The Ladies’ Paradise, Émile Zola: ‘a poem to modern activity’

This was not my first encounter with Zola but it was certainly my first successful one. When I was seventeen I tried to read L’Assomoir in French and, perhaps unsurprisingly, did not get very far. I’ve always been a bit wary of texts in translation for the simple reason that a bad translation can ruin a wonderful book; a wariness much exacerbated by some rather dry, dense translations of Sartre which put me off him for a good while. Brian Nelson’s translation of Au Bonheur des Dames suffers no such impediments and unfamiliar with the story (in spite of the BBCs recent adaptation) I thoroughly enjoyed it, cracking through all 432 pages at speed. It was especially fun to read during a road trip across the south of France which encompassed Zola’s hometown of Aix-en-Provence.

The reader is drawn into the compelling and colourful world of the grand department store, The Paradise, with the same force that it entrances and fascinates our heroine: the young and innocent Denise Baudu. In the opening pages, Denise and her brothers Jean and Pépé arrive in Paris in search of their Uncle and stumble across The Ladies’ Paradise. The effect is immediate and emotional: ‘this building which seemed so enormous, brought a lump to her throat and held her rooted to the spot, excited, fascinated, oblivious to everything else.’ The shop windows are an orgy of energy and colour where the…

…umbrellas, placed obliquely, seemed to form the roof of some rustic hut, beneath which, suspended from rods and displaying the rounded outline of calves, were silk stockings, some strewn with bunches of roses, others of every hue – black net, red with embroidered clocks, flesh-coloured ones with a satiny texture which had the softness of a blonde woman’s skin…

Throughout the novel we are treated to these sensuous, vibrant descriptions of the shop and its wares. Consumption is sexualised to the point of fetishism, the calculating owner Octave Mouret sees his customers – the ladies of Paris ‘pale with desire’ – as objects for seduction: ‘His sole passion was the conquest of Woman.’ The act of selling becomes one of erotic manipulation and the great sales that structure the novel constitute moments of collective abandon, exemplified in the final climactic sale, ‘In the trousseau department’, where:

…all discretion was abandoned: women were turned round and viewed from below, from the ordinary housewife with her common calicoes to the rich lady smothered in lace; it was an alcove open to the public, whose hidden luxury, its platings and embroideries and Valenciennes lace, deprived the senses as it overflowed in costly fantasies.

Mouret’s personal seductions are as numerous and successful as those of his shop, until of course, he meets the steadfast and ‘gentle’ Denise who will not be so easily overwhelmed. Indeed, through Denise ‘the women’ will ‘have their revenge’ as predicted to Mouret himself early in the novel.

Accompanying this strain of eroticism runs a parallel current of violence; the above description of the ‘calves’ is one of many in which the body is distorted and dismembered into fragments: ‘the mirrors made the departments recede further into the distance, reflecting the displays together with patches of the public – faces in reverse, bits of shoulders and arms’. The disturbing image of the mannequins, figures of the female body, decapitated ‘each one had a little wooden handle, like the handle of a dagger, stuck in the red flannel which seemed to be bleeding where the neck had been severed’ is emblematic of the violent commodification of the female body Mouret deals in.

The Paradise itself is figured as a machine, albeit a machine that is ‘based on the flesh and blood of Woman’ and as such it is rendered a symbol of a nascent modernity driven by capital and technology. Zola set out his intentions in his notes; he wanted to write, ‘the poem of modern activity. Hence a complete shift of philosophy: ‘no more pessimism, first of all. Don’t conclude with the stupidity and sadness of life. Instead, conclude with its continual labour, the power and gaiety that comes from its productivity. In a word, go along with the century, express the century, which is a century of action and conquest, of effort in every direction.’ This ‘effort in every direction’ is captured in the relentless expansion of the physical building even at the expense of the old, family shops in the vicinity and of course, at the expense of those families themselves. The new, specifically urban space of the department store is characterised by ‘the crush’ of the crowd and the ‘madness in the air’ that brings with it.

