I am not normally someone who rushes out to buy the latest translation of a classic. In fact, I tend to be a bit suspicious of new translations: case in point–a few years ago I bought Remembrance of Things Past and stuck with the Moncrieff edition. I will, however, buy any new translation produced by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. With this talented husband and wife team, I am happy to replace my older translations.
And this brings me to The Belly of Paris recently translated by Mark Kurlansky. I’ve often thought that you’d have to be a bit of a Zola fanatic to translate his novels (but perhaps that statement is applicable to any translator), and in the excellent introduction, Kurlansky confesses that Zola is his “hero.” Kurlansky’s introduction examines both the influences upon Zola and this French author’s gift to the world–the magnificent Rougon-Macquart cycle. Kurlansky points out that Zola was just ten years old when Balzac died leaving his impressive legacy of The Human Comedy, and that as a writer, “Zola struggled with the question of how to be more than just an imitation of Balzac.” Zola didn’t imitate Balzac, and eventually he created his own unique vision of French society through the Rougon-Macquart cycle:
“Zola resolved to write two novels a year for the next twenty years, all about the fictional Rougon-Macquart family from Provence. He more or less kept to that schedule, occasionally frustrated, such as when Germinal, the miner’s saga that many consider to be his masterpiece, took an entire nine months. By 1869, he had the cycle mapped out, and between 1872, at the age of thirty-two, and 1892, at the age of fifty-three, he carried out this plan.”
By creating the twenty-volume cycle of novels in the stupendous Rougon-Macquart cycle, Zola created a unique history of two branches of a family set against the backdrop of the Second Empire. While some of the novels explore the poverty and alcoholism of the Macquarts, other novels are concerned with the wealthy, and supposedly more respectable branch–the Rougons.
The Belly of Paris sometimes translated as The Fat and the Thin, the third novel in the series is neither a novel of the wealthy and their political and personal corruption (The Kill) nor a novel of the very poor (Germinal). It’s certainly not one of the most famous novels in the cycle, but then the entirety of the 20-volume cycle is more-or-less forgotten these days–even though a few of the books make the ‘great novel’ lists. Although the Rougon-Macquart novels are interconnecting, they also can be read as stand-alone books, so it’s certainly not essential to commit to reading all twenty of the volumes if you just want to enjoy the highlights. Nana, for example, remains one of the greatest novels in the cycle and many people read it without being aware that L’Assommoir is the tragic story of Nana’s mother, Gervaise. Although I am a hard-boiled Zola fan, even I will admit that a couple of the novels in the cycle are forgettable, but The Belly of Paris stands out as an excellent examination of the bourgeoisie. Through its story The Belly Of Paris shows the bourgeoisie’s desire to maintain the system and their rejection of any political beliefs that might upset the status quo. Zola illustrates this through the destruction of one harmless man named Florent.
The Belly of Paris begins with Florent arriving in Paris. Florent was sent into exile following the 1851 coup, and although Florent was not involved in the coup, he was swept up in the aftermath and condemned to exile. His harsh unjust sentence has turned Florent into a rebel, but he’s basically too damaged to be a serious threat to the state. Now he’s escaped from a prison colony and he seeks shelter from his brother, Quenu.
At one time the brothers were close, but now Quenu, who has a comfortable living at his butcher shop, is married to a woman named Lisa. Lisa, the ultimate bourgeois, sees Florent as a threat to her comfort, and at first she tries to make him fit in to society and seek gainful employment.
The novel is set in the vast Las Halles marketplace of Paris also know as the “stomach of Paris” and so this translation is named after the marketplace–a huge empire devoted to satisfying the appetites of those Parisians who can afford to eat.
