The Belly of Paris by Émile Zola – in pictures

Photographs by Pete Halewood

I’m going to do something different with this blog post. Normally, when I finish a book, I write a ‘Thoughts On’ article, but for whatever reason, whether it is the bank holiday weekend here in England, or whether I’m just keen to move on to new things, the words are just not coming out, whilst trying to write ‘Thoughts On The Belly of Paris by Emile Zola’.

Therefore, I am going to summarise my thoughts as succinctly as possible, within an article including market photographs I have taken from the Covered Market in Oxford, and the market in St. Tropez, France.

What I want to get across most clearly, is that I really enjoyed reading The Belly of Paris. I was slightly apprehensive about reading this book, as I had been led to believe that this was the most descriptive of Zola’s novels, but suffice to say, the descriptive passages do not bog down the story at all, and in fact are part of the identity of the novel.

The novel is set in the Les Halles markets of Paris in the late 1850’s, following a political prisoner Florent, who after several years has escaped from ‘Devil’s Island’ and found his way back to Paris.

In Paris, he stays with his half-brother Quenu, who has married Lisa Macquart, one of the offspring of Antoine Macquart, from the first Les Rougon-Macquart novel, The Fortune of the Rougons, along with the Quenu’s child Pauline, and a couple of other people who work in their shop.

Quenu and Lisa own a charcuterie (pork shop) in the heart of Les Halles, and whilst in this environment, the smells, the sights, the people, the animals, and just about any other possible aspect you can think of of this market, is described in precise and poetic detail. The Quenus take good care of Florent, but Lisa begins to tire of his secret life, and his idleness, to the point where she seeks out work for him.

Florent befriends many people within Les Halles, particularly the painter Claude Lantier, Lisa’s nephew, and a character who will have his own novel in the future called The Masterpiece. Some of those he befriends though, are using Florent for their own agenda, and he begins to descend into their revolutionary plans for Paris.

At the same time, the many gossips around Les Halles are nervous about Florent, and suspect he is up to no good, though are continually frustrated to know very little of this mysterious figure.

It all lends itself to a cracking novel, one that keeps you engaged, and immersed within the world of Les Halles. There was a slight dip during one chapter, where the back story of 2 minor characters Marjolin and Cadine was explained, which although interesting, was a little too extensive, but that is almost nit-picking, it doesn’t take away from the general enjoyment of the novel.

Surprisingly, there is some great wisdom through the novel as well, particularly from Claude Lantier, who at one point explains to Florent about his theory of people either being Fat or Thin people, and not based on their appearance. Life will always contain Thin people, who get eaten (metaphorically) by Fat people, who themselves get eaten by Fatter people. I’m sure it would be debunked by a behavioural or personality psychologist, but how his theory relates to characters in the novel is very interesting.

So all in all, another great novel of Émile Zolas, in his 20-strong Les Rougon-Macquart series of novels. I’m moving onto next Le Joire de Vivre (the English translation is called The Bright Side of Life), which follows the story of the Quenu’s child Pauline. Le Joire de Vivre was a favourite novel of Vincent Van Gogh.

5 thoughts on “The Belly of Paris by Émile Zola – in pictures

  1. Wow, you nailed it, Pete! An entertaining post for an entertaining novel! Love your photos of the modern food market in Paris. My next reread is The Belly of Paris, and while I’m a bit daunted by the prospect of reading it in the uncertain moment like now, your post somehow ensured me that I’m gonna enjoy it after all.

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    1. Many thanks Fanda! Glad you enjoyed it, it felt good to do something a bit different. I was completely daunted as well about reading The Belly of Paris, more probably because I didn’t take to The Kill (it’s predecessor) very well, but the characters, story and setting of this novel, helped keep me entertained throughout.

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  2. I enjoyed following the synopsis of your latest Zola novel, Pete, as you continue your progress through the work of this author. The market photos presented a cornucopia of produce to be plundered by passer-buyers. My wife knew a young woman at work who served in a supervisory capacity and at one period of time went to Paris yearly, saying the Parisian markets were her favorite thing about going there. I like the way the fruits and vegetables are laid out, so colorful and nicely arranged in symmetrical order.

    The wisdom that many authors generously dispense in their novels, I also appreciate. The plot and the story may be paramount, but lavish descriptions of the countryside ( e.g. Laurie Lee in his memoir of Gloucestershire, Cider With Rosie) and worldly-wise insights from writers like Balzac or Zola add so much of interest and value for the reader. You have often pointed out how much is there in the pages for us to gain in addition to the story being told Nice going as always.

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    1. Thanks George! Yes I love the wisdom that is generally part of a classic novel/book, I think that is why I gravitate to reading them. I read a novel hoping to receive wisdom, as well as a great story. I’m sure you have other numerous other examples, but I find that of the novelists I have read, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Zola and Balzac, write particularly worldly-wise works.

      I loved reading the background of the young woman your wife knew and her experiences with the Parisian markets. I visited Venice in 2011 and took many, many photographs of this unique city, but to this day I regret not getting photographs (I still don’t know why) of the Rialto market, which is also a historical and cultural icon.

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  3. You mention some very stellar greats as your favorites for wisdom in novels, Pete. For me, Proust is far and away the ultimate among novelists who bring deeper understanding.

    I’ve read travel books by Patrick Leigh Fermor and Paul Theroux. The vast erudition of Fermor was quite a challenge for me to cope with at times in his A Time of Gifts. I want to read Italian Hours by Henry James and The Stones of Venice by John Ruskin, but so far have not been able to bring myself to get very deeply into these works.

    Here’s an interesting coincidence, Pete. Like yourself, I was also in Venice in 2011. I was traveling with my wife and daughter. Of all times, it happened to be in the middle of June.

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