Friday, 31 July 2015

The Miller's Prologue and Tale, The Reeve's Prologue and Tale, and The Cook's Prologue and Tale, from The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer.

This week I've finished reading Fragment I of The Canterbury Tales, which consists of the General Prologue, The Knight's Tale, and three shorter prologues and tales from The Miller, The Reeve, and The Cook:

The Miller.
The Miller's Prologue (3109 - 3186)

The Miller was described in the General Prologue as,
... a janglere and a goliardeys, / And that was moost of synne and harlotries
which means he could write but was a bit of a jester producing mostly sinful, bawdy lines. By the time the Knight had finished his tale the Miller is drunk ("The Millere, that for dronken was al pale") - when the host asks the Monk to tell his story the Miller, Robin is his name, interrupts and tells the group he will be the next man to tell a tale - 
... "By armes, and by blood and bones,
I kan a noble tale for the nones,
With which I wol now quite the Knyghts tale."
The host, seeing how drunk he is, suggests this is not a good idea but the Miller is determined, though does acknowledge how drunk he is, and says if he does step out of line to blame it on the ale - 
And therfore if that I mysspeke or seye,
Wyte it the ale of Southwerk, I you preye.
An argument breaks out between the Miller and the Reeve (Oswald), but still the Miller is undeterred and Chaucer is forced to conclude the Miller's Prologue with a disclaimer, "M'athynketh that I shal reherce it heere" [I regret I must repeat the tale], and "Avyseth yow, and put me out of blame; / And eek men shal nat maken ernest of game" [Don't blame me, and don't take this game too seriously".

The Miller's Tale (3187 - 3854)

The Miller proceeds to tell the story of a husband, a wife, and a scholar (or "clerk") in Oxford. The scholar, Nicholas, is bright and well-educated, and takes a particular interest in astrology (he even owns an astrolabe, with which Chaucer was well acquainted). He rents a room with the carpenter, John, and his beautiful eighteen year old wife Alison who the Miller describes at length in this rather lovely ode:
Fair was this yonge wyf, and therwithal
As any wezele hir body gent and smal.
A ceynt she werede, barred al of silk,
A barmclooth as whit as morne milk
Upon hir lendes, ful of many a goore.
Whit was hir smok, and broyden al bifoore
And eek bihynde, on hir coler aboute,
Of col-blak silk, withinne and eek withoute.
The tapes of hir white voluper
Were of the same suyte of hir coler;
Hir filet brood of silk, and set ful hye.
And sikerly she hadde a likerous ye;
Ful smale ypulled were hire browes two,
And tho were bent and blake as any sloo.
She was ful moore blisful on to see
Than is the newe pere-jonette tree,
And softer than the wolle is of a wether.
And by hir girdel heeng a purs of lether,
Tasseled with silk and perled with latoun.
In al this world, to seken up and doun,
There nys no man so wys that koude thenche
So gay a popelote or swich a wenche.
Ful brighter was the shynyng of hir hewe
Than in the Tour the noble yforged newe.
But of hir song, it was as loude and yerne
As any swalwe sittynge on a berne.
Therto she koude skippe and make game,
As any kyde or calf folwynge his dame.
Hir mouth was sweete as bragot or the meeth,
Or hoord of apples leyd in hey or heeth.
Wynsynge she was, as is a joly colt,
Long as a mast, and upright as a bolt.
A brooch she baar upon hir lowe coler,
As brood as is the boos of a bokeler.
Hir shoes were laced on hir legges hye.
She was a prymerole, a piggesnye,
For any lord to leggen in his bedde,
Or yet for any good yeman to wedde.
Alison from The Miller's Tale illustrated by
Warwick Goble. Alison here is often mistaken for
The Wife of Bath, also called Alison,
but this image is certainly Goble's illustration
to The Miller's Tale and can be found here on Archive.
Of course Nicholas falls for her, and they begin an affair. However, Nicholas is not the only one that wants her - so too does Absolon. Here is where the Miller's tale shares similarities with the Knight's Tale - two young men competing for a woman. But the tone is much different, the Knight's tale was a courtly romance not even suggestive; the Miller's is far more explicit, and the young wife rejects Absolon from the start in favour of Nicholas. 

