature.

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