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.

Crome Yellow, Aldous Huxley

Crome Yellow, 1921
Crome Yellow, 1921

The country house of Crome welcomes “a painter, a poet, a spiritual journalist and ladies of assorted morals” to a house-party. The plot follows our weak, frustrated hero Denis in his ill-fated endeavours in love and literature alike. The other members of the party as absurd as they are unlikeable and some of the most compelling moments of narrative in the book are derived from the history of the home itself as retold by its now mast, Henry Wimbush. The novel is biting, almost spitting, in its satire on early twentieth century social interaction, I was reminded of Eliot’s earlier poetry particularly, “The women” who “come and go/ Talking of Michaelangelo” in ‘The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock’. In fact Denis himself seems trapped in an almost Prufockian state of inaction as he laments actions he should have taken and moments that pass ungrasped. The cover picture displayed above captures this sense of futility, the men and women pictured as uniform figures on a carousel by Mark Gettler in ‘The Merry Go Round’ (c.1916), mouths open as if in infinite, uncommunicative conversation.

The story itself is hard work, and whilst I’m sure some of that could be happily attributed to brain-bleeding tiredness, it lacks pace and direction. The most interesting aspects are the ideas that the characters give voice to, indeed, poor Denis, indecisive and suggestible, at the best of times is left utterly bewildered by the range and ferocity of opinions that batter him during his stay at Crome. Perhaps the most sinister character Huxley creates here is Mr Scogan and it is through him that we see a prefiguring of the ideas that were to shape Brave New World. He asserts that “men of intelligence must combine, must conspire, and seize power…They must found the Rational State” assigning people roles in society to which they are best suited (though sees no place for Denis, our poet). He envisages the replacement of “Nature’s hideous system” with “vast state incubators, rows upon rows of gravid bottles will supply the world with the population it requires. The family system will disappear; society, sapped at its very base, will have to find new foundations; and Eros, beautifully and irresponsibly free, will flit like a gay butterfly from flower to flower through a sunlit world.”

These ideas, nascent here, come to fruition in Brave New World, arguably the most influential works of science fiction of the last century. Images of human hatcheries and World Controllers are at their most powerful when shaping that narrative; they are terrifying when imagined as an actual future rather than proffered as one possible direction the future might take as they are in the set piece speeches of Crome Yellow. In a way, the whole novel feels like a musing, a writer who is flexing and stretching, toying with ideas still in their formative stages. It’s impossible to come to Crome Yellow without a sense that Brave New World is hovering nearby (even though it wasn’t published until 1932, a full 11 years after Huxley’s first full length work). Whilst I didn’t particularly enjoy Crome Yellow in its own right, the two novels held alongside each other show the genesis of a mind grappling uneasily with a past fast-slipping away and a fascination, perhaps a fearful one, with what the world that replaces it will look like.

A bit of light summer reading: ‘In the Penal Settlement’, Kafka

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I haven’t read any Kafka in ages. I have a vague recollection of a very teenage, angst-driven encounter with Metamorphosis and Other Stories (the very copy and collection that this tale is from) many years ago and so when at some juncture back in the semi-haze that was last term another of my  fantastically clever friends mentioned ‘In the Penal Colony’ in passing, I nodded, smiled and thought: ‘I sort of know what you’re talking about but I’m not 100% sure’ before resolving to go back and read it again as soon as the holiday began.

Well, more fool me. I read it late at night (error) and the result was a series of extremely unpleasant, eerie and increasingly gruesome dreams. The worlds Kafka draws are nightmareish and surreal at the best of times (of which there are very few to be lighted upon in his prose) and on my first night in a new house with no curtains, well let’s just say I slept with the light on.

If you are yet to come across this story, it tells of an Explorer (although I have heard from various sources that this translation is erroneous and would be better served by the word Researcher? Or Traveller? Anyone who can confirm or deny this please do…) who is invited to witness the execution of a Condemned Man effected by the Officer who is assisted/hindered at various intervals by the Soldier.

This fly-by-night synopsis may seem innocuous by our Hollywood/instant-news/TV-conditioned standards: gun violence, stabbings, even sexual violence have, these days, become entirely unremarkable in their appearance in popular culture or indeed on the news. The chilling power of this story is derived not from the plot but from the narrative voice; the characters’ various responses to the plot and of course, the horrifying piece of appartus that sits, menacingly, at the centre.

The narrative voice is entirely detached. It offers no judgement, no censureship of the fanatical Officer, proponent of the old order as epitomised by the Old Commandant and the machine that he designed. The machine in question scores the sentence into the flesh of the condemned repeatedly over a period of twelve hours using a series of needles and teeth. The Officer explains its workings to the Explorer with a kind of religious fervour, he caresses the machine as he readies it for action and will not permit another person to touch the plans that he carries with him in a briefcase. The narrative voice offers no comment. It relays the setting, a “small sandy valley, a deep hollow surrounded on all sides by naked crags” and recounts the actions and reactions of the characters but the tone of total, moral and emotional indifference remains. It remains in the face of an ingenious vehicle for human violence and an absurd justice system – the Officer is firm in his belief that no defence should be allowed because “guilt is never to be doubted”.