The productivity of Mouret’s machine is inextricable from a Darwinian brutality that sustains both the structure and the dominance of the shop. It is destructive and frequently figured as ‘monstrous’ in its mechanisation and power. Even Denise whose ‘coming was to be a revenge’ is shocked ‘by its brutal operation’. Indeed Denise who is characterised throughout as ‘gentle’ and acts as a humanising influence on both man and monster cannot stem the ‘force which was carrying everything before it.’

Inexorable progress and forward propulsion beat through the novel like the shop itself, ‘regulated and organized with the remorselessness of a machine: the vast horde of women were as if caught in the wheels of an inevitable force.’ It surges forward, driven by Mouret’s speculative approach, attention fixed firmly on the future as the present dissipates into money already made and the next sale holds promises of greater profits; The Paradise remains a machine clothed in luxurious silks – and all for a reasonable price.

The Rachel Papers, Martin Amis (1973)

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I’ve read quite a bit of Amis and The Rachel Papers has been on my list/ever-increasing pile of ‘to-reads’ since I picked up this copy in an Oxfam Bookshop last summer. Finally managing to crack into the reading you’ve been dreaming of intermittently during the mania of term time is like a sigh of relief and, knowing absolutely nothing about the story (save that it clearly involved someone called Rachel) I was looking forward to digging into my reading list with this slim volume.

Amis’ debut novel is narrated by the objectionable soon-to-be-twenty-year-old Charles Highway. On the eve of his twentieth birthday he is getting his affairs (as it were, forgive the pun…) in order. In going over his journals and records of sexual encounters he guides the reader through his transition from adolescence to adulthood. At the centre of this comic and very physical coming of age is Highway’s pursuit of and subsequent relationship with Rachel the (not very much) older woman that he has fantasised about sleeping with before he turns twenty. Highway is fascinated by his own body and holds his “secret bathroom hours” in almost religious reverence, he is hypochondrial and revels in those aspects of bodily existence that might leave others revolted. I think this is what makes the text feel a bit dated: the graphically
explicit sexual and physical descriptions may have proved more shocking in the early Seventies (?) or at least more outlandish but now, with the power of Youtube and television programmes like Embarrassing Bodies this sort of demystification is commonplace.

The narrative voice is engaging and distinctive; Highway is not a pleasant or particularly sympathetic character but he is at least a convincing one. The trouble is that so much energy is drawn into framing him that the others feel two dimensional and under-developed as if they were Highway’s own creations and exist only on the pages he is sifting through. This is problematic not only in and of itself but because it leaves the reader with no-one to care about and adds to the unavoidable feeling of, ‘Meh…. So what?’ at the end of the book.

And that is the key issue here: the plot lacks any kind of intensity and any real action. I was left thinking: OK, that obnoxious little bastard turned twenty, got his own way on every possible front and learnt absolutely nothing in the process. There is no life-changing moment, no comeuppance and indeed no sense that Highway has in any way come of age. The young Amis is technically excellent though here and the structure of the novel acts as a counterpoint to lack of movement in the narrative: the countdown to midnight drives the reader and in combination with the long, pacy speeches that become characteristic of the narrative voice the reader is almost tricked into believing that the plot is really developing. It feels like a debut novel: flawed in construction but with elements that are brilliantly executed. Perhaps a coming of age for the novelist himself. What do you lovely people think? Would be very interested to hear thoughts below…

NB You’ll notice that I linked to a site called hive rather than to Amazon – this is because it sources at local independent bookshops for delivery and we love our independent bookshops don’t we?

A note on contemporary literary fiction

Contemporary literary fiction is a problematic term. It is extremely difficult to define and as a result, any discussion risks devolving into either an exercise in exclusion and inflexibility, or, an augmentation of the nebulous that becomes so vague as to be entirely diffuse. These issues have been well-documented and well-bemoaned in recent years, as have countless debates on the quality of writing that is being produced in the name of contemporary literary fiction; or rather more frequently, the lack thereof. I wouldn’t pretend to have any answers (should such things exist…) to these central problems and I certainly would not dare to make any such sweeping judgments about ‘the state of literature today’; rather, I thought I’d lay out a few points, which to me, feel most pertinent to the discussion.