The Rougon-Macquart novels have a remarkable history of translation. The first available translations of the Rougon-Macquart were American, and then English publisher Henry Vizetelly began publishing Zola. These translations were ‘toned down’ for the Victorian audience by Henry’s son Ernest. In the book, Emile Zola Novelist and Reformer Ernest Vizetelly admitted that after toning down Zola’s novels, “None of them was an exact replica of the original, all had been expurgated more or less, though care had invariably been taken to preserve the continuity of the narrative.” But even the “toning” down didn’t spare Henry Vizetelly from persecution by the National Vigiliance Association and by the newspapers. The matter of the ‘obscene’ nature of Zola’s novels even reached the House of Commons. And in 1888, Mr. Samuel Smith, member of the House of Commons, when speaking against Zola’s novels, declared that “nothing more diabolical had ever been written by the pen of man; they were fit only for swine, and those who read them must turn their minds into cesspools.” (Pall Mall Gazette)
Vizetelly found himself on trial for “Obscene Libel.” He was fined but since the publisher had already committed to the Zola novels, rather than abandon them, there was more editing. Ernest admitted that he “deleted or modified three hundred and twenty five pages out of fifteen volumes.” But this still didn’t help Vizetelly who was hauled back into court. This time he was imprisoned. The rather hypocritical fact of the matter was that Zola’s novels were available in their glorious entirety in French, so the upper classes could read them while those not fluent in French were stuck with the censored version. That reminds me of the 1960 Obscenity trial against Penguin Books following the publication of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Prosecutor Griffith Jones made the mistake of asking the court if Lady Chatterley’s Lover was the sort of book “you would wish your wife or your servants to read.” Again that idea appears of certain classes of people who need to be protected from themselves by those who know better….
But I digress…
A few years ago, when I wanted a copy of The Belly of Paris, the only version available was the Vizetelly translation (The Fat and The Thin). Since that time, Oxford World Classics released a translation by Brian Nelson, and I have read two of Nelson’s translations of Zola (The Ladies Paradise & Pot Luck) and enjoyed them very much. Now I have the Kurlansky and the Vizetelly translations, I compared some of the passages, and it didn’t take long to realize that Kurlansky’s translation of The Belly of Paris includes much franker language which complements the text excellently. Here are a couple of passages for comparison:
“A tall brunette pushed open the shop door. It was Louise Mehudin, the beautiful fish woman whom everyone called the Norman. She had a brazen kind of good looks and delicate white skin. She was almost as assertive as Lisa, the look in her eyes was even bolder, and her breasts were more alluring. She came in with a prancing gait, a gold chain jingling against her apron, her uncovered hair combed up in the latest style, and a bow at her throat, a lace bow that made her the queen coquette of Les Halles. She had about her a slight scent of the sea, and on one of her hands, near the little finger, a herring scale shone like a patch of mother-of-pearl.”
“A tall female pushed the shop door open. It was the handsome fish-girl, Louise Mehudin, known as La Normandie. She was a bold looking beauty, with a delicate white skin, and was almost as plump as Lisa, but there was more effrontery in her glance, and her bosom heaved with warmer life. She came in the shop with a light swinging step, her gold chain jingling on her apron, her bare hair arranged in the latest style, and a bow at her throat, a lace bow, which made her one of the most coquettish-looking queens of the markets. She brought a vague odour of fish with her, and a herring-scale showed like a tiny patch of mother-of-pearl near the little finger of one of her hands.”
Historian and food writer Kurlansky seems very much at home with the language of The Belly of Paris. The rich, vibrant translation is alive with the colours, sounds, smells and tastes of Les Halles–a unique corner of Paris stuffed with every sort of food imaginable:
“A huge quantity of crayfish had arrived in crates and baskets from Germany. The market was also flooded with whitefish from England and Holland. Some workers were unpacking shiny carp from the Rhine, all bronzed in beautiful rust-coloured metallic, each scale like a piece of cloisonne enamel; others with huge pike, the coarse grey brigands of the water with long, protruding savage jaws, or magnificent dark tench, red copper stained with the blue green of corroded copper.”
This new translation from Modern Library may bring new readers to Zola and it’s certainly a positive sign that at least some publishers are interested in revisiting classics.