This indifference permeates the text and is perpetuated in its characters. In spite of the horror before him, the Explorer is hesitant, reluctant to intervene against the Officer citing his position as an outsider as protection from that responsibility. It is only when the machine begins to malfunction and its victim (I don’t want to spoil it if you haven’t read it…) is subject to, “plain murder” as opposed to, “exquisite torture” and the moment of spiritual enlightenment this supposedly offers that he is moved to intervene.

The inaction and indifference of the Explorer is in many ways, more disturbing than the fanaticism of the Officer. The Officer is an absurd character, unreal in the extremity of his adherence to an impossibly cruel and inhuman system. The Explorer, however, stands on the sidelines with faint fascination and a sense of unease when confronted with torture, injustice and cruelty; he intervenes only when the aesthetics of the process are threatened by the bloody reality of “a great spike” thrust through a forehead; he beats back those who would escape their unsavoury world with a knotted rope.

It is not the machine, nor the human ingenuity that gave rise to it that perpetuates the sustained sense of dread within this story (although the sheer nastiness of it does go a long way) but the familiar indifference of the voice that tells it and those who watch it unfold. Is it surprising then, given all that is going on around the world today that since I’ve re-read it, I’ve had real difficulty sleeping?

Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston

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I finished this novel yesterday. I was lying stretched out on the carpet of my living room floor at home in Kent. Continuous games of football were being booted about noiselessly on the TV and the members of my family were variously packing, travelling, napping and enjoying the sun; the family cat Luna came and watched me for a while before yawning and going to find something more interesting to do. So I lay on my stomach for a good couple of hours, utterly engrossed and hoping that no-one would notice that I was weeping.

It has been a long time since a novel has made me cry like that and perhaps an even longer time since I have read a novel with such compulsion. I purchased it absent-mindedly after reading Zadie Smith’s essay that I believe now forms the introduction to this edition (it also opens Smith’s eloquent, personal volume Changing My Mind which is lovely and worth a read in and of itself). Smith describes her first encounter with Their Eyes Were Watching God. She describes taking it “to the dinner table, still holding on to it, as we do sometimes with books we are not quite ready to relinquish”: I cannot imagine a time when I would ever want to let it go. Indeed, I’ve offered to lend it to a dear friend and I’m not sure I’m going to be able to physically part with it, not just yet anyway.

The story is that of Janie Starks who stretches “on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting breath of the breeze when the inaudible voice of it all came to her.” In search of “singing bees for her” Janie sits at the front gate “waiting for the world to be made.” It is here that she kisses a boy, that “shiftless Johnny Taylor”. The reader is taken with Janie through three subsequent marriages, each one entirely different in character. I don’t want to, in fact, I won’t tell you any more about the plot because you need to (and I mean that as a real imperative); you need to read it, to feel it for yourself.

The language is astonishing in its lyricism, the opening lines of the novel, much like the moment we first meet Janie, are stunning:

“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.”

The words glow quietly off the page whispering as you rustle onto the next, yes, this is something special, come and feel with us. And feel we do. In Janie we encounter a character who, as Janie’s grandmother famously points out, being a black woman at this stage of American history, “is de mule uh de world.” Zadie Smith writes that “it hurt my pride to read it” and aspects of this novel are deeply painful. I found the matter-of-fact discussions about how to beat your wife difficult to read, I also found myself shaking with fury and disgust at the nerve of that Mrs Turner woman (you’ll understand when you get there).

This makes it sound like hard work though and it is nothing of the sort. For all the practical impossibility of Janie’s freedom; that is what lies at the heart of this book. Janie’s compassion for an old donkey; the sadness you feel for her with the realisation of “the rock she was battered against”; her capacity for true “self-crushing love” and the “glow” she feels when someone (again you’ll know when get there) teaches her to play chequers rather than expecting her to watch.

Zadie Smith’s introduction discusses the connection she feels to the novel, not just as a writer-reader but as a black woman; she explores the complexity of colour-blind reading and her joy as a fourteen year old at “the marvellous feeling of recognition that came with these characters who had my hair, my eyes, my skin, even the ancestors of the rhythm of my speech.” The tributes on the back cover in addition to Smith’s are from Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and Oprah Winfrey.

I am a twenty-seven year old white girl from Kent. I have no real understanding of what it is to be discriminated against, nor of the heritage that bears and I don’t want to claim a fraudulent connection with Janie Starks or Zora Neale Hurston – I am conscious of that even as I type. And yet, in spite of myself, I, like Smith, find myself moved “to say things I wouldn’t normally. Things like: She is my sister and I love her.”

Ranting lyrical…

It has been a while (to say the least) since my last post. I have been intending to update for ages but somehow haven’t quite managed to find the time. Anyway, I am back (albeit in a new guise as English teacher) and I promise to post with amazing new-found regularity from this point onwards. Although, my ramblings […]