Le Ventre de Paris  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Le Ventre de Paris (1873) is the third novel in Émile Zola's twenty-volume series Les Rougon-Macquart. It is set in and around Les Halles, the enormous, busy central marketplace of 19th Century Paris. Les Halles, rebuilt in cast iron and glass during the Second Empire was a landmark of modernity in the city, the wholesale and retail center of a thriving food industry. Le Ventre de Paris (translated into English under many variant titles, but literally meaning The Belly of Paris) is Zola's first novel centred entirely on the working classes.

The plot is centred around Florent, an escaped political prisoner mistakenly arrested after the French coup of 1851. He returns to his step-brother Quenu, a charcutier and his wife Lisa Quenu (formerly Macquart), with whom he finds refuge. They get him a job in the market as a fish inspector. After getting mixed up in an ineffectual socialist plot against the Empire, Florent is arrested and deported once again.

Although Zola had yet to hone his mastery of working-class speech and idioms displayed to such good effect in L'Assommoir, the novel still conveys a powerful atmosphere both of life in the great market halls and of working class suffering in general. There are a number of vivid descriptive passages, the most famous of which, his description of the olfactory sensations experienced upon entering a cheese shop, has become known as the "Cheese Symphony" due to its ingenious orchestral metaphors. Throughout the book, the painter Claude Lantier - himself a relative of the Macquarts and later the central character in Zola's novel L'Œuvre (1886) - shows up to provide a semi-authorial commentary, effectively playing the role of chorus. It is an interesting and often powerful work, though not usually considered as being on a par with the novelist's greater achievements later in the Rougon-Macquart cycle.

Le ventre de Paris was originally translated into English by Henry Vizetelly and published in 1888 under the title Fat and Thin. After Vizetelly's imprisonment for obscene libel the novel was one of those revised and expurgated by his son, Ernest Alfred Vizetelly; this mutilated version, entitled The Fat and the Thin, appeared in 1896 and has been reprinted many times since; for most of the period until 2007 this remained the only English version widely available. Henry's original full edition was afterward reprinted in Paris for adventurous English readers. The novel was newly translated in 1955 by David Hughes and Marie-Jacqueline Mason for Elek Books under the title Savage Paris, but that translation has long been out of print. However, Oxford World's Classics published a new translation by Brian Nelson entitled The Belly of Paris in 2007, and Modern Library published a new translation by Mark Kurlansky in 2009.

The "Cheese Symphony"

As the three women stood there, taking leave of each other, the odour of the cheeses seemed to become more pestilential than ever. It was a cacophony of smells, ranging from the heavily oppressive odour of the Dutch cheeses and the Gruyeres to the alkaline pungency of the Olivets. From the Cantal, the Cheshire, and the goats’ milk cheeses there seemed to come a deep breath like the sound of a bassoon, amidst which the sharp, sudden whiffs of the Neufchatels, the Troyes, and the Mont d’Ors contributed short, detached notes. And then the different odours appeared to mingle one with another, the reek of the Limbourgs, the Port Saluts, the Geromes, the Marolles, the Livarots, and the Pont l’Eveques uniting in one general, overpowering stench sufficient to provoke asphyxia. And yet it almost seemed as though it were not the cheeses but the vile words of Madame Lecoeur and Mademoiselle Saget that diffused this awful odour." --translation by Alfred Vizetelly

The sense of smell in the work of Zola had already been noted in Studies in the Psychology of Sex, Volume 4, the work of British sexologist Havelock Ellis in which he points to a study Les Odeurs dans les romans de Zola (1889) by a certain Leopold Bernard.




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Le Ventre de Paris" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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