It’s totally appropriate that food-writer Mark Kurlansky should helm Modern Library Classics’ new translation of Émile Zola’s The Belly of Paris. Not only does he have a keen ear for Zola’s revolutionary naturalism, he also captures the passion at the heart (or gut) of The Belly of Paris–a passion for food. To be clear, Zola’s book is not so much about gourmet preparations (although they’re there, to be sure) as it is about the production and marketing of food, and, more specifically, the ways in which food delineates class lines.
The Belly of Paris is the third of Zola’s twenty-novel naturalist cycle Les Rougon-Macquart, a series of books examining two intertwined families–one rich and respectable, the other poor and disreputable–during the rise of the Industrial Revolution in France. Belly takes Florent Quenu (one of the poor and disreputable) for its protagonist. Quenu, wrongfully accused of a crime, escapes imprisonment on Devil’s Island and attempts to start a new life in Les Halles, the great, sprawling market known as “the belly of Paris.” Readers are treated to lovingly detailed depictions of Les Halles and its produce stands, fish shops, cheese markets, butcheries, both through the eyes of Quenu and many other characters. There are those who work in the great market and their children (who also, of course, work in the market); artists and rabble rousers; the nouveau riche and the would-be revolutionaries.
Zola evokes a lust for life centered around this great belly, even as he dramatizes the sharp disparity between the rich and the poor. While Zola is hardly preachy, his sympathies are clearly with the poor and downtrodden. Like America’s great literary naturalist John Steinbeck, Zola’s major rhetorical gesture is to avoid the romanticism of metaphor in favor of a tightly-drawn Darwinian realism. Like Steinbeck, this means a strong focus not just on the symbolic registry of food–food as communion, for example–but also on the real-world consequences of not having enough food. Put another way, Zola’s not afraid to get his hands dirty, and there’s quite a bit of dirt in Belly. It’s easy even now to see why Zola’s naturalism was something of a minor scandal in its day (this translated into sales for Zola, of course).
Contemporary English-reading audiences will have no difficulties with Zola’s late nineteenth-century France. Kurlansky’s deft translation zips along with vivid intensity, and his detailed endnotes inform the text without intrusion. While Francophiles pining for romantic visions of a pristine Paris will likely be put off by Zola’s gritty visions, lovers of food writing and social fiction alike will undoubtedly enjoy The Belly of Paris. Recommended.
The Belly of Paris is available from Random House’s Modern Library Classics on May 12th, 2009.