The Ladies Paradise, by Émile Zola

26782749The Ladies Paradise (Au Bonheur des Dames) recounts the rise of the modern department store in late nineteenth-century Paris. The store is a symbol of capitalism, of the modern city, and of the bourgeois family: it is emblematic of changes in consumer culture and the changes in sexual attitudes and class relations taking place at the end of the century.
Octave Mouret, the store’s owner-manager, masterfully exploits the desires of his female customers. In his private life as much as in business he is the great seducer. But when he falls in love with the innocent Denise Baudu, he discovers she is the only one of the salesgirls who refuses to be commodified. (from Goodreads)

Ohhh this book… I couldn’t possibly find a physical copy of it in Buenos Aires, at least in Spanish. I ended up downloading it as epub, to read on my computer, which barely happened and put a hold in my reading of the Rougon-Macquart. At the end, I finished the reading from my phone (which at first was totally “ugh”, but then was like “this isn’t so bad”).
A couple of years ago, I was just beginning to read some of Zola’s works, without any judgement (I wasn’t even aware that they were a series), and I came around The Paradise, a BBC series allegedly based in one of Zola’s novels. I looked for it tirelessly without any result, like I just said. But, in the meantime, I kept reading the others and watching this tv show, which I enjoyed very much, at least the first season. It seemed a little too “happy” to be some of his works, but “well”, I thought, “there might be an exception”.
Some time later I began to read Pot-bouille, and started to recognize John Moray in Octave Mouret. “This might be it!”, I thought, but no, of course it wasn’t, as I realized later this was a prequel of that story. I also noted that Octave didn’t seem to be a lot like Mouray, or at least how I remembered him to be. However, I let it pass…
After reading this book I can now finally say “yeah, that tv thing was waaaay too sugar-coated”. It’s ok in its own, but as an adaptation works really bad. Or maybe I’m wrong for thinking it was supposed to be a word by word adaptation, like they sometimes do for Austen’s works… This definitely wasn’t.
Leaving all that behind, this book is fantastic. Like I think I already said before, what I love about Zola is the real research work behind his writing, and how his novels can perfectly work (in my opinion) as any other history or sociology book explaining the Second Empire. Each book tackles a different subject, and this one in particular shows us the socio-economic revolution that meant the creation of this mega-super-stores. The work conditions, the dreadful consequences for the historical artisanal and specialized stores, and the beginning of the crazy consumerism we have today.
As always, there’s a great myriad of characters to love, hate or feel sorry for (so much of the latter, actually, those poor little store owners, heartbreaking).
As usual, this was that kind of novel that I never wanted it to end. However, now that I finished it, it means that I can move forward with this project.

Advertisements

Pot Luck, by Émile Zola

31297058This is the 10th book in the Rougon-Macquart series, and occurs in a Parisian apartment building. The main character, Octave*, a young man, moves to this building where, according with its concierge, only respectable families live. The truth is, behind closed-doors, every single one of these families have a lot of dirty secrets. Octave himself is only seeking to seduce any upper-class or bourgeois lady he could find. He tries to seduce his landlord’s daughter-in-law and fails; then he goes after his boss’ wife, Mme. Hédouin, and fails again, so he quits his job at “The Ladies’ Paradise”. He has to settle with Mme. Pichon, his floor neighbor, for a while, until he finally manages to get Berthe, his landlord’s newest daughter-in-law and the wife of his new boss. In the meantime, one gets to know the rest of the families and their comings and goings between unhappy marriages, arranged weddings, reunions and “hidden” mistresses. No one in this building has a clean record, except, perhaps, that mysterious happy family that the concierge despises so much basically because they always minded their own business and payed no-attention to the other “so morally respectable tenants”.

A special word deserve the maids and cooks, who made fun of their patrons in the kitchens, take advantage of them and, in occasions, satisfy their sexual appetites. In this last matter, one of my favorite characters was Trublot, a young man who was always after the maids, despising the bourgeois ladies, and trying to convince Octave into his taste in women.

For being a naturalistic novel, it had quite an ok ending. Not bitter-sweet as usual, but, if you consider Octave’s fate, quite promising. It has an immediate sequel in The Ladies’ Paradise, the 11th book in the series. BUT, we’re going to have a break from Zola, so who knows when that will come. 

*The only “sane” son of Francois and Marthe Mouret. It astonished me, however, how at certain point he’s asked about his parents, and he answers that they’re fine. Was he lying? He didn’t know yet? Did the story happen before the other’s book debacle?

The Conquest of Plassans, by Émile Zola

20161215_183126‘Abbe Faujas has arrived!’

The arrival of Abbe Faujas in the provincial town of Plassans has profound consequences for the community, and for the family of Francois Mouret in particular. Faujas and his mother come to lodge with Francois, his wife Marthe, and their three children, and Marthe quickly falls under the influence of the priest. Ambitious and unscrupulous, Faujas gradually infiltrates into all quarters of the town, intent on political as well as religious conquest. Intrigue, slander, and insinuation tear the townsfolk apart, creating suspicion and distrust, and driving the Mourets to ever more extreme actions.

The fourth novel in Zola’s Rougon-Macquart sequence, The Conquest of Plassans returns to the fictional Provencal town from which the family sprang in The Fortune of the Rougons. In one of the most psychological of his novels, Zola links small-town politics to the greater political and national dramas of the Second Empire.  (from Goodreads)

This book was so hard to read, not because it was boring or anything like that, but because one is introduced to a well-functioning family (in appearance, at least… it worked for them, I guess), that falls completely apart throughout the book and it’s devastating and frustrating to witness.

