Silly quiz. What do you think this is? (Clue: it is edible) Answer at the end.
One of the books that I am currently reading is The Kill by Émile Zola, the second in Zola's cycle of twenty novels, Les Rougon-Macquart.
My interest is, on the one hand, for research purposes, on the other, for the sheer pleasure of reading Zola's sumptuous use of language.
'The front carriages were finally able to proceed, and one by one the whole line began to move slowly forward. It was like an awakening. A thousand shimmering lights seemed to appear, quick flashes played on the wheels, sparks flew from the horses' harnesses. On the ground, on the trees, appeared broad reflections of trotting glass. The glitter of wheels and harness, the blaze of varnished panels glowing with the redness of the setting sun, the bright notes of colour cast by the dazzling liveries perched up against the sky, and by the rich costumes spilling through the carriage doors, were accompanied by a continuous, hollow rumbling sound, marked by the rhythmic trot of the horses.'*
Zola regarded himself a faithful reporter of nature; "My big task is to be strictly naturalist, strictly physiologist," he writes. Yet, there is an intimation of impressionism in this vivid description of a logjam of society carriages finally becoming disengaged, best typified by the phrase 'sparks flew from the horses' harnesses'. By displacing the occasion of the sparks from the horses' steel-shod hooves to their harnesses, Zola allows himself free rein to create a less than strictly accurate, though nonetheless compelling, description of the dazzling effect of light playing on the cortège.
Zola is writing of an interesting period in the history of Paris; indeed, of the birth of Paris as we now know it. In 1851, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, following a coup-de-état, established himself as Emperor of the Second Republic. To give legitimacy to his seizure of power, he set about a process of modernisation that included the flattening of Paris.
Georges Eugène Haussman, Prefect of the Seine, was appointed to the task, one that he managed brutally, imaginatively and, financially, astutely.
And ruthless he was, to quote:
'Throughout the 1850s and 1860s a great number of buildings were torn down. Hundreds of thousands of people were evicted. Working-class people in particular were forced into cheaper outlying areas. On Haussman's own estimate, the new boulevards and open spaces displaced 350,000 people; 12,000 of them were uprooted by the building of the Rue de Rivoli and Les Halles alone.'**
Part of his raison d'être was to clear the slums which played host to the most unruly and politically hostile sections of society, and to establish broad routes by which the army and forces of law and order could reach trouble spots in good time.
The sudden and complete makeover of the capital city had a profound effect on the psychology, economy and morality of her inhabitants. It was a loosening of the stays. Old Paris was demolished, Gay Paris born.
*Brian Nelson, translator, OUP, 2004, pp 6-7
** ibid, p xiii
Surprised? And it is surprisingly delicious.