Everyone lives by selling something.—Robert Louis Stevenson, 1892
A bright glow at the far end of the rue Rambuteau announced that day was dawning. The sonorous voice of the market was increasing in volume, and every now and then the ringing of a bell in some distant pavilion mingled with the swelling clamor.
Claude and Florent entered one of the covered alleys between the fish and poultry pavilions. Florent raised his eyes and looked at the lofty vault overhead, the interior timbers of which shone out from amid the black lacework of the iron supports. As he turned into the great central avenue, he was vaguely dreaming of some strange town, with its various districts, its suburbs, its neighboring villages, its promenades and streets, its squares and crossroads, all suddenly placed under the shelter of a roof some rainy day by the whim of some gigantic power. The deep gloom that brooded in the hollows of the roof seemed to multiply the forest of pillars, and infinitely increased the apparent number of delicate ribs and bands and carved cornices and transparent shutters. Over it all, too, even down within the deepest depths of gloomy shade there seemed to be budding out a teeming growth of flowers and vegetation of luxuriant metalwork, with climbing clustering twigs and branches that twined and knotted themselves and spread over all an airy network that resembled the interlaced foliage of some ancient forest. Several portions of the market still slumbered behind their closed gates. The little trellised stalls of the butter and poultry pavilions stood out conspicuously in the midst of the solitude, and their alleys remained deserted in the glimmering gaslight. The fish market had just been opened, and women were flitting to and fro among the rows of white marble slabs that were as yet littered over with hampers and cloths. In the pavilions devoted to the sale of vegetables and fruit and flowers, the noise and bustle were gradually increasing. The whole place was now waking up by degrees, from the popular quarter where the cabbages had been piled up since four o’clock in the morning to the lazy and rich district that only began to display its pullets and pheasants as the hands of the clock pointed to eight.
The great covered alleys were now beginning to teem with life. All along the causeway, on both sides of the road, the market gardeners and other smaller growers from the environs of Paris were still crowding, displaying in hampers the harvest they had gathered on the previous evening—bundles of vegetables and clusters of fruit. Vehicles of one sort and another passed under the arches into the midst of this ever-circulating throng, the drivers slackening the noisy jogging of their horses as they made their way through the crowd. Florent, in order to force a passage, was obliged to press up against some dingy sacks that looked like coal sacks, of such enormous weight as to make the axletrees bend beneath them. They were quite damp and exhaled the fresh odor of seaweed. Through a rent in the end of one of them, a black stream of big mussels was trickling out. The two companions were now obliged to stop after almost every step. The fish was arriving, and wagon succeeded wagon, ladened with the tall wooden cages filled with hampers that were brought by train from the seacoast. To get out of the way of the wagons of fish that ever pressed more and more closely upon them, the two men now rushed among the wheels of the wagons that were coming loaded with butter and eggs and cheese, huge yellow vehicles bearing colored lanterns and drawn by four horses. Strong-limbed men carried off the cases of eggs and the hampers of cheese and butter, bearing them away to the salesroom, where clerks in caps were scribbling in ledgers in the gaslight.
Claude was quite delighted with all this tumult and uproar, and he lost himself in admiration at some effect of light, or at some group of blouses, or the unloading of a cart. At last they extricated themselves from the crowd. As they continued to make their way along the main artery, they presently found themselves in the midst of an exquisite perfume that seemed to be following them. They were in the middle of the cut-flower market. All over the square, to the right and left, women were seated in front of great rectangular baskets filled with bunches of roses, violets, dahlias, and marguerites. The bunches had a dark, gloomy look, something like splotches of blood, lit up softly here and there with silvery grays of the tenderest tones. A lit candle was standing near one of the baskets, making up a rich oasis of color in the midst of the general grayness, and lighting up with its rays the bright variegations of the marguerites, the bloodred crimson of the dahlias, the purple hues of the violets, and the glowing tints of the roses. After escaping from the strong, sharp odors of the fish market, and the pestilential scents of the butter and cheese, it would have been impossible to imagine anything more grateful or more suggestive of the sweetness of the springtime than this soft, gentle breath of perfume wafted over the roadway.
Claude and Florent turned around again and made their way very leisurely back through the flowers, stopping and lingering here and there. They stood and watched with some curiosity the women who were selling bunches of fern and bundles of vine leaves, very neatly tied up in packets of five and twenty. Then they turned down a covered and almost deserted alley, where their footsteps echoed as though they had been walking along the nave of a church. Here they saw a very small donkey harnessed to a cart about the size of a wheelbarrow. The little animal was probably feeling bored, and when it caught sight of the two companions, it broke out into such a sonorous and prolonged bray that the vast roof of the market fairly trembled with it. Then the horses began to neigh in reply and paw the ground, and presently there was a perfect uproar in the distance, which gradually swelled and then rolled along and died away.
In front of them, in the rue Berger, the gas lamps enabled the two wanderers to distinguish in the empty but open stalls piles of hampers and fruit heaped up within the three dirty walls that were covered all over with addition sums scribbled in pencil. While they were standing there, they noticed a well-dressed lady huddling herself up with an air of happy lassitude in the corner of a cab that had got into the midst of the general block and was cautiously making its way onward.
“It is Cinderella coming back without her slippers,” said Claude with a smile.
Amazon logistics center, Madrid, 2013. Photograph by Álvaro Ibáñez. © Álvaro Ibáñez from Madrid (CC BY 2.0), Wikimedia Commons.
They were chatting together now, as they returned back to the markets. Claude whistled as he strolled along with his hands in his pockets and expatiated on his love for this teeming luxuriance of food that breaks out every morning in the very center of Paris. He prowled about the squares night after night, dreaming of colossal sketches of still life and extraordinary pictures. He had even commenced to paint one, and he had got his friend Marjolin and that jade Cadine to pose for him, but these confounded vegetables and fruit and fish and meat were too much for him! It was vain for him to attempt them! Florent listened to the artist’s flow of enthusiastic talk with a void and hunger-aching stomach. It did not appear to enter into Claude’s mind that all these things were intended to be eaten. Their charm for him lay in their color. Suddenly he ceased speaking and tightened, with a gesture that was habitual to him, the long red belt that he wore under his green-stained cloak.
Presently he commenced to talk again.
“Then, too, I breakfast here, through my eyes, at any rate, and that is better than getting nothing at all. Sometimes when I have forgotten to dine on the previous day, I give myself a perfect indigestion here in the morning by watching the carts arrive loaded with all sorts of good things. On such mornings as these, I love my vegetables more than ever. What irritates me and exasperates me, and what is really a crying sin, is that these miserable townspeople eat them all up!”
Then he went on to tell Florent of a magnificent supper to which a friend had treated him at Baratte’s on some festal day. They had had oysters, fish, and game. But Baratte’s had been done away with, and all the riotous life of the old market was dead and buried now. They had got these huge central markets in its place, this colossus of ironwork, this new and wonderful town. It was to no purpose that foolish folks had protested. It was the embodiment of the spirit of the times. Florent could not make out whether he was condemning the picturesque old neighborhood or Baratte’s good cheer.
From The Belly of Paris. After twice failing the baccalauréat exam, Zola spent his early twenties unemployed before managing to establish himself as a journalist. This third novel in his twenty-volume Les Rougon-Macquart cycle takes place around the central market known as Les Halles in nineteenth-century Paris. Zola died of carbon monoxide poisoning due to a blocked chimney in 1902; a sweeper later claimed the blockage was retribution for Zola’s 1898 public defense of Jewish artillery captain Alfred Dreyfus, who had been falsely accused of treason.