Baltard’s Les Halles… & Zola’s Le Ventre de Paris… a walk through Paris.
May 26, 2012 § Leave a comment
Florent barely makes it to Paris, he has travelled thousands of miles, having escaped from a prison on Devil’s Island (île du Diable), he almost starves in a trek through the jungle in Cayenne and arrives in at Les Halles atop a load of carrots. His honorable nature prevents him from taking even one of the carrots from the woman who has agreed to bring him back to his home. When he arrives in Paris it is a different place. Florent, who was wrongly imprisoned after being found with blood on his clothes following the commotion of the coup of 1851 left a Paris in the midst of an enormous transition. When he finally arrives at Les Halles, when the dawn has not yet broken. Here Zola lavishes the reader with pages and pages of descriptions of the wealth and variety of food to be found in the pavilions of Les Halles—iron and glass structures that stream geometrically perfect beams of beatific light onto the rainbow array of almost portly vegetables. Here we see monumental evidence of the newly industrialized productivity of Saint-Gobain, a company that had been supplying mirrors to a luxury market since the Ancien Régime, providing, for example all of the mirrored glass in Versailles. Making glass was still an artisanal process back then—a carefully guarded secret of the guild. But I digress.
Florent searches for his brother who was a young bachelor working for a butcher when he left—whose shop was on rue Pirouette. I love the description of rue Pirouette, which transforms the image of a crooked medieval street into something of a vanishing arabesque flourish. Florent asks if the rue Pirouette is still in existence, as he can see that very little of what he knew was. Indeed, it was still there. Florent finds it with the help of his temporary guide—Monsieur Claude who paints the light caressed vegetables of the market with a lust one would expect was reserved for more animate figures. Monsieur Claude informs Florent that indeed, rue Pirouette still exists.
“A very curious corner of old Paris is the Rue Pirouette. It twists and turns like a dancing girl, and the houses bulge out like pot-bellied gluttons. I’ve made an etching of it that isn’t half bad.”
In fact rue Pirouette was named so because the street was near the pillory of Les Halles. This pillory was mounted on top of a rotating device that allowed the prisoner to be shown in the round. The accused would be placed in the pillory for two hours per day, turning every half and hour in a different direction, exposed to the eyes and taunts of the public. As far as I can gather the pillory was in use since the 14thc. (reign of Philip VI) and was in use until the middle of the seventeenth century. In 1832 it was replaced by a simpler public display in the courtyard of the Palais Justice.
But again, I digress. In order to get to rue Pirouette Monsieur Claude and Florent must pass through the newly widened and gleaming Rue Rambuteau, where “immense heaps of cauliflowers stood symmetrically piled like so many cannonballs.” Finally they arrive at Rue Pirouette, which spreads out before them like some story of time passing. There was one store illuminated by the only gas lamp on the street, “snowy with a fresh coat of whitewash, suggesting some flabby broken-down old dowager, powdered and bedaubed in the hope of appearing young.” The other buildings, however “stretched away into the darkness, bruised, dented and cracked, greeny with the fall of water from their roofs, and displaying such an extraordinary variety that Claude could not refrain from laughing as he contemplated them.” Oh that is such a lovely description. This is the intersection of rue Pirouette and Rue Rambuteau c. 1900.
Florent was disappointed because when he came upon the butcher shop where his brother had been working he found that it was no longer a butcher shop, but a purveyor of cooked vegetables. Florent did eventually find Quenu and his beautiful wife Lisa—not in the dingy corners of the picturesque rue Pirouette, but situated on Rambuteau in gleaming new storefront that faced the market. I love Zola’s description of Quenu’s new shop.
It stood very near the corner of the Rue Pirouette and provided quite a feast for the eyes. Its aspect was bright and smiling, touches of brilliant colour showing conspicuously amidst all the snowy marble. The sign board, on which the name of QUENU-GRADELLE glittered in fat gilt letters encircled by leaves and branches painted on a soft-hued background, was protected by a sheet of glass. On two panels, one on each side of the shop-front, and both, like the board above, covered with glass, were paintings representing various chubby little cupids playing amidst boars’ heads, pork chops and strings of sausages; and these latter still-life subjects, embellished with scrolls and bows, had been painted in such soft tones that the uncooked pork which they represented had the pinkiness of raspberry jam. Within this pleasing framework arose the window display, arranged upon a bed of fine blue-paper shavings. Here and there fern-leaves, tastefully disposed, changed the plates which they encircled into bouquets fringed with foliage. There was a wealth of rich, luscious, melting things…
The description goes on. Quenu’s success fills Florent with indescribable happiness… but it also fills him with an uneasy contentedness that becomes the central source of conflict in the book. Below is an image of the Halle Aux Blé, now the Bourse de Commerce, this stood at the head of Les Halles, this will perhaps be the subject of another post.