Look around any large city centre today and it’s difficult to imagine that we once managed to exist without the gleaming glass edifices of department stores. Yet there was indeed a time when shopping was done via small stores and boutiques, often family owned, that dealt in a limited range of merchandise. Buying an umbrella, a new coat and a pair of curtains on the same expedition would mean an inconvenient visit to three separate shops.
All that changed in the mid 19th century with the creation of the first department store in Paris, the Au Bon Marché, quickly followed by Samaritaine, Printemps, and the crème de la crème, the Galeries Lafayette. With their Art Nouveau architectural styles forged from glass and iron and lavish decorations they quickly attracted as many customers as museums or palaces attract daily visitors today.
This is the world brought to life by Émile Zola in The Ladies Paradise, one of the 20 titles in his Rougon-Macquart cycle. He gives an insider’s view of the inner-workings of this fictional major department store (even down to the detail of how cash handed over by customers is transported through the store to a counting room) re-creating the magnetism these new edifices held for their customers. The stores were places designed to entice shoppers (particularly women) and persuade them to part with their money using techniques that we think of as twentieth century commercial practices.
Heavy advertising, a ‘no questions asked’ returns policy, rapid home delivery, ‘pile them high’ displays of specially procured merchandise and seasonal sales. All techniques used by the proprietor of The Ladies’ Paradise, Octave Mouret, to turn a fairly modest shop into the biggest, boldest, most successful Emporium Paris, and indeed the whole of France, has ever seen.
His ambitions have repercussions. As his business thrives, the small, family owned shops around the city find they can no longer compete. They can’t store the range of products nor get the volume discounts from manufacturers needed to match Mouret’s low prices. Customers begin to shun their dark little places in favour of the spectacles of The Ladies’ Paradise where each new season brings another joy to the senses. One year it’s a writing room and free cold drinks to help customers re-charge their batteries before their next foray into the displays; another season brings balloons for every child. And every year another new department is opened within the store. No matter the crush when the sales are on – it’s all part of the fun and appeal of the store.
Zola constantly contrasts the brilliantly lit magnificence of The Ladies Paradise with the darkness and dinginess of the more traditional stores. At the Paradise “there was an explosion of white bathed in flames…. a blinding white light in which every tone of white was dissolving, a dusting of stars snowing …” but the old shops “….dark shadows were falling from the ceiling in great shovelfuls, like black earth into the grave.” The small traders desperately try to hold out but seek deeper and deeper into debt and squeezed out physically by the expansionism of Mouret’s store.
The demise of the independent trader isn’t the only aspect of this rampant consumerism to be exposed by Zola. He shows how Mouret uses the mechanisms of seduction, transforming everything for sale into an object of desire. The store becomes a machine that causes women to lose their heads. Driven to euphoria by the sheer range of delights on offer and the bargains, they buy what they don’t need, spend far beyond their budgets, and resort to shoplifting. Even when they know they are out of control, they cannot stop.
The crowd had reached the silk department … At the far end of the hall, around one of the small cast-iron columns, which supported the glass roof, material was streaming down like a bubbling sheet of water. … Women pale with desire were leaning over as if to look at themselves. Faced with the secret fear of being caught in the overflow of all this luxury and with an irresistable desire to throw themselves into it and be lost.
At the end of one of the grandest of his sales “the customers, despoiled and violated, were going away in disarray, their desires satisfied, and with the secret shame of having yielded to temptation in the depths of some sleazy hotel.”
Mouret is depicted as the grand despoiler and exploiter, luring his customers with ever more exotic displays. His understanding of the psychology of his female customer provides critical.
He had discovered that she could not resist a bargain, that she bought without necessity when she thought she saw a cheap line, and on this observation he based his system of reductions in price of unsold items, preferring to sell them at a loss, faithful to his principle of continual renewal of the goods.”
The Ladies Paradise portrays women as much as of a commodity as the goods on offer in the store. Zola often shows them as fragmented, distorted parts of the body that merge with the fabrics and objects in the shop. As they pass through the various displays mirrors reflect their faces in reverse and bits of their shoulders and arms while headless mannequins are used to line the central staircase and as a window dressing.
Mouret himself is the great Seducer, a man with a low regard for women’s ability to resist temptation .
[his] unique passion was to conquer Woman. He wished her to be queen in her house, and he had built this temple to get her completely at his mercy. His sole aim was to intoxicate her with gallant attentions, and traffic on her desires, work on her fever. Night and day he racked his brain to invent fresh attractions.”
Then, “…when he had emptied her purse and shattered her nerves, he was full of the secret scorn of a man to whom a woman had just been stupid enough to yield herself.”