So, the two carry on their affair but grow frustrated that they cannot spend more time together. So Nicholas hatches a plan worthy of Boccaccio - they convince John that there is to be a flood of biblical proportions and that God will save them if they each hang in a bucket on the outside of the house, which will float when the water hits it. John does so and Nicholas and Alison spent the night together, however Absolon arrives early in the morning once again attempting to seduce Alison. In a rather graphic description the Miller then describes how Alison,
 ... at the wyndow out she putte hir hole [bottom],
And Absolon, hym fil no bet ne wers,
But with his mouth he kiste hir naked ers [arse]
Ful savourly, er he were war of this.
Needless to say on discovering this Absolon is infuriated and decides to get his revenge by getting her to do the same again and then branding her with a hot poker. But it is Nicholas who gets the hot poker when he thrusts his arse out of the window and farts ("As greet as it had been a thonder-dent"  nearly blinding the clerk in the process just to add further insult). But the clerk is ready and "And Nicholas amydde the ers he smoot." Nicholas shrieks and cries for water, "Help! Water! Water! Help, for Goddes herte!" and John, still sitting in his bucket, takes this as a sign that God's flood has been sent and he cuts the rope from the roof ready to float. Of course there is no flood and he comes crashing through the ceiling and lands amidst the chaos. The whole town hearing all the shouting comes to see and poor John is mocked.

This is a very lewd and silly tale, but very entertaining indeed! There are elements - a jealous, older husband and an unfaithful wife. I couldn't find the source of this tale, but it did put me in mind of a story from The Decameron - the fourth story on the third day narrated by Panfilo, in which he tells how Dom Felice taught Friar Puccio how to attain blessedness by doing a very long and convoluted penance. As he does so Dom Felice has his way with the Friar's wife, Monna Isabetta. It is great fun, but it is understandable why this story was always cut out of various editions of The Canterbury Tales! It also serves as a warning - Nicholas has convinced John that he had a divine revelation that the great flood would come, suggesting that one should not always trust those who claim to be prophets as they may simply be telling tales to further their own end.

********

The Reeve's Prologue (3855 - 3920)

This follows directly from the Miller's Tale, and we see the reaction of the company -
Whan folk hadde laughen at this nyce cas
Of Absolon and hende Nicholas,
Diverse folk diversely they seyde,
But for the moore part they loughe and pleyde.
Ne at this tale I saugh no man hym greve,
But it were oonly Osewold the Reve.
Oswald the Reeve was described in the General Prologue as a thin, choleric man whose tenants "were adrad of hym as of the deeth". He takes issue with the Miller for making carpenters look foolish (the Reeve was once a carpenter), so in reply to the Miller's Tale he tells his own dark tale.

The Reeve's Tale (3921 - 4324)

*** I'll start by saying there's a description of rape in this tale, so should you not want to read it go straight to the final part, 'The Cook's Prologue and Tale'.***

