Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Emile Zola - 'The Belly of Paris'

The reason I became interested in reading Zola's Rougon-Macquart Cycle in its entirety is that I read and was fascinated by several of the more famous novels in the Cycle (L'Assommoir, Nana). Once I decided to read all the novels, I started reading in the order Zola wrote them so I tackled The Belly of Paris early on. However, this book is actually the 11th novel in the Cycle if you go by Zola's preferred reading order, and I have found his order makes a lot more sense in understanding this massive literary accomplishment than reading books at random or in the order he wrote them. So, in short, I'm able to quickly jump in with a post about The Belly of Paris!

As noted in my last Zola post (A Love Episode), one aspect of the Cycle is that it explores all three broad socio-economic classes of society. Each of these classes (wealthy, bourgeoisie, and poor) largely sync up with one of the three branches of the Rougon-Macquart family (the Rougons, Mourets, and Macquarts, respectively). Since Zola is using the Cycle to explore the impact of heredity, the characters fall into these classes largely due to their family affiliations. The Belly of Paris is the first novel to focus on a member of the Macquart family.

While Zola's interest in heredity is a well-established point of the Cycle, I imagine he also believed environment could influence (or perhaps disguise) heredity. To this end, Zola populates the Cycle with several characters who cross into another social class so he can explore the intersection of heredity and environment. The most obvious example of this intersection is the entire Mouret family, which arises from a marriage between Marthe Rougon and Francois Mouret (the latter a member of the Macquart family). More specifically, several individual characters span classes too. For example, Angelique (ostensibly a Rougon) is transplanted to a family of artisans in The Dream. Serge Mouret (Abbe Mouret's Transgression) lives in a poverty stricken town, and his middle class sense of propriety leave him comically out-of-touch. Octave Mouret (Pot-Bouille and The Ladies' Paradise) is the epitome of a middle class social climber, but his success as a retail magnate makes him much closer in character to Eugene Rougon or Aristide Saccard.

In The Belly of Paris, we have another character that crosses the lines: Lisa Macquart Quenu. Daughter of the thoroughly disreputable Antoine Macquart, she has married a respectable shopkeeper and escaped the vat of dysfunction and depravity that haunts the cash-strapped and illegitimate Macquart family. In Chapter 2, Zola describes Lisa's hereditary roots in her father and mother. That said, he spends a lot more time laying out the middle class sensibilities that drive Lisa and her husband. For example, their passionless decision to marry is completely tied up in a desire to be comfortable and is made only when they come into a large amount of money. Zola does a masterful job of fusing their practical aims with the language of a passionate tryst as the pair tabulate their 'loot' on Lisa's bed: "The bed had become very untidy, with the sheets hanging loosely; and the gold had made hallows on the pillow, as if their heads had rolled and twisted there while they were in the throes of passion." This is a merger of interest aimed at achieving moderate comfort and ease, not a grand passion of love or greed.

Lisa's staunch bourgeois mindset is further highlighted in her opinions. She denigrates her father's idleness, but she also rejects the high-flying Aristide Saccard's unending quest to gain and then retain fabulous wealth. Lisa's moral character is ultimately banal. For example, she supports the Empire not because it is good or just but because she and her husband are able to make a good living under its rule. She would never stop to consider the Empire from a strictly moral vantage point; self-interest is her universe. Behind all of this it's notable that Zola wrote The Belly of Paris right after The Kill suggesting that, after he dissected the way the wealthy devour society in the latter book, he wanted to speak to how the middle class enjoy their modest lot at the foot of the table. As long as Lisa (and people like her) are fat and comfortable, they aspire to nothing. They worry about nothing. They are concerned with nothing. They are a herd of grazing cows...perhaps one additional meaning of the novel's title?

