Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 5, 2015

The Belly of Paris (1873), by Émile Zola, translated by Brian Nelson

The Belly of ParisAs regular readers know, I’m a bit of a ‘foodie’ so I was expecting to really enjoy The Belly of Paris, (Le Ventre de Paris – also translated as The Fat and the Thin; Savage Paris; or The Markets of Paris).   First published in 1873, it’s the 11th novel in the recommended reading order for Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle, and it’s set in Les Halles de Paris, the huge fresh food market in the heart of the city that was a mecca for food-lovers until it was (unwisely) demolished in 1971.

Now, I like buying food, cooking food, admiring the presentation of food, and exploring different cuisines – but I am not especially interested in reading descriptions of food.  And so while I recognise that The Belly of Paris is a favourite of many and it was the first time a food market had been used as a poetic symbol of bourgeois consumerism, I found myself becoming a bit tired of the descriptions of food which litter this novel.  The plot, on the other hand interested me very much.

The central character, Florent Quenu finds himself inadvertently caught up in an insurrection during Louis-Napoleon’s 1851 coup-d’état and falsely accused of murdering a young woman.  He serves many years as a prisoner on the galleys at the notorious Devil’s Island,  eventually escaping to Paris where he finds the city unrecognisable under Haussman’s urban reconstruction program.  His half-brother Quenu takes him in, and despite his reservations about the gluttony symbolised by the markets, Florent eventually takes a position as an inspector at the fish market, reluctantly becoming part of the great market economy that was transforming Paris at the time.

His inertia, and his disdain for money, decent clothing and the bourgeois values that underlie the expansion of the markets, place Florent in conflict with his family and the stallholders.  Quenu’s wife Lisa is proud of the respectability of her charcuterie, and she is suspicious of anything or anyone that might sabotage it.  (As well she might, given the political instability that characterised French history in this period).

What Zola shows so cunningly in this book is the power of the mob.  The plump, placid people of the market harbour doubts about Florent because he is thin – his very physique symbolises his rejection of The Good Life that they sell to Paris in their food stalls.  While some of his actions are imprudent, it’s the whispering campaign that becomes a roar that leads to his downfall.

Visit The Books of Emile Zola for Jonathan’s ‘Exceptional Excerpt’ to read a description of Lisa in her triumph, and check out Nancy’s review at Silver Season.

I also enjoyed Zola’s representation of the artist Claude, prefiguring the later novel The Masterpiece which led Cezanne to rupture his long-standing friendship with Zola.  Many of the scenes are like still life paintings made with words and you can visualise the composition of the pictures as you read.  (I am really looking forward to reading The Masterpiece, I love reading novels about art and artists. )

Savage ParisThe translation by Brian Nelson for the Oxford World’s Classics edition is excellent, and I really like the cover image which is a detail from The Square in Front of Les Halles by Victor-Gabriel Gilbert.   It’s a remarkable contrast with my copy of the 1955 Elek edition cover at left, which emphasises Zola’s theme of the Fat in conflict with the Thin!  (You can see more lurid and tasteless covers of this title  in Jonathan’s amazing collection at The Works of Emile Zola).  Gilbert’s lovely painting  – which for some reason still has copyright restrictions so you can only view the complete painting by visiting one of the sites that  sells prints of it is one of a series of paintings of the markets by Gilbert, and I was able to use the ones at Wikigallery since this blog is not a commercial site.  I have used the collection to make the slide show below.   There are also wonderful B&W photos of the markets here (click to enlarge each image) .

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Author: Emile Zola
Title: The Belly of Paris
Publisher: Oxford World’s Classics, 2009
ISBN: 9780199555840
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Fishpond.

Fishpond: The Belly of Paris (Oxford World’s Classics)

Cross-posted at The Books of Emile Zola


  1. I liked this novel very much. The food descriptions are indeed excessive, but excess is the point. The descriptions are parallel to the descriptions of money and consumer goods in other Zola novels. As a “foodie” you are repelled, but that is an appropriate response. Anything carried too far is dangerous.

    The utter cynicism of those who use Florent’s idealism and then abuse him is very striking.


    • I’ve added a link to your review too, Nancy. That’s a wonderful excerpt about the cheeses that you chose, and your conclusion about justice is spot on. It seems to me that this was the nearest Zola could come to critiquing the mob mentality…


  2. I enjoyed The Ladies Paradise which has similar sections but instead of food it’s about the clothes and stuff. I’d probably like this one – maybe I’ll put it on ye olde wish list. ? Nice review!


    • Hi Becky, The Ladies Paradise is my favourite of them all so far:)


  3. Oh, I love the slideshow, I think it must be his artwork that appears on some of the French editions of the book. It’s amazing how many great artistic works there are out there that I (not being very knowledgeable of art) have never come across before. Another artist is Jean Béraud whose artwork appears on some of the yellow Sutton Publishing books.

    I loved all the descriptive work in this book. I think he got a bit of stick for it at the time; anyway he eased up on it with the later books.


    • Oh my, those Jean Béraud paintings are wonderful! I think that what happens (unless you’re a serious student of art) is that we tend to know about the famous artists and not the ‘second-tier’ ones. Here in Melbourne, you find the great and the famous in the National Gallery, but it’s in the local art shows and the suburban galleries that you find paintings of everyday life, and they are often surprisingly affordable.
      BTW I will cross-post this at The Works of Emile Zola when I get home and am not paying mega-bucks for internet access.


      • I’m always a sucker for sheer craftsmanship; I think that’s one reason why I love Zola’s work.


  4. […] (Le ventre de Paris) which I read in the new translation by Brian Nelson in December last year (see my review).  Unfortunately there isn’t a modern translation of La Joie de vivre so I took the advice […]


  5. […] (Le ventre de Paris) which I read in the new translation by Brian Nelson in December last year (see my review).  Unfortunately there isn’t a modern translation of La Joie de vivre so I took the advice […]


  6. […] Would Lisa have rescued Gervaise if she knew about her circumstances?  If you’ve read The Belly of Paris you know the answer to that […]


  7. […] cross. Would Lisa have rescued Gervaise if she knew about her circumstances? If you’ve read The Belly of Paris you know the answer to that […]


  8. […] But Lantier, first introduced to readers of the Rougon-Macquart cycle as a very young artist in The Belly of Paris (1873) and briefly alluded to as the son sent away to his uncle in Plassans in L’Assommoir […]


  9. […] from ‘The Square in Front of Les Halles’ by Victor-Gabriel Gilbert.  If you visit my post about this novel you can see more of Gilbert’s paintings of the market, they really are […]


  10. […] Le Ventre de Paris (1873), The Belly of Paris, translated by Brian Nelson, OWC, 2009 […]


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