Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Belly of Paris by Emile Zola

Portrait of Emile Zola by Manet
 I love any kind of food writing.  Books about food, memoirs with recipes, restaurant reviews -- I love all of them.  I've been fascinated by food and cooking since I was a child and watched Julia Child on PBS with my mother.  I also went to cooking school (not a famous one), worked as a pastry cook, and had the good fortune to have a short-lived career as a food writer. Needless to say, when I saw this new edition of Zola at my chain bookstore last year, I snapped it up.  Food fiction for the classics lover!  And French food fiction!  Who could write about food better than the French?

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:

Behind [the saleswoman] were shelves of melons: cantaloupes, with warty little bumps, mariachers, with their skin like gray lace, and culs de singe, with their smooth bare humps.  The beautiful fruits were on display, delicately arranged with the roundess of their cheeks, half hidden in the baskets like faces of beautiful children, partly concealed by the leaves.  The peaches were especially beautiful, peaches from Montreuil with clear, soft skin like northern girls' and yellow sunburned peaches from the Midi, tanned like Provencal women.  The apricots lying in moss had the amber glow of sunset shining on dark-haired girls.  

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.


  1. This does sound like a foodie book! When someone compares apricots to girls and not the other way around, it tells you where his priorities lie! : )

  2. LOL at Jenners' comment! :D

    I was at half price books today and searched for Zola and found absolutely nothing! Ugh! I even looked in the section of French books, but no. His books are all becoming top priorities for me. I think I need to read Nana or Therese Raquin soon!

  3. Jenners -- it is SUCH a foodie book. I read in the introduction that Zola really enjoyed his food. He was also a journalist before he became a fiction writer, which I can absolutely see in his writing. He's so good at describing scenes.

    Amanda -- I know, there's hardly any Zola or Balzac in the stores, it's sad. And a lot of the Rougon-Macquarts aren't even in print in English. We may have to share.

  4. Oh, I hadn't heard of this one, but I MUST read it! I'm starting to think I may be adding Zola's entire 20 book cycle to my tbr list, too. Great review, Karen... glad I found your blog through The Classics Circuit.

  5. I just read Nana for the classics Circuit-it completely brings the night world of Paris society to life-I really enjoyed your review and am pondering my next Zola

  6. I hadn't heard of this one either, but it is being added to my ever lengthening list of books to look for. Thanks for the great review.

  7. The whole cycle is set in the same time period - Second Empire France. And his goal was to describe all the different parts of society he could. So. If you DO read the whole cycle you'll learn about that part of French History by default, right? Le yay! ;)

  8. Hmm...maybe when I finally decide to give Zola a second try, I'll go for this one. It certainly sounds more appealing than most of the books I've seen discussed on the Classics Circuit! ;)

  9. JoAnn -- I hope you like it. I'm intrigued by so many of Zola's books since he's been on the Circuit. I don't know if I should start at the beginning or skip around.

    Mel -- Nana is definitely on my list. Does the Paris nightlife include more of Zola's great food writing?

    Katrina -- thanks!

    Jason -- Le yay is right! I can kill two birds with one stone -- great literature AND history. Excellent.

    Eva -- I was thinking about your comments about Zola's sexism while I finished this book. I decided that Zola was equally harsh on both men and women -- and some of the best characters in this book were female. This book might not bother you as much as The Ladies' Paradise.

  10. Karenlibrarian-No there is not much focus on food in Nana-

  11. Thanks for the terrific review. Zola sure does a wonderful job with description. I would like to read more of his works now too. For more exhaustively detailed writing check out "Lourdes" reviewed on my blog today at

  12. I'm not sure Zola is for me and I wonder how this fits in with the other Zola books. But I certainly do like French food so wouldn't mind reading about that for an extended period of

  13. I'd heard about Zola's 'cheese symphony' in this book somewhere and I think I actually bought a copy of this book at one point, I may have to read it! It's great to see Zola getting some good press. :)

    (And I sent my copy of The Kill off to someone else already, I'm sorry, I didn't hear back from you about it in time)

  14. Carol -- thanks, I'll look for your review.

    Rebecca -- there's plenty of food in the book, but it's all about the food in the markets. Not really descriptions about meals, which I would have liked also. But still pretty mouth-watering at times.

    A Few of My Favorite Books -- cheese symphony is a great description. I'll have to reread it again, I know exactly which section you're talking about. And no problem about The Kill, I have SO MUCH to read right now! It would probably get pushed to the the bottom of the pile. But I will read it someday soon.

  15. I just completed The Belly of Paris yesterday-I really loved it-you really feel like you are part of the great food market-some of the set pieces on the characters were really brilliant but I agree the central character does not shine too much-I enjoyed rereading your very perceptive post a lot-I will attempt a post on it soon.