It was the Open University that turned me into an Emile Zola fan. I had always avoided the books as 'probably not my thing' or 'impenetrable' until I read Germinal. Zola's expose of the inhumane conditions faced by the French miners in the 1860s, was part of the Nineteenth Century Novel course and to my surprise I zipped through the book with real reading pleasure and anticipation and knew I would read more by Zola.
'Why read Emile Zola?' asks Sandy Petrey in my Cambridge Companion to Emile Zola...
'Because his representation of society's impact on the individuals within it memorably depicts what it means to be human in the modern world.'
And in doing so Emile Zola covered a huge amount of ground. His novels don't focus solely on the industrial workers, he ranges across the spectrum of French life, the rural population, the theatre, the stock exchange and perhaps my favourite of all the books I have read so far, the department store... The Ladies Paradise.
We have treats in store here in the UK, and doubtless everywhere else, eventually because an eight week BBC serialised adaptation The Paradise will be hitting our screens soon. I had no idea and just happened to see a trailer and thought out loud 'That has to be Ladies Paradise' which really impressed Bookhound when the announcer confirmed it in the next breath. Then a lovely moment of pure serendipity when OUP wrote to let me know about a new edition of the book which will coincide.
I wrote about Au Bonheur des Dames, The Ladies Paradise back in the very early days of dovegreyreader so I have nipped down to the basement and dusted off that post and here are my thoughts from way back in 2006...
I've emerged feeling quite Parisian and very bedraggled from Emile Zola's The Ladies' Paradise. That last sale was a corker. My hat's all askew, I've lost a glove and heaven alone knows what my bustle looks like but I can highly recommend this one.It deserves a place along with the regular classics in any bookshop.
Here's the nineteenth century version of "does my bum look big in this" meets "shop 'til you drop" and it's an absolute joy of a read. We can all heave a sigh, because Emile Zola, according to Brian Nelson's excellent introduction (I always read these at the end) had apparently decided on a break from pessimism and the stupidity and sadness of life and wanted to express some of the optimism and progress of the times.That's not to say he couldn't resist a good bit of dramatic death in The Ladies' Paradise but it's death from the killing of the spirit rather than a collapsing mine roof.
Octave Mouret, the owner of the store, is certainly a man with vision and power and though he has little trouble conquering just about every other woman in Paris with his magical kingdom..
"Mouret's sole passion was the conquest of Woman.He wanted her to be queen in his shop; he had built this temple for her in order to hold her at his mercy"
...it is Denise, the lowly shop girl who proves to be his biggest challenge.
Good old Denise for keeping Mouret slathering on a leash, some sort of redemption for womankind in a novel where the rest of them are scheming, spending and shoplifting for La Republique.
I'm an accomplished flaneur but this book drives along at that frenetic shopping pace that leaves you gasping and before you know it you're out of the door at the end of the day with sore feet and laden with enough baggage to need a hansom cab to get you home.Sales tactics have changed little since 1883, just substitute Amazon for Ladies' Paradise and read on.
There were countless aspects to the arrival of the department store that I had never really considered not least the fact that, until its inception, the only haven available to women outside the home had been the Church. Nor did you now have to go shopping with a list and the specific purpose of buying something (silly idea) it was fine to browse, browsing was original and caught on fast.The theory behind the department store was that it supplied a desire you didn't know you had until you set foot in the door and Zola's imagery creates a sub-text of desire to beat them all in this book. This perhaps (or perhaps not) explains the behaviour of a family friend years ago who went out to buy some of these
and came back with one of these.
It's easy to sympathise once you've read The Ladies' Paradise.
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