Posts Tagged Class war
Le Ventre de Paris by Emile Zola (1873)
Our hero, Florent, arrives in town on the back of a horse and cart which is bringing a stall’s-worth of turnips to the market. After years’ imprisonment on an island off French Guyana, mistaken for a political dissident, he finds his step-brother, Quenu, now something of a master butcher, and sister-in-law, Lisa, of Zola’s notorious Macquart clan. They take him in under the cover of being a distant cousin. Although hugely intimidated by the coarse, brash women of Les Halles (not to mention his own anti-authoritarian instincts), Florent takes a job as an inspector in the market. In his spare time he begins to develop an ineffectual, amateurish socialist plot against the Second Empire – Lisa’s bourgeois self-interest takes hold, and she denounces him to the police, whereupon he is arrested and deported. Again.
This is generally considered to be one of Zola’s second division novels, but features several striking elements which raise it deservedly amongst the classic French works of its kind.
Firstly, as with Germinal’s mine (Le Voreux) and La Bête Humaine’s train (La Lison), Les Halles transcend their man-made limitations to become a living, breathing character in the novel. Emblematic of Paris’ imminent ruin, the belly of the capital is more important than its heart or its brain (of which there are no signs); all working-class life is seen to revolve around Les Halles: disputes are settled with fist-fights, clumsy teenage romances are consummated on makeshift beds of duck feathers, and life itself comes to an end courtesy of a lump of stone to the back of the head.
Meanwhile, the novel contains Zola’s perhaps most famous single passage of prose, a description of entering a cheese shop and being overwhelmed by a multitude of pungent odours, also referred to as The Cheese Symphony (no, really).
And finally, we have the ever-present symbolism of a bitter struggle throughout the book. The most common English translation of the title is ‘The Fat and The Thin’, reflecting the ongoing battle between ‘les gras et les maigres’ – there is little or no subtlety about this from Zola: Florent (the exiled, starved, socialist) is painfully thin and barely eats, while Lisa and Quenu are portrayed as human mountains of flesh, compared favourably with the glistening charcuterie they sell. Quenu’s love for his brother is ultimately undermined by his wife’s petty aspirations - indeed, ‘le tout Paris’ has no time for the poor or the miserable: les maigres.
At the time, the genesis and birth of Arthur (Or The Decline And Fall Of The British Empire) must have felt like something of a waking nightmare for Ray Davies and friends. The concept was to write a soundtrack to underscore a Granada TV play, to be written by Julian Mitchell, but while the recording of the album progressed nicely, the development of the TV programme was troublesome, culminating in last-minute cancellation after funding fell through. After seeing the best part of a year’s work come to nothing, the album was to be released as a standalone concept album – but with the concept itself much less tangible than was first expected. With hindsight it perhaps unsurprising that two pre-album singles were released (Plastic Man, and Drivin’) to either limited or no chart success.
The album paints a picture of a fictional Arthur Morgan (based closely on the Davies’ brother-in-law) in the post-Second World War years. He is depicted as an essentially good, decent man who is confounded, let down, and ultimately brow-beaten by the world around him, inevitably serving as a metaphor for the once-great British Empire.
Davies’ themes are clear and prominent: nostalgia for a forgotten Britain (the excellent Victoria, and Young And Innocent Days), the fundamental emptiness of life (Shangri-La, and Nothing To Say), and the war (Yes Sir, No Sir is notable for its memorably scathing take on the army’s attitudes to its recruits: “Give the scum a gun and make the bugger fight / And be sure to have deserters shot on sight / If he dies we’ll send a memo to his wife”). Indeed many of the album’s subjects are treated with thinly-disguised scorn. Australia is presented as an apparent land of opportunity which its immigrants expected to believe has “no class distinction, no drug addiction”, while in Mr Churchill Says, the war-time British public is portrayed as both resolute and desperate (“All the garden gates /And empty cans are gonna make us win”).
The centrepiece of the album is quite rightly Shangri-La. I’ll go out on a limb here and state that this is possibly my favourite song ever written. It is simply majestic, effortlessly describing the mundanity and desperation of Arthur’s quiet suburban life, which has been reduced to a pursuit of modest material aspirations (his lifetime achievement being that of no longer having an outside toilet archly contrasting with the album’s finale which tells us Arthur “was young, and he had so much ambition”). Arthur’s life is now one of a TV, a radio, and a ‘dream’ car (all on the never-never), in a world of resignation where he knows his place; his place being in his rocking chair by the fire, cup of tea in hand, scared of his own insecurity, enduring execrable visits from nosey neighbours.
These lyrics could be taken to be an aloof, damning indictment of the aspirational working man, but in Davies’ hands they are agonised, sympathetic, and bittersweet, despairing of the world we’ve inherited and of what the Empire has become.
This song and the album as a whole are simply musical and lyrical masterpieces.
Etienne Lantier, son of Gervaise Coupeau of L’Assommoir fame, is the ‘star’ (if you will) of Germinal, my all-time favourite French novel, in which the initially shy and politically naive young man becomes an inspirational leader of a community (and stays politically naive).
Etienne leads a workers’ uprising at a northern coal mine, in search of improved working conditions. In the ensuing months-long strike, the miners and their families suffer appallingly and are driven to the very edge of survival. Ok so they don’t debate canibalism, but one family does sell (for a pittance) everything in their house, apart from the portrait of the benevolent Emperor, hung above the (cold, empty) fireplace, kindly provided free of charge by the company. In a particularly grimly captivating scene, as anger rises among the community and ferocious riots break out, the local shop-keeper (who insists on alternative forms of payment from the miners’ wives for what limited food stocks he has) has his manhood ripped from his body. It is then paraded around as if t’were a trophy.
A small number of miners (including Etienne – oh, Etienne) eventually cede and return to work, only to be trapped underground following a tunnel collapse brought about by sabotage (carried out by a Russian anarchist, a close friend of Etienne’s) intended to cripple the mining company’s position. Etienne’s own hereditary blood-lust finally takes grip, and sees him attack and kill a love-rival (a sub-plot), shortly before they are rescued. Etienne subsequently leaves, with his former colleagues returning to work for longer hours and lower pay than before the strike.
Despite this bleak resolution to the strike itself, the novel concludes as follows:
“Aux rayons enflammés de l’astre, par cette matinée de jeunesse, c’était de cette rumeur que la campagne était grosse. Des hommes poussaient, une armée noire, vengeresse, qui germait lentement dans les sillons, grandissant pour les récoltes du siècle futur, et dont la germination allait faire bientôt éclater la terre”
“Beneath blazing skies, in that youthful morning , it was with a growing murmur that the countryside swelled. Men were growing, a black and vengeful army, germinating slowly in the land’s furrows in readiness for the next century’s harvest, and whose ripening would soon burst open the earth itself”
I can in no way do justice to this novel; its portrayal of an impoverished mining community is hugely sympathetic without being romanticised; its consideration of the political and class struggle illuminates the immediate setting of the novel, but also speaks volumes about late 19th-century France; its depictions of conditions inside the mines reflect Zola’s (as always) devoted research to his novel, and are incredibly atmospheric to the point of claustrophobic.
I bought this book for 10FF (about a quid) from a second-hand bookstore in the very small town in Normandy where I lived and worked as a teacher for a while. I suspect the fact that I almost immediately adored this book was strongly related to the fact that I was fairly well isolated from friends and family at the time, I have a generally quite bleak outlook on life, and I’m also a raging lefty.