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The Ladies' Paradise (1883)

de Émile Zola

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Sèrie: Les Rougon-Macquart (11)

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Takes place in the world of department stores, an innovative development in retail sales in the mid-19th century. Zola models his store on Le Bon Marché, which consolidated under one roof many of the products hitherto sold in separate stores. The narrative details many of Le Bon Marché's innovations, including its direct mail business, its commission system, its in-house commissioner and its methods of receiving and selling goods.

Au Bonheur des Dames is a Pot-Bouille sequence. Like its predecessor, Au Bonheur des Dames focuses on Octave Mouret, who at the end of the previous novel married Caroline Hédouin, who owns a small silk shop. A widower, Octave expanded the business and became an international retail powerhouse, occupying, at the beginning of the book, most of an entire block.

The novel tells the story of Denise Baudu, a 20-year-old from Valognes who comes to Paris with her younger siblings and starts working as a sales clerk at the department store "Au Bonheur des Dames". Zola describes the internal workings of the store from the employees' point of view, including the 13-hour working days, substandard food and empty quarters for the employees. Many of the conflicts in the novel stem from each employee's struggle for promotion and malicious internal struggles and gossip among employees.

Denise's story is played against the career of Octave Mouret, owner of Au Bonheur des Dames, whose retail innovations and store expansions threaten the existence of every store in the neighborhood. Under one roof, Octave gathered textiles (silks, wool), as well as all kinds of ready-made clothes (dresses, coats, lingerie, gloves), accessories needed to make clothes and auxiliary items such as carpets and furniture. Its aim is to overwhelm the senses of its customers, forcing them to spend, bombarding them with a variety of purchase options and juxtaposing goods in attractive and intoxicating ways. Massive advertising, gigantic sales, home delivery and a refund and news system, such as a reading room and a cafeteria, further induce their female clientele to frequent the store in ever-increasing numbers. In the process, he removes traditional retailers that operate smaller specialty stores from the market. ( )
1 vota Marcos_Augusto | Feb 19, 2021 |
If you want to enjoy reading this book, don't read the Ernest Alfred Vizetelly's translation one. I don't know whose fault it is, but there are lots of grammar errors and confusion between 'he' and 'she' in the dialogue. It's quite distracting, though I enjoy the story very much.

So I gave the 4 stars for the story, instead. It tells us about the beginning of department store in Paris which crushed the little business down. The main theme is consumerism and capitalism in the beginning of modern era. What amazes me is that the book is written in the 19th century, but the matters still relateable to this era. ( )
  bellacrl | Jan 19, 2021 |
The Ladies' Paradise of the title is one of the world's earliest department stores, gathering a multitude of goods and services under one roof in the heart of Paris. Its size and cash flow exceeds all known bounds, beggaring the surrounding drab mom-and-pop establishments with its enormous, glittering window displays and sales, drawing customers at a rate its competitors can't possibly match. Zola tirelessly (sometimes tiringly) describes the wonders of the Paradise, its ocean of merchandise and effect on its customers, making Biblical comparisons both heavenly and otherwise.

The heart of the story revolves around two characters: Octave Mouret, the driving force behind the Paradise's epic success, and Denise, a small-town girl with sales experience who comes to the big city in search of work. Zola does not set them at odds in their views about this burgeoning capitalist venture, but he doesn't shy away from depicting its downsides either. The hardships of small-time shopkeepers are explored as they're driven out of business, necessary grist for the mill of progress. One admirable trait the novel possesses is its coy ability to be read as tragedy, if you're so inclined to draw a parallel between the resistance of Denise and Bouras. This just-okay classic is ultimately light romantic reading. ( )
  Cecrow | Dec 11, 2020 |
"What I want to do in The Ladies Paradise is write the poem of modern activity." -- Emile Zola

Rather surprisingly, Zola's 11th novel in the Rougon-Macquart series is ... dare I say friendly towards humankind? Acknowledging that he had explored much of the darkness - the wealthy in [b:The Kill|3888856|The Kill|Émile Zola||839934] and [b:His Excellency Eugène Rougon|39090348|His Excellency Eugène Rougon|Émile Zola||1356899] and the impoverished in [b:L'Assommoir|92967|L'Assommoir|Émile Zola||741363] and [b:The Belly of Paris|6662310|The Belly of Paris|Émile Zola||10242], among others - Zola knew that, to capture all of society, he must eventually make his way toward the light.

It is 1864, the height of the French Second Empire, and Octave Mouret - previously seen as a youth in [b:The Conquest of Plassans|22913305|The Conquest of Plassans|Émile Zola||803050] and as a young Casanova in [b:Pot Luck|6251723|Pot Luck (Les Rougon-Macquart, #10)|Émile Zola||110658] (neither of which are required reading) - has now found himself head of France's most successful department store, The Ladies' Paradise, which is rapidly expanding. The Paradise is another of Zola's corporate monsters, like the food markets in The Belly of Paris, but here it represents a different form of human progress. The monster is, seemingly, controlled by Mouret and his board, deliberately designed to "conquer" women of means. In its grand scope, the department store both recalls a feudal past (staff eat and in many cases live on site, while fighting for commission from a deceptively equitable-looking roster system) and looks forward to a grand future. It is the Age of Iron, and the Paradise does not just conquer women; it devours the small traders in the streets of Paris, who continue to sell using the old methods, rejecting what they see as upstart techniques. To their own tragic end.

