Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Zola's vegetables and roses...

“… the carts made their way towards Paris …. A cart full of cabbages and another full of peas had joined up at the Pont de Neuilly with the eight carts carrying turnips from Nanterre; the horses plodded along of their own accord …. The wagoners, lying flat on their stomachs on beds of vegetables, were dozing with the reins in their hands …. Every now and then a gas lamp, looming out of the darkness, would illuminate the nails of a boot, the blue sleeve of a smock ….

[It is not yet light as they arrive at Les Halles] So far nothing could be seen, as the lanterns swung by, except the luxuriant fullness of the bundles of artichokes,  the delicate green of the lettuces, the coral pink of the carrots, and the smooth ivory of the turnips. These flashes of colour appeared along the mounds of vegetables …. A loud voice in the distance cried: ‘Endives! Endives!’”
              --from the opening pages of The Belly of Paris, by Emile Zola,
translated by Brian Nelson, Oxford University Press, paper, 2009

Les Halles, built in 1851, was torn down beginning in the late 1960’s and replaced by a market called Rungis (outside of Paris; the French morning show called Telematin occasionally broadcasts a short segment from there, and the --new-- place seems cold and isolated to me).  I could have read an entire novel (my copy of Belly lasts for 275 pages) filled with this kind of description, Paris in Zola’s day. I think I must be a rather unusual audience: for me, the plot disturbs the beautiful flow of the prose. I would have willingly followed the hero around Les Halles and looked at every cart full of peas and only listen, as the sun came up, to the bargaining and the gossip. I find myself less interested in “story.” As I was reading, I kept looking for that path I would have liked to walk:

“Cadine also sold cress. ‘Two sous a bunch! Two sous a bunch!’ And Marjolin went into the shops offering ‘Fine fresh watercress! Very healthy!’ Les Halles had just been built, and the little girl would stand gazing in ecstasy at the avenue of flower stalls that ran through the fruit market. From end to end, on either side, the stalls were like borders along a garden path, blossoming like splendid bouquets. It was a harvest of perfumes, two thick hedges of roses, between which the girls in the neighborhood loved to walk, smiling and a little overcome by the powerful scents.”
                        --from page 158, same edition

Who wouldn’t want to walk between those “borders” of roses? But, then, I find this pretty often. Girl with A Pearl Earring, by Tracy Chevalier, is an example of a book I remember reading principally for its fabulous descriptions: the morning walks that the heroine takes to cross the city, or the way the author manages to catch the clean, bright air in prose, the same air that Vermeer paints so perfectly.  It must be because I try to do that in some of the paintings I work on. One of the worst comments I ever heard about my own work was from a friend who, looking at a new series of paintings in the studio said that “the colors seem lovely, but the paintings don’t have any air, they are claustrophobic,” and I looked at them then, and of course they were. She was perfectly right, and I painted them over.

Maybe I secretly think that plot (often) doesn’t leave the reader any room to speculate or to breathe the same air that the characters do.  I like to fall into a book, or a painting. Agnes Martin said something like this once, that she made big paintings so that the viewer would be immersed. That’s it. Immersed. I am remembering, though, and not being exact. But she does say exactly this: “The times when you are not aware of beauty and happiness you are not alive.”

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