This was quite possibly inspired by Boccaccio's tale of Pinuccio and Adriano in The Decameron (the sixth tale on Day IX), which I summarised: 
Panfilo tells the story of Pinuccio and Adriano. Pinuccio falls in love with a young woman, Niccolosa (Panfilo is reminded of this young woman by Fiammetta's tale). She reciprocates, and so Adriano helps Pinuccio work out a way for them to spend time alone together. They go to stay at Niccolosa's father's inn and that night Pinuccio finds his way into Niccolosa's bed. Such is the confusion over sleeping arrangements (they are all sharing one bedroom), the innkeeper's wife gets into bed with Adriano thinking he is her husband (he is now alone as Pinuccio is with Niccolosa), and Adriano "gave her a most cordial reception". Before morning, Pinuccio must now get back into his own bed. He assumes Adriano and the innkeeper's wife are actually the innkeeper and his wife, he climbs into bed with the real innkeeper and begins boasting of his night with Niccolosa. The innkeeper's wife realises what has happened, so quickly gets into bed with Niccolosa, tells her husband Pinuccio was lying or sleep-talking, and no harm done. 
The Reeve tells the story of a miller, Simpkin, who is described as a sly thief:
A theef he was for sothe of corn and mele,
And that a sly, and usaunt for to stele.
His name was hoote deynous Symkyn.
When he steals flour however by distracting two students, John and Aleyn, two fun-loving chaps from up north ("Fer in the north; I kan nat telle where"), they decide to get their revenge. They stay at the miller's house with his wife and daughter. After an evening of good food and wine they go to bed, the miller and his wife in one bed, the daughter in another, and John and Aleyn in the third. As in Boccaccio however, there is some bed-swapping however the tale is blacker - it appears the two men rape the daughter. For example, when Aleyn goes to the daughter's bed it is written,
This wenche lay uprighte and faste slepte,
Til he so ny was, er she myghte espie,
That it had been to late for to crie,
And shortly for to seyn, they were aton.
Next, John tricks the miller's wife into his bed. The Reeve suggests that the wife enjoys what takes place,
Withinne a while this John the clerk up leep,
And on this goode wyf he leith on soore.
So myrie a fit ne hadde she nat ful yoore;
He priketh harde and depe as he were mad.
Either the wife was not raped, or this is a misogynistic Reeve claiming that she enjoyed being raped. He's an unpleasant man, and I wouldn't be surprised if in this case it was the latter. Furthermore, I do believe the daughter was raped repeatedly, and by the end the Reeve claims she had come to enjoy it, and even bids him a fond farewell when the pair leave, but not before the miller has discovered what has taken place and beats them.

It's a remarkable tale that seemed to promise some light-hearted fun but turned so very dark and unsettling. The tale is entirely in keeping with the Reeve's character, I think, and though awful, Chaucer writes very well. What is also important about this tale is that the two men, John and Aleyn, speak in dialect. I do admit I didn't pick up on this myself but read it in the introduction of my book, but it is one of the very first examples of an author writing in a dialect that is not his own. Here's an example -
"Symond," quod John, "by God, nede has na peer.
Hym boes serve hymself that has na swayn
It is the "na" that is important - still today we from the North East of England would say "Na" instead of "No", which would have been how Chaucer would have said / written in his own dialect. Another example, the use of "man",
Step on thy feet! Com of, man, al atanes!
"Man" is a form of address to either a man or a woman in the North East (the "a" of "man" is a short vowel sound rather than the usual slightly longer southern or RP way of speaking) - something I'm struggling to explain very clearly, I'm afraid! Even so, as I said, it's an interesting piece of writing for that detail on the dialogue.

*******

The Cook's Prologue (4325 - 4364)

From the Prologue of the Cook (Roger) we see his reaction to the Reeve's previous tale - a malicious trick done in the dark, but God forbid we linger on this subject:
He hadde a jape of malice in the derk.
But God forbede that we stynte heere;
He promises to tell a fun tale - "A litel jape that fil in oure citee" and the Host encourages him to do so.

The Cook's Tale (4365 - 4422)

Alas, Chaucer did not complete the Cook's Tale - all we have are fifty-seven lines about an apprentice, an attractive, brightly dressed womaniser:
A prentys whilom dwelled in oure citee,
And of a craft of vitailliers was hee.
Gaillard he was as goldfynch in the shawe,
Broun as a berye, a propre short felawe,
With lokkes blake, ykembd ful fetisly.
Dauncen he koude so wel and jolily
That he was cleped Perkyn Revelour.
He was as ful of love and paramour
As is the hyve ful of hony sweete;
When his apprenticeship is ended he celebrates, and he moves in with his friend who has a wife who keeps a shop only for appearances - "And hadde a wyf that heeld for contenance", and with the following line, "A shoppe, and swyved for hir sustenance" (saying that the wife was a prostitute) we are at the end of The Cook's Tale.

