…or, ‘Le Ventre de Paris”, a novel by Emile Zola, published in 1873. It’s the third of his 20-volume Rougon-Macquart series, including better known ones like “Germinal” and “La Terre”. I’ve read a few (in English!) and really liked them, but must admit, I’m finding “The Belly of Paris” a bit flabby..
It’s set in and around Les Halles, the huge covered market in central Paris, built as part of the city’s mid.19th century transformation into a metropolis of industrial capitalism. Zola uses Les Halles as both a setting for his slightly grotesque characters and a metaphor for the excesses of an economy dominated by consumption, in a time of social upheaval – “plus la change”, as they say round here.
Today, I went for a stroll to see what I could find of the book, hoping it might make it easier to read.
Les Halles was demolished in the early 1970s and one of the few landmarks Zola would definitely recognise is the magnificant church of Saint Eustache (below).
The photos below are of some shops along Rue Montorgueil that pre-date Les Halles (or claim to), but otherwise, Zola’s characters would be lost.
Unlike Les Halles, many of Paris’ ornate passages (like the one below), have survived. These predecessors of shopping malls were described (at great length!) by Walter Benjamin in “Das Passagen-Werk”, another book I struggled with.
I was particularly keen to find Rue Pirouette, where some of the most vivid passages of “The Belly of Paris” are set in a charcuterie, with descriptions that could turn you veggie. I could see the road on Google map, but follow the little blue dot as I might, I couldn’t get to it. Then I realised: it was underground.
Les Halles was replaced by a sub-terranean shopping mall, now owned, inevitably, by Westfield. Equally predictably, the relics of a destroyed urban past, like street names, are appropriated in fake tribute. There are other odd ironies here. Zola vividly depicts the cellars beneath Les Halles, where the people in the photo below are walking, as dark, fetid places of slaughter and gore – literally, a place where the intestines and blood of imprisoned and dead animals were collected, while above ground, people lived increasingly vacuous lives. I wonder what Zola and Benjamin would have made of Westfield? They might have felt compelled to echo the final words of Zola’s book: “Respectable people…What bastards!”
I decided I wanted to get a better idea of what Les Halles used to look like, so I took a 20-minute train ride to Nogent-sur-Marne, an eastern Paris suburb, to where one of the original – and last remaining – buildings of Les Halles was moved and is now a concert hall (photo below). It looked a little forlorn, but it was possible to imagine the scale of Les Halles and wonder, again, if tearing things down in the name of urban “renewal” and “improvement” is such a good idea.