He more than meets his match however in the shape of Denise Baudu, a young orphaned provincial girl who arrives in the city with her two younger brothers. She is taken in by her uncle but he cannot support her because his shop is hemorrhaging customers to the Ladies’ Paradise. Her uncle detests Mouret’s establishment and he, and his family, rail volibly against it every day but Denise finds it mesmerising. She gets a job there as a lowly salesgirl and moves into the dormitory provided for staff. As the novel progresses she encounters hostilities and animosity, is derided for her shabby clothes and untidy hair and her inability to make a sale. She is fired and then rehired. She comes to the attention of Mouret but she resists his advances, refusing to become another notch on his belt; refusing in essence to be commodified.
This romance strand was the weakest aspect of the novel for me. Although I could relate to the early parts of the novel which portray her sufferings at the hands of some spiteful sales girls and male assistants, I found it harder to believe in the attraction she held for Mouret. Further lacking credibility was that Denise, with little commercial experience to her name, is able to persuade him to introduce some innovations that improve efficiency and result in greater sales.
As a novel which shows the emergence of the department stores with their attendant materialism as a symbol of progress, this is an outstanding piece of work. Zola depicts this new form of retail as an ambiguous development. Department stores gave women power to express themselves more fully; freed from the constraints of the parlour and the small show they could throw themselves enthusiasically into a public space. But the cost was loss of self restraint when faced with objects designed to appeal to their erotic instincts. A pair of leather gloves in the Ladies’ Paradise for example smells “like an animal in rut which has landed in a girl’s powder box.” They are caught up in a gigantic dream machine against which they have few reserves.
The Ladies’ Paradise can be read on multiple levels. First as a romance between a lowly shop girl and a successful wealthy businessman. Second as an exploration of social change with the birth of consumerism. And finally as a portrayal of the physical transformation of Paris through the influence of people like Haussmann. If you love luxuriant prose, the long paragraphs that describe in minute detail the architecture, store layout, customers’ apparel and merchandise, will delight. If you prefer a plot driven novel, be aware that this is one of the weakest aspects of The Ladies’ Paradise.
About the Book:
The Ladies’ Paradise (Au Bonheur des Dames) was published in 1883. As with many of the other novels in the Rougon-Macquart series, it features characters who make an appearance in other titles. The pratogonist of The Ladies’ Paradise, Octave Mouret, appears in Pot -Bouille, as an ambitious philanderer in fact. My edition from Oxford World Classics is translated by Brian Nelson who has also written the excellent introduction to the text.
Why I Read This Book: I’m part way through reading all of the Rougon-Macquart series. I’ve enjoyed every one I’ve read so far. The Ladies’ Paradise was recommended by Lisa at ANZ Lit Lovers – see her review here.
It’s time for another Six Degrees of Separation where the idea is to create a chain of book connections. This month we begin with a non-fiction title from 1990: The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf.
There is in a clue in the subtitle “How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women” about the primary message of this book. Wolf argues that as the social power and prominence of women have increased, the pressure to conform to unrealistic social standards of physical beauty has also grown stronger because of commercial influences on the mass media. Amongst her evidence she cites a rise in cases of eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia and the rapid growth of plastic surgery.
The Beauty Myth became a best seller and generated considerable debate. I remember thinking when I read it that, though interesting and thought-provoking, it wasn’t anywhere near as convincing as Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch. I’ll give Wolf a lot of credit however for bringing the topic out into the open. Sadly, we see evidence regularly that the issues she saw then haven’t gone away.
Let’s stay with myth and beauty for my first link: Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw, is a play about a professor who trains a poor, uneducated girl to act and speak like a lady. The title comes from the ancient Greek myth of Pygmalion, a sculptor unable to find any real woman who fitted his idea of the perfect female. He carves a statue out of ivory that is so beautiful and so perfect that he falls in love with it and wants to give it life.
Pygmalion is of course a story about transformation and change; a theme which is central to my next book; also by an Irish writer. In Nora Webster Colm Toibin gives us a deep and penetrating portrayal of a middle-aged widow struggling to remake her life after the premature death of her husband. She returns to the office work she thought she had left behind forever, begins listening to the classical music her husband never liked and starts making new friends. One of the most significant signs that she is moving on comes when she visits the hairdresser and emerges with a radical new style.
I could link to another work about transformation, Educating Rita by Willy Russel, in which a young uneducated hairdresser enrols for an Open University degree course because she wants more from life. I’ve seen the stage version and watched the film multiple times (it’s one of my all time favourites) but I can’t really use it for this chain since it would mean breaking my rule that I select only texts I’ve read.
