I’ve talked before about how Gustave Caillebotte (1848 –1894), the French impressionist changed my attitude to Dahlias and how Beverly Nichols’ the English between-the-wars writer turned me onto Heliborous. Well this is another literary reference for the garden – this time homage to the French writer Emile Zola.
I love Zola and the slightly earlier Balzac and about this time of the year usually read something by one of them, a couple of years back it was The Fat & the Thin (Le Ventre de Paris) – set in part in the Paris vegetable markets at Les Halles designed by the French architect Victor Baltard in the 1870s but long since demolished (see below)
Zola is remarkably descriptive but perhaps not so often read today. Therefore in order order to encourage a summer Zola revival – the opening of The Fat and Thin (condensed) goes like this:
Madame Francois’s horse, Balthazar, an animal that was far too fat led the van. He was plodding on, half asleep and wagging his ears, when suddenly, on reaching the Rue de Longchamp, he quivered with fear and came to a dead stop.
The horse has stopped in front of what seems to be a body lying in the middle of the road – he is assumed to be either drunk or dead and Mde Francios is contemplating how to haul him into the gutter so that she might pass with her cart of vegetables.
Meantime, the man on the road had opened his eyes. He looked at Madame Francois with a startled air, but did not move. She herself now thought that he must indeed be drunk.
“You mustn’t stop here,” she said to him, “or you’ll get run over and killed.
Then, with an effort and an anxious expression, he added: “I was going to Paris; I fell down, and don’t remember any more.’
Madame Francois could now see him more distinctly, and he was truly a pitiable object, with his ragged black coat and trousers, through the rents in which you could espy his scraggy limbs. Underneath a black cloth cap, which was drawn low over his brows, as though he were afraid of being recognised, could be seen two large brown eyes, gleaming with peculiar softness in his otherwise stern and harassed countenance. It seemed to Madame Francois that he was in far too famished a condition to have got drunk. “My name’s Florent, I come from a distance,” replied the stranger, with embarrassment.
Florent, the hero of the novel, eventually gets a job at the market and it is when Zola describes a later meeting with Madame and conjuours up the promise of a rest in her herb garden
Those rainy mornings greatly worried Florent, who thought about Madame Francois. He always managed to slip away and get a word with her. But he never found her at all low-spirited. She shook herself like a poodle, saying that she was quite used to such weather, and was not made of sugar, to melt away beneath a few drops of rain. However, he made her seek refuge for a few minutes in one of the covered ways, and frequently even took her to Monsieur Lebigre’s, where they had some hot wine together. While she with her peaceful face beamed on him in all friendliness, he felt quite delighted with the healthy odour of the fields which she brought into the midst of the foul market atmosphere. She exhaled a scent of earth, hay, fresh air, and open skies.
“You must come to Nanterre, my lad,” she said to him, “and look at my kitchen garden. I have put borders of thyme everywhere. How bad your villainous Paris does smell!”
There it was. I went out and planted a border of thyme around the central part of my vegetable garden. It grew quickly, flowers well, responds to a trim and until the chickens grew large, protected my lettuces from harm. Now there is layer of netting as well.
Every time I’m in the vegetable garden, I think of the unfortunate Florent and of Madame Francois’ kind offer and then breathe in the aroma of thyme.