The Ladies Paradise

“I would rather die of passion than of boredom.”
Émile Zola, The Ladies’ Paradise

Cover of Au Bonheur des Dames by Emile Zola

I am now a good chunk into Emile Zola’s twenty volume Rougon Macquat series of novels. Attacking this pile of books in the recommended reading order:

  • La Fortune des Rougon (1871) (The Fortune of the Rougons)
  • Son Excellence Eugène Rougon (1876) (His Excellency Eugene Rougon/ His Excellency)
  • La Curée (1871-2) (The Kill)
  • L’Argent (1891) (Money)
  • Le Rêve (1888) (The Dream)
  • La Conquête de Plassans (1874) (The Conquest of Plassans/A Priest in the House)
  • Pot-Bouille (1882) (Pot Luck/Restless House/Piping Hot)
  • Au Bonheur des Dames (1883) (The Ladies’ Paradise/Shop Girls of Paris/Ladies’ Delight)
  • La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret (1875) (The Sin of Father Mouret/Abbe Mouret’s Transgression)
  • Une Page d’amour (1878) (A Lesson in Love/A Love Episode/A Page of Love/A Love Affair)
  • Le Ventre de Paris (1873) (The Belly of Paris/The Fat and the Thin/Savage Paris/The Markets of Paris)
  • La Joie de Vivre (1884) (The Joys of Living/Joy of Life/How Jolly Life Is/Zest for Life)
  • L’Assommoir (1877) (The Dram Shop/The Gin Palace/Drink/Drunkard)
  • L’Œuvre (1886) (The Masterpiece/A Masterpiece/His Masterpiece)
  • La Bête Humaine (1890) (The Beast in the Man/The Human Beast/The Monomaniac)
  • Germinal (1885)
  • Nana (1880)
  • La Terre (1887) (The Earth/The Soil)
  • La Débâcle (1892) (The Downfall/The Smash-up/The Debacle)
  • Le Docteur Pascal (1893) (Doctor Pascal)

The next one up was The Ladies Paradise.

The overall story is a very thin romance between a poor, country girl that comes to Paris and finds work in a new, rapidly expanding department store and the owner of the store. He is Octave Mouret, the relentless womanizer of the book before this one – Pot-Bouille. His desire to possess women has now metastasized into the need to dominate them commercially by creating a retail establishment that they cannot resist – literally a ladies’ paradise.

But the real protagonist of the story is the store itself – the eponymous Ladies Paradise. Large swaths of text are dedicated to detailed dreamy descriptions of the store, its wares, and the elaborate displays set up to show off the goods and lure in the women of Paris and, most importantly, to separate them from their money.

As the book progresses the store grows and grows, taking over building after building, until it dominates the area and all retail commerce. There is a heart-tearing description of the woeful ends of the various small shopkeepers of Paris – trying to scrape out a living selling cloth, shoes, or umbrellas – until they are inevitably ground under the heels of the behemoth growing through the streets – their owners are driven into bankruptcy, poverty, and madness.

The book was written a couple of centuries ago – but it is a story that is still going on today. We have all seen small businessmen destroyed by large corporate chains that offer lower prices, bigger selections, and spectacular shopping experiences. It is a story that could take place in the last couple of decades.

Except today, even those huge conglomerates are being driven out of business by a technology that Zola couldn’t even imagine – online shopping. Though, now that I think about it, The Ladies Paradise puts together a company of horse-drawn delivery vans, with advertisements plastered on the side, that resembles today’s fleet of Amazon-Prime vehicles.

The novel’s fictional department store was modeled after a real place – Le Bon Marché in Paris. The store is still open.

This was an enjoyable tome in the series, though the long, detailed descriptions of ranks upon ranks of goods placed on sale went on too long for my taste – but probably necessary to drive home the point of the plot. It was simultaneously a record of the past, an reverse echo of the present, and a warning of the future.

Pot Bouille

“When younger, he had been fun-loving to the point of tedium.”
Émile Zola, Pot Luck (Pot Bouille)

Pot Bouille, by Emile Zola

In September of last year (2018) I began the task of reading all twenty novels in Emile Zola’s Rougon Marquat cycle. There was a three month gap in this reading plan as I plowed through Gravity’s Rainbow with a reading group. But now I’m back at it – though not in too much of a hurry… I am reading other books too.

I finished The Conquest of Plassans (book number six) a week or so ago. It was an interesting read – especially how it began slowly as a story of small-town gossip and intrigue and built into a climax of madness, horror, and death. Now I am onto the seventh (in the recommended reading order), Pot-Bouille.

That title doesn’t translate to English very well. I’ve seen it as Pot Luck and other things. From Wikipedia:

The word pot-bouille is a 19th-century French slang term for a large cooking pot or cauldron used for preparing stews and casseroles and also the foods prepared in it. The title is intended to convey a sense of disparate ingredients, the various inhabitants of the building mixed together, to create a potent and heady mix like a strong stew. The impression is to hint at the greed, ambition and depravity which lies behind the pretentious façade of the outwardly well behaved bourgeois apartment block. There is no equivalent word in English to convey this. The closest English term would probably be an expression such as melting pot.

In the film The Life of Emile Zola, the novel’s title is rendered as Piping Hot.

So, I think of the book as being called “melting pot.”

It seems to be a complicated story about numerous residents in a multi story rental house in the center of Paris – most related to each other in one way or another. To help with the book I spent a few hours and complied a list of characters I could refer to… then discovered somebody else had already done it.

I’m on the road and working hard for the next week, but I should be able to find some slivers of time and finish the book. Then on to the next, Au Bonheur des Dames – a direct sequel to Pot-Bouille.