So let’s go down a different path and to another book which uses hair styles as part of a theme about identity. The main character in Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie only begins to feel truly free and true to her Nigerian roots when she decides she will no longer spend hours and vast sums of money on having her hair ‘relaxed’. Hair, she comes to realise, is a political issue in America with black women expected to relax their natural curls with strong chemicals in order to conform to comfortable white norms. Before she makes her first return home to the Nigeria she left 15 years earlier, she visits a salon to have her hair braided.
I’m sticking with the issue of identity for my next book. A Portrait of a Lady is one of Henry James’ most respected novels. It wasn’t one I enjoyed at first reading – I found it incredibly slow (page after page where nothing much happens except someone opens an umbrella)… I must admit I skimmed many passages. It wasn’t until I re-read the book that I began to fully appreciate this tale of a young American woman who insists that she must be free to write her own plot and then to live with the unfortunate consequences of her decisions. Still not sure I understand the ending however….
Consequences takes me to India and to a novel that won the Booker Prize in 1997. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy has two captivating characters in the form of Rahel Kochamma and her brother Esth. They’re used to being the centre of attention so when their new cousin arrives to spend Christmas at the family home, their noses are put out of joint. Their jealousy has tragic repercussions that don’t become apparent until the final chapters of the novel. Until then we’re treated to some tremendous comic scenes involving these effervescent twins.
The family rivalries depicted in Arundhati Roy’s novel remind me of Neel Mukherjee’s novel The Lives of Others which is set in India during the second half of the 1960s. In it we meet three generations of the large and relatively wealthy Ghosh family who live together in one house, their rooms allocated on a strictly hierarchical basis. The patriarchal Prafullanath and his wife Charubala live on the top floor., the widow of their youngest son is relegated to a storage room on the ground floor of the house. Inevitably there are tensions over saris and wedding jewellery.
And with that I’ve reached the end of a chain which has moved from notions of beauty through female identity to familial disputes. If you’re interested in how other bloggers created their chains, take a look at booksaremyfavouriteandbest and also find out how to join the meme hosted by Kate.
Dydd Gŵyl Dewi Hapus i chi!
March 1 is St David’s Day in Wales —St David being our patron saint — so usually a day for celebration of all things Welsh. The celebrations will be very muted this year however with schools closed and concerts cancelled because of Storm Emma, so I thought I would mark the occasion by highlighting some new books from authors and publishers based in Wales.
One Woman Walks Wales. Ursula Martin is a remarkable account of a courageous woman. After a cancer diagnosis and then Ursula Martin was too weak to walk more than a few steps. But she is a determined woman so she set a goal to walk the four miles to her nearest post box every day. Her progress was so slow drivers would stop to offer her a lift. She persevered.
Her next goal was even more ambitious: to walk the 200 miles to her follow up appointment with the medical team. Coming out of the meeting, she headed back home on foot. And then just kept walking…..
In 17 months, she walked the length and breadth of Wales, across its beaches, up and down the coastal paths, through mountains, farms and urban sprawl.
One Woman Walks Wales is publsihed by Honno. If you order direct from their site they will make a donation of £1 to the Target Ovarian Cancer charity.
Also coming soon from Honno is Albi by Hilary Shepherd which is set in Spain in 1930s. The Civil War turns everything upside down for nine-year-old Albi and his family. They are under siege from outside and held captive by secrets within the home. Albi must sometimes close his ears and his eyes if he is to survive.
Seren Books have a strong poetry collection, the newest addition to which is The Glass Aisle by Paul Henry. It features twenty eight poems including an elergy to displaced workhouse residents, set on a stretch of canal in the Brecon Beacons National Park. A performance version of The Glass Aisle, featuring songs co-written with fellow musician and songwriter Brian Briggs, (‘Stornoway’), is currently touring festivals. More details can be found on the Seren website.
I mentioned another of their recent publications May by Naomi Krüger in my recent Bookends post. It’s a novel written from the perspective of a woman with dementia who is trying to piece together the fragments of her memory. Definitely one I am going to be buying.
Welsh publisher, Parthian, is offering Hummingbird by Tristan Hughes, a lecturer in creative writing at the University of Wales. Born in Ontario, he spent his childhood on th Welsh island of Ynys Mon. Hummingbird, his fourth novel takes him back to Canada, to a remote location where fifteen-year-old Zachary Tayler lives a lonely and isolated life with his father. One summer the enigmatic Eva Spiller arrives in search of the remains of her parents and together they embark on a strange and disconcerting journey of discovery. This novel won the Edward Stanford Travel Writing Award for 2018. More details are on the Parthian website.
I’m slowly making my way through a backlog of crime fiction novels that have occupied my bookshelves for a few months. It’s not a genre I read that regularly because although I enjoy them at the time, they are the books I never remember after I finish them.