As I have said already, literary fiction is incredibly tricky to define; I suspect though, that most would agree it is a label implying a sense of seriousness and technical ambition. It is certainly distinct from ‘genre fiction’ (crime, fantasy, romance) and is by and large perceived as superior, perhaps wielding a bit more intellectual clout than its genre siblings. The ‘contemporary’ element is an interesting one: whilst in this context, we may safely assume ‘contemporary’ to mean current, the majority of academic courses that cover ‘contemporary’ literature reach back into the late seventies or early eighties, further complicating any judgments or statements we may wish to make about contemporary literary fiction.

Putting aside these complexities of definition for a moment, it may be more helpful to consider the ways in which both reading and writing have changed since the early eighties. To my mind there have been two significant influences on the mechanics of writing and publishing, the first being the proliferation of creative writing courses at academic institutions; the second being, of course, the internet.

In The Salon article I linked to above, creative writing courses were being held responsible for raising some terrible writers to a level of competence and thus further abetting the corruption of contemporary literary fiction. Whilst I am sure that this is to some extent true, I think these courses have also had a wonderfully clarifying effect for writers. They offer a real sense of a craft, of an apprenticeship and encourage a critical, self-appraising approach to writing, formalising aspects of the creative process and helping writers to hone a style. There are the inevitable arguments that these courses are factory-like and become criteria-centric, churning out little replica Raymond Carvers whilst stifling originality. That is to say, graduates of these courses come out able to write in a very disciplined, carefully constructed but totally unimaginative way. To this, I am inclined to say: rubbish. I’m sure that it can be and is true of some writers but what does a truly creative mind respond to more fervently than an establishment, or ‘old school’ to react against?

Further to this, I cannot see how learning the basics in a formal context can do any writer any harm. Art is a useful point of reference here, consider Picasso’s early work: he learnt to draw under his father and mastered academic classicism, a far more realistic (is that fair to say?) mode of representation before developing the Cubism of his masterpieces (NB massive over-simplification for sake of brevity). Surely, it is far easier to break and reinvent the rules if you have developed a proficient, working knowledge of them?

It is impossible to overestimate the impact of the internet on literally anything, let alone the way we write and the way we read. Apart from anything else, the sheer volume of material available through the internet is staggering and this in itself requires a more discerning approach to both reading and writing; the reader must filter through the rubbish and make judgments on quality that we were previously not empowered to make. The writer must decide where and how their work should be distributed; they in turn have to filter through the extraordinary levels of chatter to find their audience and speak to it. We are exposed to an awful lot of stuff and some of it is, of course, dreadful, the dreadful has outlets that it did not have before and so more is required of us. We have to work out what we don’t like and why we don’t like it, which is – as both writer and reader – a really useful exercise; and just as YouTube gives a stage to some terrible singing, it has also brought to prominence some very talented musicians (and cats). New voices have any number of ways to speak, the difficulty of course is making yourself heard above the noise.

Writers, as we all do, now have far greater access to information than ever before. This sounds incredibly obvious but just as information is now available second hand so is experience. This has real implications for both the scope and authenticity of contemporary writing: if I want to write about the war in Afghanistan there are plenty of first hand accounts, videos, news-reports, blogs, poems, photos all available to click on and immerse myself in. On the one hand, research has never been easier and the experience of others more accessible; on the other, exposure becomes increasingly removed from experience. I can expose myself to all number of materials and build a narrative around them without feeling the heat of the desert. Now this is not to suggest that first-hand experience is a prerequisite for effective storytelling but it is to say that as our knowledge of the world and its affairs is increasing, our experiential understanding of it is shrinking.

This evaluative obsession with quality does appear though to be a very contemporary preoccupation and I do wonder whether it is in itself indicative of our culture of self-reflection and introspection. It seems to me that the ongoing dissection of literary fiction might be considered as much a symptom of this culture as that infamous emblem of social media, the selfie.