Saturday, April 21, 2018

The Paradise (aka The Ladies Paradise) - Emile Zola


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.


11 comments:

  1. Years ago I had this crazy idea that I would read the entire Les Rougon-Macquart series by Zola (of which Ladies Paradise is no. 11 of 20) and I did read the first book, The Fortune of the Rougons and that’s as far as I got! I had also already read Germinal back in college for a French class. So many books, so little time to read the remaining 18!

    This title does seem lighter than Germinal at first glance and I your comparison of this book to Germinal and the way “progress” chews people up and spits them out is really perceptive. I also like your parallel to You’ve Got Mail. Looking at the little I know of bookselling, it is those brick and mortar stores who are changing their tactics who are surviving in this one-click environment by offering an experience the internet can’t provide.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I really need to read Zola. Hopefully I will get to his works later this year.

    It is so interesting that the battle between small shops and giant (now online) retailers is still going on in our times. I live on Long Island, New York. Here, there has been a huge resurgence in small shops and down towns. Hopefully the little shop will always be around.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Encouraging to hear that small shops are coming back--they are the heart and soul of a community.

      Delete
    2. Over the years I have been meaning to read Emile Zola. I am torn though. Germinal is his great classic but the Ladies Paradise sounds good too and since I work in retail I would probably find much that is relatable. I also like the fact that Zola saw how machines, industrialization were destroying a simpler and maybe more fulfilling way of life. We see that today as well.
      Great review and as always you give us much to think about.

      Delete
  3. I'm always pleased to see people reading Zola, he is far too often ignored. The series is just brilliant (only one I disliked so far, Nana) and now almost the entire series has good translations into English! I've been reading his books off and on since 2009 and I'm up to my 12th book, I do hope to finish the entire series in the next couple of years.

    If you like The Ladies' Paradise I also recommend Pot-Bouille which immediately precedes it. It's more of a social satire about bourgeois people living in an apartment building. Parts of it are quite funny. I also loved The Belly of Paris which is set in the food halls, and La Bete Humaine which has to do with the trains. He wrote so many great books!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for the recommendations. They all sound great!

      Delete
  4. I've only read a few of Zola's novels (including this one) and have entertained the idea of tackling the whole Les Rougon-Macquart series. Next to Germinal, Therese Raquin is my favorite. It's fairly short, but very powerful.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I've only read Nana by Zola, but I really want to read this one. I like the Paris/department store setting a lot. :)

    ReplyDelete
  6. The Paradise sounds fascinating. I think I would like to give Germinal to my miner husband, rough! The only Zola I have read was The Masterpiece which was great. I recommend it if you're into the Impressionists. I need to read more Zola.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I enjoyed this book, and thought it interesting, as the battle between the big and small shops was not only about size, but the birth of consumerism. The old shops sold necessities, which people bought as they needed them, and they didn't need to indulge in salesmanship. The new stores encouraged people to buy things they did not need, on a whim. An interesting piece of social history.

    ReplyDelete
  8. The Ladies Paradise is one of my favorite Zola. It is interesting how Zola was very connected to Darwin's evolution theory in depicting the struggle of small shops that refused to change. And I have only realised now after reading your review! :P

    ReplyDelete