How Chaucer envisaged this is unknown. Fragment I has been full of stories of two men and one woman: the Knight's tale was about Arcite and Palamon who both wanted Emily, in the Miller's Tale Nicholas and Absolon want Alison, and in The Reeve's Tale John and Aleyn want the miller's daughter. We could assume the two men are the apprentice and his friend, and the wife is the desired one. There is a tale in the Decameron (VIII.i) of a man who falls for his friend's wife. She consents to sleep with him but asks for payment, and so he borrows the money from his friend, when he pays he instructs her to give it to her husband thus the debt is paid and he sleeps with her free of charge. I wonder if our fun-loving apprentice does something like that. It's impossible to say!

So with that, Fragment I is at an end. Next week Fragment II, which only consists of the Man of Law's Introduction and Tale.

********
See also:

← Previously: The Knight's Tale

Thursday, 30 July 2015

Against Nature by Joris-Karl Huysmans.

1920 edition of Á Rebours.
His eye fell on the yellow book that Lord Henry had sent him. What was it, he wondered. He went towards the little, pearl-coloured octagonal stand that had always looked to him like the work of some strange Egyptian bees that wrought in silver, and taking up the volume, flung himself into an arm-chair and began to turn over the leaves. After a few minutes he became absorbed. It was the strangest book that he had ever read. It seemed to him that in exquisite raiment, and to the delicate sound of flutes, the sins of the world were passing in dumb show before him. Things that he had dimly dreamed of were suddenly made real to him. Things of which he had never dreamed were gradually revealed.
- The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde (1891).
Two very different authors - Oscar Wilde and Émile Zola - are connected by J.-K. Huysmans, the author of Against Nature (Á Rebours, 1884). Huysmans was an admirer and disciple of Zola and his school of Naturalism, and, I didn't mention this in the last post, it seems he was the only one of Zola's friends to write to Zola congratulating him on his achievement in writing The Ladies Paradise (1883), saying in a letter,
I don't know how the devil you extract such variety from subjects that one wouldn't have thought had any. Portraying this ever ebullient store without repeating yourself took some doing... It is, rest assured, a virtuoso performance - the crescendo of sale days to the final blaze of whiteness - that you alone could have completed safely.
Huysmans was also an admirer of Zola's The Belly of Paris (1873), writing,
Day dawning over Les Halles as vegetables rise and bistros flame behind fogged windows and crowds swarm is an absolutely incredible riot of colour! There are still lifes that have the dash and wild palette of a Rubens! And how vividly Zola draws his characters, bringing them to life with some habitual gesture or idiosyncratic phrase... In this volume the pit may be almost imperceptible, but the fruit tastes like nothing else.
However all was not well with Huysmans' relationship with Émile Zola. He had once written to a friend,
You said it - I am a realist of the school of Goncourt, Zola, and Flaubert, etc. In Paris there is a small group of us convinced that the novel can no longer be a story that is more or less true, more or less dressed up, coated in fish paste, like certain pills, to mask the taste. By realism we mean the patient study of reality, achieving an overall impression detail by detail, cruel ones if need be, trivial even, if that helps us strike the right note. As you can see, we are far removed from the days of Alexandre Dumas's novels.
By 1880s however Huysmans had had a change of heart.
We began to wonder [he wrote] whether Naturalism was not advancing up a blind alley, and whether or not we might not soon be running our heads into a wall.
Unpublished frontispiece for Baudelaire's
Les Fleurs du Mal by Félix Bracquemond.
Huysmans, on reflection, admired the aesthetic elements of Zola's works - Zola's symphonies - the symphonies of silk and fashion in The Ladies Paradise, the symphony of cheeses in The Belly of Paris, and the symphonies of flowers in The Sin of Abbé Mouret (1875). In Against Nature (which may as well have been called 'Against Naturalism') he finally broke from Zola's Naturalists and moved into the Decadent Movement of the late 19th Century inspired by Charles Baudelaire, with elements of the Gothic and emphasis on Aestheticism. Some even argue that Huysman's Against Nature was the first, the pioneer of the movement, which Oscar Wilde embraced whole-heartedly. The quote above from The Picture of Dorian Gray refers to Against Nature, which was that strange yellow book that he later identified during his trial. Wilde described it further in Dorian Gray,
It was a novel without a plot and with only one character, being, indeed, simply a psychological study of a certain young Parisian who spent his life trying to realize in the nineteenth century all the passions and modes of thought that belonged to every century except his own, and to sum up, as it were, in himself the various moods through which the world-spirit had ever passed, loving for their mere artificiality those renunciations that men have unwisely called virtue, as much as those natural rebellions that wise men still call sin. The style in which it was written was that curious jewelled style, vivid and obscure at once, full of argot and of archaisms, of technical expressions and of elaborate paraphrases, that characterizes the work of some of the finest artists of the French school of Symbolistes. There were in it metaphors as monstrous as orchids and as subtle in colour. The life of the senses was described in the terms of mystical philosophy. One hardly knew at times whether one was reading the spiritual ecstasies of some mediaeval saint or the morbid confessions of a modern sinner. It was a poisonous book. The heavy odour of incense seemed to cling about its pages and to trouble the brain. The mere cadence of the sentences, the subtle monotony of their music, so full as it was of complex refrains and movements elaborately repeated, produced in the mind of the lad, as he passed from chapter to chapter, a form of reverie, a malady of dreaming, that made him unconscious of the falling day and creeping shadows. 
Cloudless, and pierced by one solitary star, a copper-green sky gleamed through the windows. He read on by its wan light till he could read no more.
Wilde was clearly a fan, and also wrote on its publication, "This last book of Huysmans is one of the best I have ever seen". Zola unsurprisingly was not a fan, saying it had delivered "a terrible blow to Naturalism", it had led "the school astray", and in writing it Huysman had "burned his boats". Despite trying, Huysmans never managed to placate Zola. Wilde was certainly right about one thing - Against Nature is strange, and indeed it is the strangest book I have ever read, too. I've now read it twice but I still can't get to grips with it, though I do very much admire it. I can't review it better than Wilde has done; I can't even come close, but I'll attempt to give a brief summary.

