Over the weekend I finished reading Emile Zola's The Belly of Paris, which deals with revolution and bourgeois morality against the backdrop of the gargantuan Paris food markets. The main character is Florent, a former tutor who got caught up in the fighting in Paris during Napoleon III's coup which began the Second Empire (1851) and was (despite his basic harmlessness) transported to Devils Island. As the novel begins, he has escaped after many years imprisonment and returned to Paris. He's found, fainting with hunger on the road, by a market gardener as she drives her produce in to sell at the markets in Paris, and in that neighborhood of the markets he finds his younger brother, who is now married and runs a pork butcher shop. An acquaintance who is a poultry dealer with revolutionary leanings helps Florent get a job as a substitute inspector in the markets, but the who of them also become involved in plotting revolution with a group of fellow political dissidents who meet every night at a wine shop.
Reading a bit about Zola's overall project, of which this novel is a part, I'm fascinated by the scope of it. The Rougon-Macquart novels are a loosely connected set of twenty that Zola wrote from 1871 to 1893. His goal with the series was to provide a portrait of life during the Second Empire through the experiences of one family tree -- a project undeterred by the fact that the Empire was felled by the Franco-Prussian War, and replaced by the Third Republic, just as Zola was writing the first novel. Thus, what was intended to be a novel cycle portraying the present ended up being a sort of historical piece, though of very recent history. The 19th novel deals with the Franco-Prussian war itself.
I'm fascinated by the scope and ambition of the project of writing a set of novels to the social experience of an entire country throughout an era. Is any current writer attempting such a thing? I'm not aware of any. There's the temptation to say that our society is too big and too fragmented, but then, French society was pretty diverse in the middle of the 19th century and Zola was, after all, taking twenty novels to complete his project.
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