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The Belly of Paris

(article, Émile Zola)

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h3. From Chapter 5

p(blue). Editor's note: In this descriptive passage from The Belly of Paris, Zola compares summertime fruit to women of all ages and origins. La Sarriette is a young fruit vendor in the Les Halles markets of central Paris.

Standing there amid her fruit, La Sarriette, in her picturesque disarray, looked charming. Frizzy hair fell over her brow like vine branches. Her bare arms and neck, indeed all the rosy flesh she showed, bloomed with the freshness of peach and cherry. She had playfully hung some cherries on her ears, black cherries which dangled against her cheeks when she stooped, shaking with merry laughter. She was eating currants, and her merriment arose from the way in which she was smearing her face with them. Her lips were bright red, glistening with the juice of the fruit, as though they had been painted and perfumed with some seraglio face paint. A perfume of plum exhaled from her gown, while from the kerchief carelessly fastened across her breast came an odor of strawberries.


h1. About the book and author

The French writer Émile Zola (1840-1902) is best known for his naturalist novels and his journalism advocacy. The Belly of Paris (Le Ventre de Paris) is a portrait of the famous Les Halles food pavilions that served as the central food market of Paris from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s. Under the iron-ribbed ceilings of the pavilions, Zola's working-class characters struggle either to enter the ranks of the bourgeoisie or to incite class revolution.

Clotilde Dusoulier has a good summary of Le Ventre de Paris on her blog, Chocolate and Zucchini.

The Green Integer edition of The Belly of Paris was translated from the French by Ernest Alfred Vizetelly.


Fruits of all kinds were piled around her in her narrow stall. On the shelves at the back were rows of melons: cantaloupes swarming with wart-like knots, maraîchers whose skin was covered with gray lacelike netting, and culs-de-singe displaying smooth bare bumps. In front was an array of choice fruits, carefully arranged in baskets, and showing like smooth round cheeks seeking to hide themselves, or glimpses of sweet childish faces, half veiled by leaves. 

Especially was this the case with the peaches, the blushing peaches of Montreuil, with skin as delicate and clear as that of northern maidens, and the yellow, sunburnt peaches from the south, brown like the damsels of Provence. The apricots, on their beds of moss, gleamed with the hue of amber or with that sunset glow which so warmly colors the necks of brunettes at the nape, just under the little wavy curls which fall below the chignon. 

The cherries, ranged one by one, resembled the short lips of smiling Chinese girls; the Montmorencies suggested the dumpy mouths of buxom women; the English ones were longer and graver-looking; the common black ones seemed as though they had been bruised and crushed by kisses; while the white-hearts, with their patches of rose and white, appeared to smile with mingled merriment and vexation. 

Then piles of apples and pears, built up with architectural symmetry, often in pyramids, displayed the ruddy glow of budding breasts and the gleaming sheen of shoulders, quite a show of nudity, lurking modestly behind a screen of fern leaves. There were all sorts of varieties — little red ones so tiny that they seemed to be yet in the cradle, shapeless Tambours for baking, calvilles in light yellow gowns, sanguineous-looking Canadas, blotched châtaignier apples, fair, freckled rennets, and dusky russets. Then came the pears — the blanquettes, the British queens, the beurrés, the messirejeans,_ and the duchesses — some dumpy, some long and tapering, some with slender necks, and others with thick-set shoulders, their green and yellow bellies picked out at times with a splotch of carmine.

By the side of these the transparent plums resembled tender, chlorotic virgins; the greengages and the Orleans plums paled as with modest innocence, while the mirabelles lay like the golden beads of a rosary forgotten in a box among sticks of vanilla. And the strawberries exhaled a sweet perfume — a perfume of youth — especially those little ones which are gathered in the woods, and which are far more aromatic than the large ones grown in gardens, for these breathe an insipid odor suggestive of the watering pot.

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Raspberries added their fragrance to the pure scent. The currants — red, white, and black — smiled with a knowing air, while the heavy clusters of grapes, laden with intoxication, lay languorously at the edges of their wicker baskets, over the sides of which dangled some of the berries, scorched by the hot caresses of the voluptuous sun.

It was there that La Sarriette lived in an orchard, as it were, in an atmosphere of sweet, intoxicating scents. The cheaper fruits — the cherries, plums, and strawberries — were piled up in front of her in paper-lined baskets, and the juice oozing from their bruised ripeness stained the stall front and steamed, with a strong perfume, in the heat. She would feel quite giddy on those blazing July afternoons when the melons enveloped her with a powerful, vaporous odor of musk; and then with her loosened kerchief, fresh as she was with the springtide of life, she brought sudden temptation to all who saw her. It was she — it was her arms and neck which gave that semblance of amorous vitality to her fruit.

On the stall next to her an old woman, a hideous old drunkard, displayed nothing but wrinkled apples, pears as flabby as herself, and cadaverous apricots of a witch-like sallowness. La Sarriette's stall, however, spoke of love and passion. The cherries looked like the red kisses of her bright lips; the silky peaches were not more delicate than her neck; to the plums she seemed to have lent the skin from her brow and chin; while some of her own crimson blood coursed through the veins of the currants.

All the scents of the avenue of flowers behind her stall were but insipid beside the aroma of vitality which exhaled from her open baskets and falling kerchief.

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