Detail of Salome Dancing Before Herod 
by Gustave Moreau (1876), a painting mentioned
in Against Nature.
Huysmans writes about Jean Des Esseintes, the last of the noble family Des Esseintes. He rejects society and moves to the country, deciding to dedicate his life to art and literature. He writes of tiring of the vulgarities of modern life, and produces an almost encyclopaedic account of the history of literature, from the Ancient Greeks and Romans ("Petronius was the author whom he truly loved and who caused him forever to abandon the sonorous ingenuities of Lucan", for example) to his present day - Dickens ("those charming novels which are so satisfying to invalids and convalescents who might grow fatigued by works of a more profound and vigorous nature), and even Zola (Jean Des Esseintes prefers The Sin of Abbé Mouret to L'Assommoir). Meanwhile, he tries to grow poisonous flowers, kills a tortoise by setting jewels on its shell, and studies the paintings of Gustave Moreau. He, Des Esseintes, is one of the most narcissistic characters I've come across, and this novel meanders, there is little plot, but it is so striking. It's really very pointless to write about the plot in fact because this book at least attempts (and succeeds, I think) to inspire a sensual, visceral reaction. He writes towards the end of the book, anticipating the reception perhaps,
The novel, thus conceived, thus condensed in a page or two, would become an intellectual communion between a hieratic writer and an ideal reader, a spiritual collaboration between a dozen persons of superior intelligence scattered across the world, an aesthetic treat available to none but the most discerning.
In this sense it becomes more like the Modernist literature of the 1920s and 1930s - Joyce and Woolf, but it is very Decadent, baroque almost. Visually it is stunning, but it evokes smells and tastes, and glitters very darkly like Salome's dress pictured above. It is a great achievement, but it is difficult to truly grasp. I think a part of the struggle is not to ask where this is going or what Huysmans is trying to achieve, but simply accept it for what it is - like a visit to a bejewelled opium den simply for the sake of visiting. Wilde wrote, "The heavy odour of incense seemed to cling about its pages and to trouble the brain" - that is about the sum of it. It's a book I want to revisit, but now I'm very eager to revisit The Picture of Dorian Gray and Salome.

