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Try This, 2--Excess in All Things

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Note: For the rationale for this feature, please see my "Try This" post of Jan. 4, 2006.

Emile Zola, Le Ventre de Paris (English translation: The Fat and the Thin, translated by Ernest Alfred Vizetelly). Originally published, 1873, translation published, 1915. Mondial, 301 pp.

Some writers should be called "hyper-novelists". Instead of writing a volume, say 850 pages, about one group of characters (such as David Copperfield and his friends and enemies), they write many volumes about a multitude of inter-related characters. One of my favorite hyper-novelists is Anthony Trollope (author, along with many single novels, of the six volumes of The Chronicles of Barsetshire and the six volumes of the Palliser series). Of course, there is Proust (In Search of Lost Time, seven volumes), and Honore de Balzac (La Comedy Humaine, more volumes than I can figure out how to count). In our day, we have the roguish George Macdonald Fraser, author of the Flashman series, and others, too. Hyper-novelists sometimes hit it big, because when readers get attached to certain characters and a certain way of telling a story, demand turns into great success and big bucks. But once the novelist dies and his books go out of fashion, the multi-volume series can seem overwhelming and off-putting to the casual reader, rather like watching the third season of "The Sopranos" without having watched seasons one and two.

Emile Zola was a hyper-novelist extraordinaire. In 1871, at the age of 28, he set out to systematically analyse the world he lived in, Second Empire France, and over the course of the next twenty-five years, he did so in the twenty-volume series he called Les Rougon-Macquart. The Rougons and the Macquarts are a provincial family, hailing from a town called Plassans, in Provence. The series opens with the revolution of 1848 and the establishment of the Second Empire, under Napoleon Bonaparte's (alleged) nephew, Napoleon III, which incidentally establishes the fortunes of the Rougons (in volume I). In subsequent volumes, Zola follows the fates of various branches of the family as they make their way in the new, burgeoning, capitalist world. If you are tired of what's going on in Washington, and are up for a bit of wretched-excess-deja-vu, look no further. And you don't have to start with the first volume. I did, and it is very good, and the second volume is better, but the third volume had me gawking. Zola was thirty years old when he wrote this? It only took him a few months? Amazing!

The scene of The Fat and the Thin is in and around Les Halles, the central food market in the first arrondissement of Paris, which was enclosed in huge glass and iron structure during the 1850s. The protagonist is Florent, an escapee of the penal colony at Devil's Island, who is literally starving to death when we first meet him. The sprig of the Rougon-Macquart that he encounters when he gets to Paris is Lisa, who, with Florent's younger brother, Quenu, runs a shop in the market, where he makes and she sells sausages and hams as well as fresh cuts of pork. Florent and Quenu have a long and affectionate relationship, but Florent's existence must be kept a secret because of his escape. The Fat and the Thin is about how that secret comes out, and what happens to the family when it does.

I almost said that the best thing about The Fat and the Thin is the complexity of the characters, major and minor, but really, so many things about the novel are both astute and beautifully rendered that there is no best thing. Foodies should not miss this novel, because it is an incomparable trip to the original monument of cuisine, high, low, and everything in between. When the scene is the fish market, Zola thrillingly enumerates the fish on display; when the scene is the flower market, the reader can nearly smell the blooms. Sausage is made, vegetables are mounded up, fruits are enumerated, poultry is housed, fed, and slaughtered, cheeses practically rise and walk off the shelves. Food of every sort is described, bought, sold, disposed of, considered as a motif, a symbol, an allegory of human appetites and typologies.

The market, of course, is a fairly insular community, and the social dynamics of the community are explored in detail. Lisa, always referred to as "the beautiful Lisa", is one of the acknowledged queens of the market. Just down the street, within sight, selling fish, is her rival, "the beautiful Norman", who is built on a slightly different model, with a slightly different temperament. Florent's fate, unbeknownst to him, is at least partially decided in accordance with the ups and downs of this rivalry, which is carried on through the female gossip channels in the market, and played out by means of glances, items of dress, and complexly encoded gestures and remarks. Lisa is meticulous, conscientious, and responsible. She understands that her husband's talents at making sausage don't translate into good business sense, but she also honors his love for his brother. When Florent first arrives, she presents him with an accounting of the inheritance he and Quenu have received in his absence, and offers him the money. Confused about what he wants to do, and, in fact, who he is, he turns her down--he takes up residence in a room in their house, and evidently has no desire for an independent life. She tells him he can take the money at any time and she means it, because she prides herself on doing the proper thing; right to the end, she does do the proper thing. Her vanity is exactly what one would want in one's butcher--she and the shop are always sparkling clean, and though she listens to the ubiquitous gossip, she doesn't participate in it.

