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Emile Zola. The Fat and the Thin

Etext prepared by Dagny, dagnypg@yahoo.com and John Bickers, jbickers@ihug.co.nz

THE FAT AND THE THIN (LE VENTRE DE PARIS) BY EMILE ZOLA TRANSLATED, WITH AN INTRODUCTION, BY ERNEST ALFRED VIZETELLY

Let me have men about me that are fat:

Sleek-headed men, and such as sleep o' nights:

Yond' Cassius has a lean and hungry look;

He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.

SHAKESPEARE: Julius Caesar, act i, sc. 2.

INTRODUCTION

'THE FAT AND THE THIN,' or, to use the French title, 'Le Ventre de Paris,' is a story of life in and around those vast Central Markets which form a distinctive feature of modern Paris. Even the reader who has never crossed the Channel must have heard of the Parisian Halles, for much has been written about them, not only in English books on the French metropolis, but also in English newspapers, magazines, and reviews; so that few, I fancy, will commence the perusal of the present volume without having, at all events, some knowledge of its subject matter.

The Paris markets form such a world of their own, and teem at certain hours of the day and night with such exuberance of life, that it was only natural they should attract the attention of a novelist like M. Zola, who, to use his own words, delights 'in any subject in which vast masses of people can be shown in motion.' Mr. Sherard tells us[*] that the idea of 'Le Ventre de Paris' first occurred to M. Zola in 1872, when he used continually to take his friend Paul Alexis for a ramble through the Halles. I have in my possession, however, an article written by M. Zola some five or six years before that time, and in this one can already detect the germ of the present work; just as the motif of another of M. Zola's novels, 'La Joie de Vivre,' can be traced to a short story written for a Russian review.

[*] Emile Zola: a Biographical and Critical Study, by Robert

Harborough Sherard, pp. 103, 104. London, Chatto Windus, 1893.

Similar instances are frequently to be found in the writings of English as well as French novelists, and are, of course, easily explained. A young man unknown to fame, and unable to procure the publication of a long novel, often contents himself with embodying some particular idea in a short sketch or story, which finds its way into one or another periodical, where it lies buried and forgotten by everybody-excepting its author. Time goes by, however, the writer achieves some measure of success, and one day it occurs to him to elaborate and perfect that old idea of his, only a faint apercu of which, for lack of opportunity, he had been able to give in the past. With a little research, no doubt, an interesting essay might be written on these literary resuscitations; but if one except certain novelists who are so deficient in ideas that they continue writing and rewriting the same story throughout their lives, it will, I think, be generally found that the revivals in question are due to some such reason as that given above.

It should be mentioned that the article of M. Zola's young days to which I have referred is not one on market life in particular, but one on violets. It contains, however, a vigorous, if brief, picture of the Halles in the small hours of the morning, and is instinct with that realistic descriptive power of which M. Zola has since given so many proofs. We hear the rumbling and clattering of the market carts, we see the piles of red meat, the baskets of silvery fish, the mountains of vegetables, green and white; in a few paragraphs the whole market world passes in kaleidoscopic fashion before our eyes by the pale, dancing light of the gas lamps and the lanterns. Several years after the paper I speak of was published, when M. Zola began to issue 'Le Ventre de Paris,' M. Tournachon, better known as Nadar, the aeronaut and photographer, rushed into print to proclaim that the realistic novelist had simply pilfered his ideas from an account of the Halles which he (Tournachon) had but lately written. M. Zola, as is so often his wont, scorned to reply to this charge of plagiarism; but, had he chosen, he could have promptly settled the matter by producing his own forgotten article.

At the risk of passing for a literary ghoul, I propose to exhume some portion of the paper in question, as, so far as translation can avail, it will show how M. Zola wrote and what he thought in 1867. After the description of the markets to which I have alluded, there comes the following passage:-

I was gazing at the preparations for the great daily orgy of Paris

when I espied a throng of people bustling suspiciously in a

corner. A few lanterns threw a yellow light upon this crowd.

Children, women, and men with outstretched hands were fumbling in

dark piles which extended along the footway. I thought that those

piles must be remnants of meat sold for a trifling price, and that

all those wretched people were rushing upon them to feed. I drew

near, and discovered my mistake. The heaps were not heaps of meat,

but heaps of violets. All the flowery poesy of the streets of

Paris lay there, on that muddy pavement, amidst mountains of food.

The gardeners of the suburbs had brought their sweet-scented

harvests to the markets and were disposing of them to the hawkers.

From the rough fingers of their peasant growers the violets were

passing to the dirty hands of those who would cry them in the

streets. At winter time it is between four and six o'clock in the

morning that the flowers of Paris are thus sold at the Halles.

Whilst the city sleeps and its butchers are getting all ready for

its daily attack of indigestion, a trade in poetry is plied in

dark, dank corners. When the sun rises the bright red meat will be

displayed in trim, carefully dressed joints, and the violets,

mounted on bits of osier, will gleam softly within their elegant

collars of green leaves. But when they arrive, in the dark night,

the bullocks, already ripped open, discharge black blood, and the

trodden flowers lie prone upon the footways. . . . I noticed just

in front of me one large bunch which had slipped off a

neighbouring mound and was almost bathing in the gutter. I picked

it up. Underneath, it was soiled with mud; the greasy, fetid sewer

water had left black stains upon the flowers. And then, gazing at

these exquisite daughters of our gardens and our woods, astray

amidst all the filth of the city, I began to ponder. On what

woman's bosom would those wretched flowerets open and bloom? Some

hawker would dip them in a pail of water, and of all the bitter

odours of the Paris mud they would retain but a slight pungency,

which would remain mingled with their own sweet perfume. The water

would remove their stains, they would pale somewhat, and become a

joy both for the smell and for the sight. Nevertheless, in the

depths of each corolla there would still remain some particle of

mud suggestive of impurity. And I asked myself how much love and

passion was represented by all those heaps of flowers shivering in

the bleak wind. To how many loving ones, and how many indifferent

ones, and how many egotistical ones, would all those thousands and

thousands of violets go! In a few hours' time they would be

scattered to the four corners of Paris, and for a paltry copper

the passers-by would purchase a glimpse and a whiff of springtide

in the muddy streets.

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