The Belly Of Paris by Emile Zola

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.

the belly of ParisAnd 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.”

Vizetelly’s translation:

“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.


Filed under Rougon-Macquart, Zola

12 responses to “The Belly Of Paris by Emile Zola

  1. Très bien! J’aime que vous dites dans votre review.

  2. Nick

    Nice review. The new translation seems indeed quite an improvement.
    I could almost be tempted not to read it in French but that would be stupid since:
    – I’m French and thus quite fluent
    – I already have the book and it’s just waiting for me on the shelves of my sweet Normandie’s home.

    It is very good news for non-French speaker since Zola is definitively a monument of French Literature, and thus World-worth-reading (French pride and vanity).

  3. Guy A. Savage

    Thanks for the comment Nick. I too think it’s ‘good news’ to see new translations in print. Perhaps His Excellency will be next….

  4. I’ve only read some Zola: The Ladies Paradise & a few stories (Germinal is pending on the reading pile). Indeed, this new translation sounds interesting! 🙂

  5. Guy A. Savage

    Hello Karlo: The Belly of Paris is a wonderful book, and I’m sure you’d like it. I’ve reviewed it elsewhere here as The Fat and the Thin (the Vizetelly translation). The Vizetelly translations seem–to me anyway–the reason that some people don’t read Zola. That’s why I included a bit of info about the Vizetelly translation in the blog post so that readers would know that it wasn’t just a whim on the part of the Vizetellys to produce these censored versions. The poor buggers went through quite a bit to keep Zola in print.

    I am currently reading Germinal and am finding it rather a slow go. The poverty of the miners is overwhelmingly depressing. But of all the Zolas so far, I’ve enjoyed Pot Luck the most–that was a really nasty, funny look at the bourgeois.

  6. Hi –

    I just posted about this book too. Having finished it, I am overwhelmed by visions of pate and other fatty stuffs! It some lyrical moments too, like when Florent goes on a country excursion.

    Overall, fascinating, but dramatically rather slow and mechanical, I thought. Nana, Germinal, and L’Assomoir are far beyond it. But its depiction of the throbbing center of Paris’ metabolism make it a good read nevertheless.

  7. The descriptions of the preparations for blood sausage made me feel queasy.

    I much prefer Nana and L’Assommoir. But I’d also add Pot Bouille and The Kill to my favourites so far.

    Thanks for the comment.

  8. I just complete the Brian Nelson translation of The Belly of Paris-I really enjoyed it and posted on it-I acknowledge after reading your excellent post that perhaps I would enjoy more the Kurlansky translation-

    I am pondering reading all of the 18 novels in the cycle I have not yet read (I have read Nana)-there are no public libraries where I live-I am pondering the purchase of a Kindle-you can buy in a kindle edition all of the novels of Zola in translation for about $3.99-all the translations will be old ones-do you think reading the old translations will take too much from the works to make it worth while to read them? Amateur Reader suggested I ask you and I am now a new follower of your blog

  9. Brian Nelson also translated The Ladies’ Paradise & Pot Luck–the latter is one of my favourites in the series.

    If I could have chosen between Kurlansky or Vizetelly for my first reading of The Belly of Paris, I would have chosen Kurlansky, but if I threw Nelson into the mix, I would have stuck with him as he translated other Zolas, and I think translators, after a while, get a feel for the writer they are translating. But alas my choice at the time was Vizetelly so Vizetelly was what I got. Not to knock Vizetelly. The family went through hell to bring Zola to the British reading public.

    Off the top of my head, I would be concerned about The Earth as it is full of stuff that must have been chopped for the censors. I would imagine that Nana would also fall victim, but you’ve already read that one. I’d hazard a guess that The Earth & L’Assommoir would have been big targets and potentially the worst hit.

    Vizetelly only translations:
    The Fortune of the Rougons
    The Conquest of Plassans
    His Excellency
    A Love Episode
    The Joy of Life
    Doctor Rougon

    That leaves you to worry about:
    The Kill
    The Belly of Paris (you’ve already read)
    The Sin of Abbé Mouret
    Nana (you’ve already read)
    Ladies Paradise
    The Masterpiece
    The Dream
    The Earth
    La Bete Humaine

    I read the Vizetelly translations of:
    The Fortune of the Rougons
    The Conquest of Plassans
    His Excellency
    A Love Episode
    The Joy of Life
    Doctor Rougon AND:

    The Sin of Abbé Mouret & The Dream (due to access to used translations).

    Most of the translations are the better Zolas (Money & His Excellency are great too even though they’ve been neglected).

    I think the translations would give you a better experience as I am sure a lot was chopped for the censors. But the only way we will know is if we do a comparison, so here’s what I’ll do. I also have a kindle version of ALL the Zolas in one of those collection dealies. I’ll take a look at The Earth (one of the more salacious novels) and do some comparions in a post here. Then you can see what you think.

  10. leroyhunter

    Just finished the Nelson translation Guy – I had no idea Kurlansky had done one (and apparently Nelson didn’t either, as in his intro he says “I am very happy to have produced the first new translation of this novel in over 50 years…”).

    The translation was fine, I thought, and puts no lexical or stylistic barriers between the reader and Zola’s remarkable descriptions. You mention some of them in your review of the Viztelly edition, and they are quite incredible and frequently revolting. When you spool those descriptions forward 140 years to the era of mechanized, automated food production…well, it’s hard to imagine a novelist having the guts (pun) today to put this kind of material in a novel.

    It’s quite a change of pace from the world of Saccard (and even from the plot / exposition heavy Fortune of the Rougons). Nothing really happens – or at least, it’s a bathetic and low-key tale, compared to the other two. Interesting that Lantier plays such a key role despite having essentially nothing to do with the plot! I wonder if Zola had his later appearance in the cycle mapped out already.

    The descriptions of Les Halles itself are among the highlights. I love the scene towards the end where Florent stands on his balcony looking over the glass desert of the roof, and contemplates all the different “humours” of the building, changing through the day and through the seasons.

    Is there anyone Zola spares in his descriptions of the milieu? The self-satisfied, reactionary bourgeoisie (epitomised by Lisa); the idiotic pseudo-revolutionaries (Gavard, loving the attention of the trial until it has, like most trials, consequences); the brutish, nasty, scheming denizens of the market. Not flattering.

    • yes, Zola seems to have an unsparing eye. I think Balzac is more generous.
      The element I carry away from this is how Zola recreated the world of the markets so intensely, and I’m thinking about that particularly as I’m re-reading Money but with the recent translation by Valerie Minogue. Just as Zola puts us in the Bourse, he also puts us in Les Halles, and both are incredible literary experiences–although by its nature The Belly of Paris has more sensory details.

      I also think of how Zola pissed off his artist friends when he wrote The Masterpiece; Cezanne never spoke to him again. Makes you wonder if Zola himself knew how unsparing his eye could be.

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