Florent, starving, would seem to have found himself in paradise, but in fact, Les Halles doesn't suit him. The abundance of food and offal sickens him, and the market people begin to have their suspicions of him when they see that he doesn't like to eat. He's gloomy; he makes them nervous; he does things out of innate kindness, confusion, and what appears to the modern reader to be either depression or post-traumatic stress disorder that they simply cannot understand. Eventually, he falls under the influence of a local blowhard tough-guy, and the two of them begin having "political" meetings at a local tavern. And yes, they do plot to overthrow the empire, and yes, they do leave a paper trail, but the fecklessness and solipsism of their plan, which is more about banners and armbands than strategy, is almost poignant.

Zola's story moves at a measured but suspenseful pace. He is careful to trace out its every thread, but no incident is gratuitous or unnecessary. Les Halles, for us in 2006, is a lost world found again, experienced again. For me, though, the real artistic triumph is Zola's depiction of Lisa's point of view. He does not sympathize with her (his point of view is closer to that of a minor character, Claude Lantier, who is a painter who haunts the market, looking for subjects) but his empathy with her is exact. Each stage in her unfolding relationship to Florent, and her careful weighing of every choice, is eloquently drawn. She is that oh, so recognizeable thing, a "moderate conservative". When she says to her husband, who has gone to a few "meetings" himself, "And now don't bother your head about the Government. All governments are alike, and if we didn't have this one, we should have another. A government is necessary. But the one thing is to be able to live on, to spend one's savings, and to know that one has gained one's means honestly", a reader like me, who doesn't share any of her views, can almost see her point.

Probably, readers like me were not Zola's intended audience. His sympathies are with Florent, and my guess is that readers like Lisa were his intended audience--his desire was to show the complexity of Florent, who is "a revolutionary", but essentially harmless. Zola's methods, though, are so balanced and judicious, that what we see is not the viciousness of either one, but the humanity of both.

In their day, Zola's novels were considered both innovative and scandalous. The periodical that was publishing volume two of Les Rougon-Macquart (La Curee, a recasting of "Phaedre") had to suspend publication partway into the novel because of the outcry (I loved La Curee, which is available in a modern translation). Zola incorporated what he considered to be "scientific" ideas into novel writing, but in general, these theories have lost their currency without losing their effectiveness as ways of organizing his characters. The result is that, for us, perhaps, Zola's work seems more character and relationship-driven than it seemed to his contemporaries, who found it cold. I find it gloriously excessive. Of course he had ideas--he needed them to keep track of everything that he observed in such detail. And one thing that the Franch Second Empire was about was more more more--more food, more boulevards, more building, more money, more corruption, more modernity. If you are looking for a lost treasure, I say, try this.

note on translation: the translation offered by Mondial (www.mondialbooks.com) was made in 1915, by a son of a friend of Zola. It is readable, though the introduction is more lyrical than informative. Some of the volumes of Les Rougon-Macquart have been re-translated over the years, and it is certainly past time for the others. Hello, Penguin?

note on book buying: in responses to my last post, a couple of readers objected to me buying books from Amazon rather than from a local independent bookseller. I do believe in principled book buying (and consuming, in general), so here are my principles: 1. Buy books from as many outlets as possible--this includes independents, chains, Amazon, used book purveyors, Costco. Wherever I am, that's where I buy a book. The key is to support, in what you might call a Keynesian manner, the circulation of books. When I am finished with books, I like to donate them or give them away. When the religious right takes over, they will have a lot more trouble burning all the books if a lot of books are out there. 2. In buying books, as in buying all things, use as little gas as possible. If I am at home (out in the country), I order books (Amazon uses the USPS) rather than drive to the books.