One of the main subjects in Zola’s novels is how heredity and environment worked on members of one family. Many of the characters in this novel were introduced in The Fortune of the Rougons, so we know which is their ancestry and what we could expect of that (it is well reminded early in the book, as well). Francois and Marthe (nee Rougon) Mouret are first cousins, but they’re so alike physically that could easily pass as siblings (creepy, I know). Marthe is introduced as very submissive and quiet, while Francois is very outgoing and quite a babbler. They got their physical appearance from their grandmother Adelaide Fouque, from which it seems they inherited their mental instability too. This is first seen in Marthe, as told by herself, very early, as well in their children Desirée and Serge. Francois develops his insanity along the story develops.

Francois was for me a very unpleasant character, but as long as the story went, I couldn’t help but pitty him and really root for him. Abbe Faujas was despicable from the start, although he didn’t show his true colors at first, but I was always suspicious of him. I was glad to see Félicité (Marthe’s mother) again. She’s always cunning and using everybody for her own gain, but despite all that, she’s such a strong character, pulling all the cords and making everything work just the way she wants to, that I can’t help but admire her assertive personality.

The secondary characters, as usual, introduce most of the “comic relief”, they root the characters in a realistic town-ish environment making everything more interesting and real.

The Dream, by Émile Zola

30655918In this book we meet Angelique, an orphan girl that escaped from a foster home where she was victim of violence. She’s found on the stairs of a cathedral by the Huberts, who are masters embroiderers and work and live next to the building. They decide to take care of her and teach her the art of embroidery. Angelique is a very tempestuous child, she has quite a temper and experiences serious mood swings. As long as she grows older, she manages to control herself. Eventually, the Huberts grow very fond of her and adopt her as her own, because they’re childless. Before the official adoption, Mr. Hubert travels to Paris to investigate Angelique’s origins. That’s how we found out that she’s Sidonie Rougon’s daughter. Sidonie is Eugène and Aristide’s sister, an unfeeling, cold, dry woman incapable of love. She is a professional procuress, a seller of “anything and everything”, and plays an important part in The Kill.

Angelique becomes into a magnificent embroiderer, and she gets fascinated by the saints and martyrs tales. She dreams to be saved by a handsome prince and to live happily ever after, and believes her dream came true when she met Félicien, a very handsome boy who introduces himself as an artisan, just like she and the Huberts, but he’s actually the heir of an old family of knights, heroes, and nobles.

Unlike the other books, who are filled with historical background, this story seemed to me completely out of time. Because of the strongly religious influence and context, Huberts’ artisanal life, Angelique’s dreams, and the landscapes and surroundings described, I felt it like a medieval tale.

Money, by Émile Zola

30350548Another book centered on Aristide. It starts a few years after The Kill, with a now widowed and bankrupt Saccard. We know by now that Aristide desires nothing but a fountain of  ever flowing money, not exactly to accumulate it, but to spend it all and keep it going, so he’s always lurking around the Bourse, waiting, planning, trying to find a way to take it over. His desire is to dethrone the Jewish bankers, and he is insufflated of a very profound anti-semitism. With the idea of making incredible amounts of money and re-establish himself on the Bourse,  Saccard creates the Universal Bank, a financial establishment to fund his neighbour’s dreams of restoring Christianity to the Middle East through great public works: rail lines linking important cities, improved roads and transportation, etc.

The novel is full of stock market’s language and content, so it was a bit hard for me to follow, but it had certain passages, describing an entire day in the Bourse like a battlefield, told with loads of adrenaline! The book shows us the effects of stock market speculation on rich and poor, because all of them invest in the Universal Bank. We also found out that Aristide and Eugène aren’t in good relations, since Saccard’s bankruptcy, and that Saccard has an illegitimate son, Victor, from a girl he raped during his first days in Paris. Victor is described as brutal as the way he was conceived, worsened by his life of abject poverty.

The Kill, by Émile Zola

30350254This book is about Aristide. He arrived in Paris the day after the coup d’état, and went right to meet his brother Eugène, asking for help to establish himself and his family (wife and two kids). After his brother’s advice, he changed his last name to Saccard, so he wouldn’t be easily associated with Eugène. After his wife’s death, he married for money with a “disgraced” girl (she was rapped and got pregnant, so she is not a good catch anymore), Renée. Aristide, with the wealth of his new wife, became very rich through real-estate speculation and so starts to live a type of life that, at some point, he can’t afford anymore. Which follows with more speculation, more debts, more ostensible wealth, in a never ending cycle. In her mundane and luxurious life, Renée gets bored of her lovers and is in the search of a new excitement in her life, which she finds in Maxime, Aristide’s son from his first marriage.

His Excellency, by Émile Zola

30128106In this book, we get to see the political operations and way of work during the II Empire through Zola’s eyes.

We follow now Eugène’s story. Working for the now established II Empire, he climbed his way up to be one of the Emperor’s Ministers. Like I said on the last post, he’s driven by power, and he doesn’t care by money at all. He just likes to be obeyed, to be feared, he likes to oppress people. He’s surrounded by a big entourage, formed by a very heterogeneous group of individuals, all with their own purposes, all begging for something, all trying to be on his favor. They helped him to get his position, mostly working for their own interest. Once they got what they originally wanted, they ask for more, and more, and more, and when at some point Eugène just can’t  (or doesn’t want to) help them anymore, they plot against him and plan his downfall.