Mark Kurlansky

In March 1969 Charles de Gaulle officially closed Les Halles and by 1971 in an act of modern architectural homicide rivaled only by the razing of New York City’s Penn Station, the Belly of Paris was no more.


In March 1969 Charles de Gaulle officially closed Les Halles and by 1971 in an act of modern architectural homicide rivaled only by the razing of New York City’s Penn Station, the Belly of Paris was no more.

Imagine if Baltard’s magnificent pavilions of iron and glass had been spared instead of that gigantic hole in the ground that now resembles the worst of American shopping centers.

Kurlansky is the author of COD, SALT and 1968 and for ten tears was a resident of Paris. His introduction to THE BELLY OF PARIS prepares you for the sights, smells, sounds, personalities and politics that gave vibrant life to a city within a city.

TG: In the opening sentence of your introduction you mention that Zola was your hero as a teenager. Was that Zola or Paul Muni in the Warner Bros. 1937 biopic THE LIFE OF EMILE ZOLA?

MK: I have never seen the Muni film. I should rent it but I suspect it is centered around the Dreyfus case  (it did) which is just the most famous in a lifetime of taking bold political stands. It was toward the end of his life. But as I say in the intro what I admired was that he did not confuse his art and his politics. Despite his stands there are no diatribes in his novels except for the purpose of laughing at diatribes. Instead with humor and irony he offers a vision of the world to which the reader reacts.

TG: Talk about Zola’s research style?

MK: It was very similar to my own. I remember when researching my novel about New York’s lower east side how I struggled to learn about tattoo parlors while avoiding actually getting a tattoo. In the 1880s, when Zola began Germinal, he lived with the miners, drank with them at night, went down into the mines and later for La Bête Humaine he traveled on a train dressed as an engineer. In 1872 he lived in the belly of Paris. He spent his nights at the Courbevoie Bridge where wagons loaded with food came into Paris from the west. He would scramble along side the horses from the customs gate at the edge of the city eight miles to Les Halles with his pencil at the ready. He spent endless hours taking notes in the market and also examining the view from different approaches. He became an expert on the market’s administration.

TG: The mom and pop retail partnership that persists to this day is vividly depicted by Zola. Please describe the roles in those marriages.

MK: One of the unusual characteristics of Zola’s 19th century novels was the way he saw women. They were powerful and assertive and determined to play a role in all aspects of life including politics. Lisa scolds Quenu for never asking for her political views.  These marriages were partnerships of equals. But they were ruthless in the face of competitors and they cared about nothing so much as the prosperity of their little businesses willing to sacrifice all ideals and justice to this end.  Zola was at the roots of the French criticism of the small-minded petty bourgeoisies.

TG: Cézanne was influenced by and influenced Zola. Talk about their relationship and the character Claude Lantier in BELLY.

MK: Zola and Cezanne grew up together in Provence and were very close. Many of the two volumes of Zola’s letters are to Cézanne.  They talked about art, women, marriage, most everything. Claude Lantier, because he is a painter, by the description of his eccentric dress, by his tendency to destroy his own work in self critical rage–he once to Zola’s fury, ripped up a portrait hehad done of the writer– was clearly based on Cezanne. But Lantier was given some characteristics of Zola, such as his enthusiasm for early morning markets. Lantier appears in a number of the novels in Zola’s cycle, which strained the relationship. Finally in 1886 when a novel came out a bout Lantier, L’Oeuvre, Cezanne stopped speaking to his oldest friend.

TG: Translation can be a difficult job. How did you approach the project?

MK: It certainly is difficult. Originally I thought I would do the translation here and there in a spare moment. But after several years I had only completed a third of the book and realized I was going to have to focus on the project in a more serious way. I had first read the book in French. Years later I stumbled across the original translation, done in Zola’s lifetime by his British publisher Ernest Vizetelly and called The Fat and The Thin.

The fact that he didn’t use the original title with its triple meaning–the guts of Paris, the stomach of Paris and the underbelly of Paris–shows what was wrong with the translation. Gone was the humor, the irony derived from carefully unleashed phrases, the mot juste. It was translated again in 1955 by David Hughs and Marie-Jaqueline Mason and called Savage Paris. Despite the even worse title it was a better translation showing a flair for language and great readability. But it was outrageously unfaithful to the original. Here were the two extremes of translation John Rutherford, the translator of Don Quixote termed cavaliers and Puritans.

The 1955 version was cavalier, taking huge liberties. The Vizetelly version was puritanical, trying to be so faithful to the original that it was barely readable English. The 1955 version has vanished and every existing edition of Belly of Paris, although wisely going back to Zola’s title, has been Vizetelly or strongly derivative of it. I wanted a readable book with all the richness, irony and humor, so that English reading people could have the experience I had when I first read it. The working class dialogue was particularly challenging. I could have easily reset the story in Brooklyn and written it in Brooklynese. But it is mid-nineteenth century Paris and so I had to find an English that is colloquial without being from another time or place.

TG: How did your ten years of life in Paris prepare you for the task?

MK: I lived in Paris for ten years in two stays over a 16-year period. My original map guide book is too obsolete to use. I have known Paris for almost 40 years. During that time I have seen the city lose most of what I loved most about it. So it is comforting to realize that in the 1870s Zola was feeling the same way. It is ironic that Zola singles out rue de le Ferronnnerie and a surviving vestige of the old Paris. When I first knew Paris exactly 100 years later, Les Halles was a hole in the ground awaiting a bad idea.


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