|Portrait of Emile Zola by Manet
Sadly, this poor book languished on my shelves (next to Therese Raquin, also unread) until the Zola Classics Circuit was announced. Joy of joys! The Belly of Paris was pushed to the top of the to-read list. And I am so glad I read it, though I'm sorry I waited so long. This book isn't very long, but I found myself wishing it was longer. I didn't want it to end.
A summary, without spoilers: set about 1859, the story begins with Florent Quenu returning to Paris after a long absence. He was a political prisoner in Guyana, serving time for a crime which he did not commit during the uprisings in 1851 (after the Napoleon III, nephew of the the first Napoleon, overthrew the government and declared himself Emperor.) Florent has escaped the horrors of Devil's Island and has returned to Paris, penniless and practically starving. Soon he's is reunited with his half-brother who is married and running a successful charcuterie, a butcher shop that also makes sausages, pates, etc. An old friend, Gavard, gets him a job as a fish inspector in the markets. Poor Florent just wants a peaceful, quiet life but he is thrust into the world of Les Halles, with its backbiting and gossiping shop owners and food vendors, all of whom have their own agendas. All this is set against a background of whispered unrest; many people are still unhappy about the way Bonaparte took over the government. Also, Florent is uncomfortable living among the petty bourgeoisie (which include most of the food vendors) versus the poor -- what he calls the Fat and the Thin.
This isn't what you'd call a fast-paced book. To be perfectly honest, there really isn't a lot of plot -- no twists and turns and suprises here, and only some of the characters are very well-developed. Even Florent is a bit of a wet blanket for a hero. However, it's a suprisingly easy read, and the writing and the descriptions elevated this book for me. I felt like I was right there in the markets, smelling the fish, touching the fruit, and tasting the delicious pates in the Quenu's shop. If you're not into food writing, this might not be the book for you. There are a lot of descriptions, which are frequently metaphors for the people in Les Halles. In Chapter 5, Zola writes more than two straight pages of description of a fruit stand. Here's an excerpt:
This goes on for a couple more pages. I must also point out that not all the descriptions are as delicious -- there are a few sections that describe some butchering and slaughtering which are pretty unappetizing. Since Florent's brother is a butcher, there's also a lot of vivid descriptions about meat and sausage making, so vegetarians might want to skip over those parts. But please don't skip the book entirely, as it's really worth reading.
This is the third book in Zola's Rougon-Macquart cycle. I did read some of reader reviews for The Belly of Paris on Goodreads, and the general consensus was that this isn't his best work; Germinal, Nana, and Therese Raquin seem to be the favorites. But if this isn't his best, the other stuff must be great. After the rave reviews on the Classics Circuit of Therese Raquin and Germinal, Zola is moving way up on my to-read list. I may have to read the entire 20-book cycle -- 19 more books to add to my to-read list! I also need to go back and study the history of France. Le sigh.