Saturday, April 21, 2018
The Paradise (aka The Ladies Paradise) - Emile Zola
Posted by JaneGS
After reading and loving Germinal a few years ago, I decided that The Ladies Paradise would be the next novel by Emile Zola that I would read. I was told by other bloggers that it was excellent but very different from Germinal.
On the surface, these two books couldn't be more different--Germinal is set in a company mining town and involves the lives and struggles of the miners, and The Ladies Paradise is about a department store in Paris. Both set in the late 19th century.
However, I was constantly reminded of Germinal as I was reading The Ladies Paradise. Zola depicts both the mine in Germinal and the department store (which is called The Ladies Paradise) in Paris as monsters and machines, consuming the traditional way of life of the countryside and city, feeding on the energy of the workers, exploiting their dreams, and crushing their lives. A few survive and thrive, a few survive and limp along, but most are swept away by the inhuman ferocity of the machine.
The version I read was renamed The Paradise, and is a tie-in to the mini-series, which was set in England rather than France, and it shows on the cover the actress who plays Denise, the main character, a girl from a town in Normandy who comes to Paris with her two younger brothers after their parents die. She is hoping to work in her uncle's shop, which is across from The Ladies Paradise, but business is so bad that he cannot take her on. She finds a position in The Ladies Paradise, suffers much, perseveres, and earns her reward, although you can't help but wonder how happy she will be with that reward!
Denise's story is very much like that of Christian in A Pilgrim's Progress, constantly struggling and beset with trials and tribulations, temptations and false friends, but she stays true to her internal guiding spirit and prevails.
I also couldn't help thinking about the movie You've Got Mail while I read this book. Octave Mouret, the owner of The Ladies Paradise, and Joe Fox, owner of Fox & Sons Books are definitely cut from the same cloth--they orchestrate the ruin of the little shops that constitute their main competition for customers and charmingly defend their ruthlessness by insisting that the demise of the little shops was inevitable and they are not to blame for the fate of others. I kept on waiting for M. Moret to insist that "it isn't personal."
I felt a certain amount of frustration with the little shop owners, who fought back by trying to beat Mouret at his own game instead of trying to figure out a new game for themselves...but then, maybe that was Zola's point. The small shop owners who had mostly inherited their businesses from their fathers and grandfathers weren't able to change. Progress was flattening them and they couldn't deal with the new reality--they didn't have the skills, the mindset, the energy, or the resources that the modern world demanded.
As we deal with our own constantly changing world in which no one really knows what the next big thing will be that will sweep through the market, The Paradise was a sobering book to read.
This is my Classic in Translation for the Back to the Classics Challenge, 2018, and my fourth classic this year. It's also part of my reading about France for my summer trip to Paris and Normandy. I've been reading a lot lately about the Impressionist painters and how they depict a Paris that was undergoing tremendous physical change, and so it was interesting to read a novel by a Parisian of their generation writing about the tearing down of buildings and age-old traditions as Paris transformed from a meandering medieval city to one of boulevards and lights.