Les Halles (circa Zola's time)
From this standpoint, it's clear why Zola chose to set this story in the massive food market of Les Halles. It's a hot bed of lower middle class and bourgeois foibles, filled with two-faced, vicious gossips and petty rivalries. More to the point, Zola uses the food market and its inherent purpose of satiating hunger to underline his depiction of the middle class (lower middle class is perhaps most accurate here) as well-fed and self-satisfied. In one passage, Zola has Claude Lantier, another member of the Macquart family (and the main character of the brilliant novel The Masterpiece) formally size up this angle of society:
"...the Fat, big enough to burst, preparing their evening orgies; the Thin, doubled up with hunger, staring in from the street like envious stick figures; and then again, the Fat, sitting at table, their cheeks bulging with food, chasing away a Thin man who has had the temerity to insinuate himself into their midst...In these pictures Claude saw the entire drama of human life; and he ended by dividing everyone into Fat and Thin, two hostile groups, one of which devours the other and grows fat and sleek and endlessly enjoys itself."
Indeed this passage could be a synopsis of Zola's entire view of society and the interaction of the classes within it: the endless preying of the rich and fat on the poor and thin. The middle class are desperate to attain 'Fat' status and keep a hold of it.

The pervasiveness of food imagery occurs from the very first pages of the novel, when poverty-stricken, pseudo-seditionist Florent Quenu (Lisa's brother-in-law) arrives in Paris on a wagon piled high with food...and yet he is slowly starving to death. Florent is the 'Thin' insinuating himself into Lisa's 'Fat' world of complacency, which is described as follows:
"The business continued to prosper, without their having to work especially hard, just as Lisa preferred. She had carefully avoided any possible source of anxiety, and the days passed in an atmosphere of calm, complacent well-being...Father, mother, and daughter all grew sleek and fat." 
However, this atmosphere is deceptive and hides the grasping reality. For example, it's telling that despite recognizing Florent's past sacrifices for him and his oft-proclaimed love for his brother, simple Quenu is instantly stung and angered at the idea of sharing any part of his inheritance with Florent. Lisa's primary concerns with Florent are monetary and to make sure he gets a job so he doesn't set the tongues of the gossips wagging. Of course, being a Zola novel - and a Zola novel about the Macquarts to boot - we pretty much expect that disaster is on the horizon. No spoilers, but Florent's tendencies towards social justice and agitation catch up with him. But don't be fooled. Zola's point is not to descry the injustice Florent suffers. (Zola is much too staunch a naturalist for such sentimental blather). His point in this novel is how none of the events in life pierce the thick insulation of middle class existence. After the disturbance created by Florent, Lisa's life returns to normal. In fact, the petty warfare between her and a rival is largely patched up.

This unflappable, indestructible banality exists to a certain degree in all the novels about middle class characters in the Cycle. Helene's somnolent existence in A Love Episode is an excellent example. Spiritually, Serge experiences a shattering break with reality and his religion in Abbe Mouret's Transgression. However, by the end of the novel, everything is 'back to normal'. And in Pot-Bouille no matter how far the characters sink, the interrelationships that forge their petty social milieu are unimpaired. In fact, those who refuse to return to the status quo are looked down on with the eye-rolling annoyance reserved for fools and pests. Only in The Conquest of Plassans are the middle class characters impacted, and this is because the wealthy movers trod over them without noticing as they reach for power.

Zola's theme is best encapsulated in the final words of the novel, spoken by the poor, bohemian painter Claude Lantier: "Respectable people...what bastards!"

In summary, The Belly of Paris (I read the Oxford edition translated into wonderful English prose by Brian Nelson) is much more interesting as social commentary and much better plotted than some of the Mouret books (e.g., A Love Episode). There is a lot of description here, revealing Zola's Naturalism, but it's not too disruptive to what the novel is trying to do. While Pot-Bouille remains the top of the heap (or the bottom, depending on how you look at it) in terms of scathing satire of the bourgeoisie, The Belly of Paris is a solid entry in Zola's Rougon-Macquart Cycle.

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