The Belly of Paris

Le Ventre de Paris

Le Ventre de Paris, translated into The Belly of Paris, is a novel written by Emile Zola in 1873. It is the third of the twenty novels of his naturalist cycle of books, Les Rougon Macquart. The series is about two branches of a large family and their members — the rich and powerful Rougon, and the poor and miserable Macquart — whose lives intertwine from the middle of the 18th to the late 19th century.

Each novel focuses on certain nodes of the family tree, and is the occasion to cast a sharp and crude light on the different social layers, situations and worlds of that time : miners, farmers, department stores employees, priests, financial magnates, small-town inhabitants, workers, prostitutes, artists, doctors, soldiers…

In this one, Zola takes a dive into the fascinating universe of the Paris food market, Les Halles. Since the 12th century, this area in the center of Paris has been devoted to food vendors of all kinds, selling a vast profusion of goods, coming in fresh every morning. Huge halls of iron and glass, Les Pavillons Baltard, were constructed in the 1850′s to organize the different markets, and each street around the pavilions was specialized in a type of product. In 1969 however, the area had become too small to accommodate all the activity, and the traffic was terrible : Les Halles were moved to Rungis, in the South of Paris, and the beautiful Pavillons Baltard were torn down, to the scandalized clamor of the Parisians. The only remnants of that era are some buildings and restaurants, and the presence of many cooking apparel stores, E. Dehillerin in particular.

Le Ventre de Paris is the story of a little group of people who live in and around Les Halles in the late 1850′s : Florent, an accidental convict, escapes from his penal colony, comes back to Paris, and takes refuge in his younger brother’s home, a charcuterie he owns with his wife Lisa. Florent lands a job at the Pavillon de la Mer, the seafood hall, and tries to find his place, not so smoothly I might add, among a host of other characters — fish mongers, produce sellers, cheese makers, poulterers, snarly old maids, café managers, little kids, political activists and starving artists.

Through the depiction of these people and how they live, work, love and fight, one gets the most vivid image of what life must have been like in that place and time. The book is beautifully written, in Zola’s style of intricate and lavish descriptions, and the relationships and conflicts are very eloquently brought to life, with cleverly observed traits and a few laugh-out-loud dialogues.

Some of my favorite passages : a wonderfully evocative description of the charcuterie and its display. The colorful arguments between lady fishmongers. A smell-o-rama visit of the storerooms below the cheese market. The preparation of blood sausage in the charcuterie’s kitchen. Brazen little kids secretly feasting at night on the goods they have pilfered during the day.

I also really enjoyed reading about the streets and buildings that still exist now, Montorgueil and St-Eustache and Coquillère and St-Denis, trying to imagine myself food shopping back then, armed with a wicker basket, a little white apron over my long skirt, muddy ankle boots and a head scarf.

Le Ventre de Paris is easy to find in paperback in French bookstores. In English, it has been published in paperback by Green Integer Books (ISBN: 1-892295-99-7), and by Sun & Moon Press (ISBN: 1-557130-66-3). It may not be very easy to find in mainstream bookstores, but Cody’s Books in Berkeley, CA (where Melissa, of Derrick & Melissa, works one night a week) has it on special order availability.

  • Hande

    what a nice entry! I knew you have to be a literate…

  • http://todrownarose.blogs.com rose

    You make me hope this is the beginning of a literary/culinary series of post… your blog gets nicer everyday, clotilde. Oh, by the way: have I dreamed of reading a zucchini-spinach soup recipe here a few days ago? I have even cooked it (from memory), but it seems it’s not there anymore…

  • http://www.homewreckonomics.com Heather

    Dear Clotilde-

    I have been searching high and low for this book; for some reason it is very nearly inaccessible via amazon.com.
    Truth be told, I knew almost nothing about it, but I just knew I HAD to read it. Your wonderful desciption makes me hungrier still to attack this book!

