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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.


Imperfect as the rendering may be, I think that the above passage
will show that M. Zola was already possessed of a large amount of his
acknowledged realistic power at the early date I have mentioned. I
should also have liked to quote a rather amusing story of a priggish
Philistine who ate violets with oil and vinegar, strongly peppered, but
considerations of space forbid; so I will pass to another passage, which
is of more interest and importance. Both French and English critics have
often contended that although M. Zola is a married man, he knows
very little of women, as there has virtually never been any _feminine
romance_ in his life. There are those who are aware of the contrary,
but whose tongues are stayed by considerations of delicacy and respect.
Still, as the passage I am now about to reproduce is signed and
acknowledged as fact by M. Zola himself, I see no harm in slightly
raising the veil from a long-past episode in the master's life:--


The light was rising, and as I stood there before that footway
transformed into a bed of flowers my strange night-fancies gave place to
recollections at once sweet and sad. I thought of my last excursion to
Fontenay-aux-Roses, with the loved one, the good fairy of my twentieth
year. Springtime was budding into birth, the tender foliage gleamed
in the pale April sunshine. The little pathway skirting the hill was
bordered by large fields of violets. As one passed along, a strong
perfume seemed to penetrate one and make one languid. _She_ was leaning
on my arm, faint with love from the sweet odour of the flowers. A
whiteness hovered over the country-side, little insects buzzed in the
sunshine, deep silence fell from the heavens, and so low was the sound
of our kisses that not a bird in all the hedges showed sign of fear.
At a turn of the path we perceived some old bent women, who with dry,
withered hands were hurriedly gathering violets and throwing them into
large baskets. She who was with me glanced longingly at the flowers, and
I called one of the women. "You want some violets?" said she. "How much?
A pound?"

God of Heaven! She sold her flowers by the pound! We fled in deep
distress. It seemed as though the country-side had been transformed into
a huge grocer's shop. . . . Then we ascended to the woods of Verrieres,
and there, in the grass, under the soft, fresh foliage, we found some
tiny violets which seemed to be dreadfully afraid, and contrived to
hide themselves with all sorts of artful ruses. During two long hours
I scoured the grass and peered into every nook, and as soon as ever I
found a fresh violet I carried it to her. She bought it of me, and
the price that I exacted was a kiss. . . . And I thought of all those
things, of all that happiness, amidst the hubbub of the markets of
Paris, before those poor dead flowers whose graveyard the footway had
become.



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