One of Zola's most fascinating and exciting novels.
The Belly of Paris is Les Halles centrales, the enormous (21-acre) market complex built by Baron Haussmann in the 1850s. Into it flowed great rivers of vegetables, cheeses, butter, fish and meats, and out of it sewers of blood and putrefaction. In this third volume of the Rougon-Macquart series, available in the U.S. for the first time, Zola describes both with typical hypnotic exhaustiveness. Escaping from undeserved exile on Devils Island, the starving quondam scholar Florent finds the markets occasionally seductive but more often repellent. From the moment he arrives, he is caught in what his friend the artist Claude Lantier (from La Confession de Claude) calls the Battle of the Fat and the Thin being waged between the well-fed, self-satisfied petty burghers and the hungry, envious lower classes. The Fat surround Florent-his half-brother, an unimaginative pork-butcher and his conventionally moral wife (the daughter of Antoine Macquart); the fishwives whom he monitors; local shopkeepers-and all look at him suspiciously for his failure to settle into a bourgeois existence. Not that the Thin-the neighborhood gossip, the markets' weekend revolutionaries-don't cause Florent just as much trouble. Neither bitter nor complacent, Florent is an irritation that the markets tacitly move to dislodge. One of Zola's own favorites, La Ventre de Paris is a brilliant exposition of one man's fragmentation and an often painful indictment of those who live innocent of infamy or praise. (Feb.)