Occasionally we happen upon a book by a writer who is a stranger, or a previously unknown book by one whose work we thought we knew, and the volume turns into an unexpected pleasure, like a belated birthday present. This happened to me 11 years ago when I found The Belly of Paris, by Emile Zola, in a bookstore in Albany, N.Y. I had read several of Zola’s novels, mostly the better-known titles – L’Assommoir, Nana, Germinal – and had enjoyed them, and had recently read Frederick Brown’s Zola: A Life. I was predisposed to appreciating the great naturalist by frequent childhood viewings of The Life of Emile Zola, with Paul Muni in the title role. His Zola, the author of “J'accuse,” was a crusading hero for truth, tolerance and a free press – less a novelist than a moral force, in typical Hollywood fashion.
The 1996 paperback edition of The Belly of Paris (the third in Zola’s 20-volume Rougon-Macquart series) was put out by Sun & Moon Press, a now-defunct publisher in Los Angeles. It seemed an odd choice for a house heavy with Language Poets and other avant-garde grinds, but their revival of a forgotten 19th-century novel was inspired. I raced through it in a couple of days and loaned it to a friend. In the presence of facts, Zola seemed to experience an erotic thrill. His text is dense with Parisian history and data drawn from agriculture, finance and food – especially food. I can’t think of another novel more devoted to descriptions of growing, transporting, selling, buying, preparing and consuming food. Zola’s protagonist, Florent – a deported political prisoner on the lam – returns to Paris in a wagonload of turnips and carrots, and becomes Inspector of Fish for the city’s enormous central market, Les Halles.
The friend never returned the novel and soon moved, without notice, to the other end of the continent, so my memory of the book – the lingering aura surrounding any volume we have read -- was tinged with sadness and a ghostly unreality. Then, in the fall 2005 issue of The Threepenny Review, I was surprised to see a brief “Table Talk” essay by Irene Oppenheim devoted to Ernest Alfred Vizetelly’s translation of Le Ventre de Paris. Her reaction, like mine, had been one of shameless pleasure. She smartly paraphrases the novel, quotes several of Zola’s food descriptions that left her “queasy,” and reports the unexpected fate of the edition I had once owned. The Sun & Moon Press reprint, originally priced at $14.95, was long out of print and now available only at various internet sites for as much as $350. I don’t claim to understand the demands of the market, but how does a relatively obscure translation of a novel by Emile Zola fetch such appallingly inflated prices? I suppose that’s a back-handed compliment to Zola’s genius. Two years ago I requested the copy in the Houston Public Library’s collection, and it turned up missing, probably stolen. Oppenheim concludes her essay like this:
“There is one circulating edition in the Los Angeles library system, and I was able to purchase a somewhat less expensive copy from an internet seller in Detroit. How the book reached that least epicurean of cities remains a mystery.”
I’ve had several fine meals in Detroit, especially in Greektown. Oppenheim’s swipe at the Motor City is gratuitous, and she has obviously never eaten in Columbus, Ohio. But here’s the good news: The Belly of Paris is back in print. I found it in a bookshop here in Houston on Monday. The publisher is Green Integer, run by Douglas Messerli, the founder of Sun & Moon Press. The volume is the size of a large bar of soap and has the heft of brick. On the cover is a photograph of Zola’s face, scowling, bearded, and wearing a pince-nez. The price is $15.95. This story has several heroes – Zola, of course; Messerli; and, I’d like to think, Oppenheim.