As always, Zola invested himself in extensive research to capture these unusual, maddening businesses. In his usual set-piece chapters, Zola catalogues an ordinary day, an opening day, a stocktaking day, from the perspective of shoppers, management, and staff alike. As he does so, the author captures a world. In his role as historical-novelist, Zola also provides the modern reader with a scientific dissection of an era. Some of Mouret's more avant-garde ideas - a "returns policy", a decision to sell a particularly attractive item at cost, the deliberate muddling of departments to prevent a straightforward journey to the customer - are still key business techniques in the 2020s. If all great literature is an attempt to explain to a people where they are and what they have left behind (which I suspect is the case), Zola is devastatingly precise in doing so.

At the heart of the novel is Denise Baudu, an impoverished young woman from the provinces, arriving in Paris with her two kid brothers, desperately seeking work. Installed at The Paradise, Denise's essential goodness quickly puts her at odds with the alpha men and women. Yet for all her humanist tendencies, Denise is coolly rational, and struggles when asked by her small trader uncle and his fellow business-owners to take a side against the Leviathan. Ideologically, it may surprise the casual reader of the Rougon-Macquart cycle. But for all Zola's rage against unfettered capitalism, he reserves a certain disdain for the stubborn and the mule-headed. Uncle Baudu and his ilk fighting against the rise of the mega-store (if "fighting" is even a valid verb for their slow, irate demise) believe they are fighting negative progress, that they are standing up for humanity. Instead, the novel suggests, they are positioning themselves in the least helpful place. By being against such an inevitable shift in culture, they cannot play a role in guiding it, in humanising it. Denise's choice is not between human and corporation, it is between useless ideology and active decision-making. (In pop culture terms, it's the difference between Rent's "I won't go to work because the system hates me" mentality and the more pragmatic "I will try and change the workplace for the better" position of Norma Rae.)

While Zola's skill at creating densely populated worlds is almost unparalleled, I confess to enjoying most his intimate novels, such as [b:A Love Story|34927484|A Love Story (Les Rougon-Macquart, #8)|Émile Zola||1776975]. (I was exhausted after Pot Luck!) This time around however, the subjects are such a part of their world, that every character contributes to our central understanding of Denise and Mouret. It's a thickly unified tapestry. And of course Zola has lost none of his pinpoint characterisation, from the increasing indignities Mouret's lover, Madame Desforges, lays down upon a rival, to Denise's sickly cousin Genevieve, who "had the debilitated, colourless appearance of a plant left to grow in the dark."

Perhaps the central conceit of the novel - a developing relationship about which both characters seem to be ignorant for some time - can feel a little contrived to the reader. Zola lays the groundwork, but the feelings read as one-sided to our eyes or perhaps simply unearned. I might suggest that the symbolic resonance of the relationship was more important to the author than the literal one, and that this diminishes the attempt. But the novel is about so much more than the individuals, that it's heavily enjoyable nevertheless.

(A word should also be said about Brian Nelson's clear, spirited, wry translation. Nelson may be my favourite of Zola's translators, and it is a joy that Oxford have utilised his skills for several of their complete modern Rougon-Macquart series.)

We leave Octave Mouret and Denise Baudu and their cohorts in 1869, the year that Zola began writing this series and in which the Second Empire started to topple. A new Paris is rising. Indeed, a new way of trading, of living amongst others, of viewing our very selves. (A new world was emerging for Zola, too, as he published this book in 1883 - entering the central act of his public life as someone both esteemed and oft objected to.) The Ladies' Paradise may have been intended to explore the changes between mid-19th century Paris and late-19th century, but it feels just as much about changes whose ripples we still grapple with. ( )
1 vota therebelprince | Nov 15, 2020 |
Read and read, and never became hooked. gave away.
  GreatBookStudy | Nov 10, 2020 |
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Nom de l'autorCàrrecTipus d'autorObra?Estat
Zola, ÉmileAutorautor primaritotes les edicionsconfirmat
Buss, RobinTraductorautor secundarialgunes edicionsconfirmat
Jong, David deTraductorautor secundarialgunes edicionsconfirmat
Nelson, BrianTraductorautor secundarialgunes edicionsconfirmat
Nelson, BrianIntroduccióautor secundarialgunes edicionsconfirmat
Vizetelly, Ernest AlfredTraductorautor secundarialgunes edicionsconfirmat
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Denise était venue à pied de la gare Saint-Lazare, où un train de Cherbourg l'avait débarquée avec ses deux frères, après une nuit passée sur la dure banquette d'un wagon de troisième classe.
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