I’m going to forsake new purchases but I still have a few on the shelves for those times when crime novels fit the need perfectly (like when I have a heavy cold and the brain can’t deal with anything deep and meaningful). It’s unlikely I will ever find myself with unable to satisfy a sudden desire for crime – my local library is wall to wall with these kinds of novels.
Here are two of my most recent reads.
Sussex Downs Murder by John Bude (British Library Crime Classics)
This is the second of Bude’s novels to feature the modest but highly effective Superintendent Meredith. The tightly-plotted tale begins with the disappearance of a Sussex farmer and the discovery of his abandoned car. Initially it appears he might have been kidnapped but when human bones are found in the Sussex Downs, police quickly realise they have a murderer on the loose.
Superintendent Meredith is called to investigate and painstakingly unravels the mystery of the bones. His is a very civilised form of detection, relying on systematic evaluation of evidence and oodles of double checking of facts. In between chasing down details about a cloaked man seen striding the downs on the night of the farmer’s disappearance, a fake telegram and a butterfly catcher who wears sunglasses at night, the Super is able to pop home for a sustaining lunch with his wife.
John Bude has a good eye for locational details and an ability to plot meticulously. In keeping with the spirit of the Golden Age of Fiction, we get the very helpful explanation at the end of the book of how the crime was committed. Without this I admit I was struggling to keep all the different clues straight in my head.
This probably isn’t the kind of crime novel for people who love the gritty Nordic Noir style, but it’s still highly enjoyable. I warn you though, it does require focused concentration to follow the trail of clues.
The Beautiful Dead by Belinda Bauer
This is a dark and intense psychological novel that does a brilliant job of getting inside the head of a serial killer. Eve Singer is an ambitious young TV crime reporter who is accustomed to getting close to the scenes of murder so she can be first with the news. But she has never before been the target of a killer.
She needs death in order to keep her job. The killer needs her to broadcast to the world how beautiful death can be. What Eve realises too late is that his obsession for public exhibitions of death will involve her own.
Usually I find the portraits of journalists in novels are highly unrealistic but Bauer, has a former reporter, writes convincingly about the world of television news and the pressure to get the story, no matter what. Eve is caught between the demands of her bully news editor and the obsessive killer, forcing her to make uncomfortable moral decisions.
I don’t understand why Bauer hasn’t had the attention enjoyed by other thriller writers. Every book I’ve read by her has been first class, well written and well plotted with fleshed out characters and taut storylines. The Beautiful Dead is no exception.
It’s been a long time since I last did one of my Bookend posts. Not sure why I stopped doing them. Maybe I was travelling and didn’t get the time to write them for a few weekends and just got out of the habit. Or maybe I just ran out of steam.
But Simon’s weekend miscellany posts at Stuck in a Book have given me the motivation to give Bookends another go. In its original incarnation, Bookends was a round up of miscellaneous bookish news. I’m going to streamline this a bit and in future each post will consist of just three things that have caught my attention, aroused my curiosity; stimulated my interest
- a book
- a blog post and
- an article
Book: May by Naomi Krüger
Here in Wales we will be celebrating our patron saint’s day (St David) next week. So it seems very appropriate to highlight a new title from Seren, one of the independent publishers in Wales. May is the debut novel of Naomi Krüger, creative co-director of the North West Literary Salon and a lecturer in creative writing. It caught my attention because it’s written from the perspective of a woman with dementia who is trying to piece together the fragments of her memory. I’m currently reading and loving Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon which is also about an elderly woman and her past. I also enjoyed Emma Healey’s debut novel Elizabeth is Missing, which had an octogenarian narrator. Maybe Naomi Krüger’s novel will complete my hat trick? May is published by Seren on March 12. Details are on their website here https://www.serenbooks.com/productdisplay/may
To whet your appetite, here is the blurb:
The door to the past has been locked to May but fragments of memories still remain: a boy running on the green, his fiery hair, a letter without a stamp, a secret she promised not to tell. She can’t piece together the past or even make sense of the present, but she revisits what she knows again and again. The boy, the letter, the secret. She can’t grasp what they mean, but maybe the people she’s loved and lost can uncover the mystery of the red-headed boy and his connection to May.
Blog post: Anticipating the Man Booker International Prize List
The longlist for the Man Booker International Prize will be announced on March 12. Tony Messenger has put together his own wishlist; titles that he thinks will be on the judges’ list; or should be. Do you agree with his predictions?
Article: In Praise of Negative Book Reviews
In the journal The Baffler, author and columnist Rafia Zakaria argues the case for more negative book reviews. “The general tone and tenor of the contemporary book review is an advertisement-style frippery”, she claims, consisting of “vapid and overblown praise”. She doesn’t give any examples unfortunately or cite the offending publications but I can’t say I’ve noticed a preponderance of “forced and foppish praise” in the newspaper review sections I read. Have you?