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?

Written on the Body, Jeanette Winterson

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This novel is the second recommendation from that fabulously gifted friend mentioned in my last post. If you have already encountered Written on the Body, I’m sure you’ll be able to gather why it was mentioned in the same breath as DeLillo’s  The Body Artist. Both novels are concerned with the human psyche and exposing the relationship it bears, or in this case, exploding the relationship it bears to the gendered body.

The opening line of the novel links love with loss in posing the question, “Why is the measure of love loss?”. The structure of this one line introductory paragraph effectively encapsulates the undulating movement of the narrative that is to follow. The narrator weaves a story through memories of and reflections on the nature and experience of love and the loss of that love. The physical body – as the title would suggest – lies at the centre of this narrative. Love is examined through the body and the connection of bodies.

The narrative voice is technically genderless. The voice has girlfriends and boyfriends but is never identified as male or female to the reader. The result is not, however, the strange sense of dissociation of psyche from physicality that one finds in the DeLillo but instead an intense and bodily exploration of sexual subjectivity. Even the body here, if only the narrator’s body (a point to which I will return), is stripped of gender and with it any social gender constructs or preconceptions that the reader brings with them. Winterson herself once commented in an interview that, for her, “a love story is a love story. I don’t care what the genders are if it’s powerful enough. And I don’t think that love should be a gender-bound operation.”

In many ways, this novel reads as a mediation on the disconnect between the body as a vehicle for a gendered consciouness and the experience of love through that same body. This is one of the things that I struggled with: the novel, in denying the narrative voice a gender would seem to be aiming at the transcendent power of love. The problem I have is that the same narrative gives the body primacy within the novel. It feels contradictory. The narrator has no gender but is defined by sexual encounters and experiences of the body. The attempt to tie love to the physical and in the same moment to deny the relevance of gender to that physicality seems to fall over itself and as a result it just doesn’t quite work.

Another problem is the nature of the language, I found it very uncomfortable to read in places. Now there’s nothing wrong with that; a good book should certainly make you squirm, should ask questions of its reader and one of the text’s successes is definitely its undermining of romantic cliché. Again though, in exposing the failure of language through a sort of corrupted lyricism, the graphic sexuality somehow at odds with its own imagery, it ties itself in knots. How can the depth and truth of love be figured as textual, as “written on the body” as a name “scored… into my shoulders” if language ultimately constitutes failure? The narrator tells us that, “Love demands expression.  It will not stay still, stay silent, be good, be modest, be seen and not heard, no.  It will break out in tongues of praise, the high note that smashes the glass and spills the liquid.” And yet even the simplest expression of that love is deplored as “unoriginal”.

Am I missing the point here? Of course the text is straining past the constructs and conventions of gender and love; it embraces the contradictions I’m grappling with as inherent to the experience of love in a world where sexuality and gender are increasingly dissociated. I’m just not quite sure I buy it.

All of that said, it does make for a fascinating read. As you can probably tell, I have got myself into a bit of tangle over it and I would be very keen to hear from anyone who may be able to help me unpick it all in the comments section below…

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