Category Archives: Book Reviews
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.
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 is a truth universally acknowledged that January is the least favourite of months for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere. Sleet, rain and wind do not a happy formula make especially when combined with chilly mornings and loss of daylight around 4pm. Maybe that’s why I’ve struggled to get back into a reading and blogging groove this month.
The beginning of June, things looked promising. My first book of the year was a stunner -— A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. I was curious how Towles would manage to sustain interest in a 400+page novel about a member of the Russian aristocracy under house arrest in a plush Moscow hotel. Wouldn’t it get rather repetitive I thought? The short answer is no, absolutely not. This is a master class in how to construct a narrative. I’ll get around to posting my review shortly but in the meantime I’ll simply say that if you haven’t read it yet, you’re missing something special.
After that things went downhill rapidly.
I’d agreed to review the fourth book in a crime series which pays homage to the Golden Age of detective fiction. Sadly, A Death in the Night wasn’t much more than just ok. So then I turned to Muriel Spark and her first published novel The Comforters. I chose it because it was published in 1957, the first year of my ‘reading my life’ project. Now I’d enjoyed two other novels by her: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Girls of Slender Means so I had similar expectations to be as entertained by The Comforters. Far from being entertained, I found it a struggle to get to the end and was heartily glad when I did. Clearly her kind of humour isn’t for me.
Even my audio book choices have been disappointing this month. I’ve abandoned most of them: The Untouchable by John Banville (about an esteemed art historian revealed to be a double agent); Father Brown Stories by G K Chesterton and Agatha Christie Close Up (a collection of archive radio programmes about Christie). None of them held my attention.
I’ve also struggled to get enthused by blogging this month. Hence why I am way behind with reviews, many from last year even. I’m way behind also on reading posts from other bloggers even those that are my favourites. As for Twitter, well I seem to barely look at it some days. I’m just a tad tired of seeing message after message about book cover reveals…. So if you’ve not heard from me for a while, I promise it’s not because I don’t love you any more.
This fug is not anything I’ve experienced before. I hope it doesn’t last much longer. In fact I hope I can break out of the cycle tonight when I’m going to be opening a new book. In keeping with my intention to make 2018 the year of reading naked I have a completely free hand in selecting that book. There has to be something in my bookshelves that will tickle the taste buds back to life again.