  • http://www.thefoodsection.com Josh

    By the way, there is currently an exhibition of photographs of Les Halles at New York University. I haven’t seen them myself, and probably won’t since the exhibit closes May 14:

    http://www.nyu.edu/gsas/dept/french/MCalendar2.html [last item]

  • Alisa

    Clotild, you and C&Z, continually inrich my life.
    Bisous!

  • http://www.mesart.com/mschneider Melissa

    You are too sweet, Clotilde! Thanks for mentioning Cody’s! :-) It seems, though, that the book is out of print for both publishers you mention. There are some very expensive copies in English available through different independent bookstores on http://www.bookfinder.com. Maybe everyone should check their libraries!

    You’ve written a wonderful descripton of Zola’s book…it sounds like just the sort of book both Derrick and I love. The Berkeley public library lists a copy, but maybe other C&Z faithful will beat me to it. :-)

  • http://www.thepassionatecook.com johanna

    Ah! must try and find this book! need to freshen up my french anyway. Note to myself: need to also try and make my own rillettes. Funny how this is the first word my eyes picked up in the image.
    I vaguely remember having seen a recipe for trout rillettes recently… sounds interesting. Clotilde, if you’ve got any suggestions for rillettes, please let me know!

  • http://jacinthe.blogspot.com jacinthe

    Ooh, is there any way that I can get it in French? I found it on amazon.fr, but it’s nearly twice the cost of the book to ship it. (Still cheaper than buying it in English.) You wouldn’t perhaps know of any foreign-language bookstores here – I always got all my books through school.

    And it’s in English on bn.com, but costs $90.

  • Marina

    Heather, Melissa and Jacinthe:

    Try http://www.alibris.com. They specialize in used books and have several copies of Le Ventre available at the moment, prices from $9.37 up.

    And Clotilde, you’re too cool! Thanks for all the inspiration.

  • http://www.mesart.com/mschneider Melissa

    Thanks, Marina. I like alibris.com, too. The used books at $9.37 and up are in French. Derrick can read French, but he wouldn’t enjoy translating a whole book for me. I’d need an English copy which starts at a higher price. I think my library card is underused, anyway!

  • http://www.womanchild.com Allison

    Sounds wonderful – can’t wait to read it! I wish I were further along in learning French…I bet the French version is just that much more delicious than the English translation…

  • Cindy

    I really enjoy this site, thanks so much! I had been searching for The Belly of Paris for a year and a half and finally found a used copy on amazon.com, that wasn’t too expensive ($18), so keep trying! I also used to live in Berkeley, CA and I loved Cody’s bookstore!

  • Hande

    In the german Amazon there is an entry for an english version, shipped from miami (!) starting from EUR 11,10.
    http://www.amazon.de/exec/obidos/ASIN/1892295997/qid=1084433035/sr=1-5/ref=sr_1_8_5/302-6022629-7452818
    If this link doesn’t work, go to amazon.de and search for belly of paris in the category “englische Bücher”….

  • http://todrownarose.blogs.com rose

    sorry if i use comments as a trackback, Clotilde – just to say I posted a few pictures about les Halles today.

  • http://www.toomanychefs.com Meg in Paris

    Rose, I posted an item about Spinach and Zucchini soup on our site recently; that may be where you saw it. It’s a nice combination!

    Clotilde, I have been meaning to tackle Zola for years, but now you have given me a real incentive!

  • http://todrownarose.blogs.com rose

    thanks meg, sorry. that’s what happens when you read blogs through a feedreader: it gets all a bit… soupish.

  • http://chocolateandzucchini.com clotilde

    All – I’m delighted you enjoyed the review, and that it created an urge to read it! Hope you can all find it, in the language of your choice, at a reasonable price or at a library.

    The rights for literature that old falls into the public domain, so it is available online in French, many thanks to Nassim for providing a link! Not so easy to read while riding the metro, but it’s a good way to leaf through it…

  • karen

    Heather,
    you might have already read the book by now. if not, try http://www.abebooks.com

    karen

  • yan

    The book is now readily available in a new english translation by Brian Nelson. It is a great book!

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