As for illustrations - this I struggled with. I found a beautiful edition illustrated by Auguste-Louis Lepère from the 1903 published by Pour les Cent Bibliophiles. Each page is illustrated - there are over 200 in fact, and I found it desperately hard to limit myself. So, here are a selection, far more than I would usually include so I hope you forgive me!

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

The Ladies Paradise by Émile Zola.

From Le Journal Amusant, 1882.
The Ladies Paradise (Au Bonheur des Dames) is the eleventh novel of Émile Zola's 'Rougon Macquart' series and was first published in 1883. It's regarded as a sequel to the tenth novel in the series, Pot Luck (Pot-Bouille, 1882), which, yes, I ought to have reviewed before writing this! But these novels do stand alone - I don't believe there is any need to read Pot Luck first, and I have already read that novel before and I didn't feel any advantage in having done so when revisiting The Ladies Paradise

I think it's important to begin with Zola's intentions for his Rougon Macquart novels. He wrote in the preface of the first of the novels, The Fortune of the Rougons (La Fortune des Rougon, 1871):
My aim is to explain how a family, a small group of human beings, behaves in a given society after blossoming forth and giving birth to ten or twenty individuals who, though they may seem at first glance totally dissimilar from each other, are, as analysis shows, linked together in the most profound ways. Heredity, like gravity, has its laws.  
By solving the dual problem of temperament and environment, I shall attempt to discover and trace the thread that leads mathematically from one person to another. When I am in possession of every thread, and hold in my hands an entire social group, I shall describe the behaviour of this group as it plays its part in an historical period; I shall show it in action, with all its varied energies; and I shall analyse the aims and ambitions of its individual members along with the general tendency of the whole.
There are generally two strands to a 'Rougon Macqart novel'.
  1. Zola takes a subject of the Second Empire, the period which he covers in the series. For example, mines, as in Germinal (1885), slums, as in L'Assommoir (1877), brothels, as in Nana (1880), art, as in The Masterpiece (L'Œuvre, 1886), railways, as in The Beast Within (La Bête Humaine, 1890), food, as in The Belly of Paris (Le Ventre de Paris, 1873), and department stores, as in The Ladies Paradise. Each subject symbolises an aspect of life in the Second Empire.
  2. Each of his novels focus on a character of the Rougon Macquart family and its offshoot, the Mourets (many of whom are introduced in The Fortune of the Rougons). In The Ladies Paradise Zola continues from Pot Luck in writing about Octave Mouret, born in 1840 to Marthe Rougon and François Mouret, and who is first properly introduced in The Conquest of Plassans (La Conquête de Plassans, 1874, though he does appear in The Fortune of the Rougons). In The Ladies Paradise he now owns a department store - the 'Ladies Paradise', which was based on a department store in Paris called the "Bon Marché".
Bon Marché, 24 Rue de Sèvres, 75007 Paris, France.
Le Bon Marché writes about its history on its website:
In 1852, Aristide Boucicaut, the son of a hatmaker, had already realised that there was a demand for a new type of store that offered consumers a wider choice. Together with his wife Marguerite, he transformed a simple stall into one single "department store" selling a vast range of items, and where customers could browse to their hearts’ content. The birth of Le Bon Marché heralded a whole new culture of commerce that included fixed prices, lower margins, home delivery, item exchange, mail order, promotional periods and sales, private concerts, a reading area and much more. This ground-breaking and revolutionary couple had come up with a commercial model that would soon be copied around the globe. The start of 1875 saw the opening of an art gallery. The store served as a free intermediary and facilitator between artists and art lovers. [The History of Le Bon Marché Rive Gauche]
The manuscript of the first chapter of
Au  Bonheur des Dames.
This was the first department store in Paris, and the largest department store in the world (this huge building dominated the landscape, as once cathedrals had done). By the time Zola came to use it as the model for the Ladies Paradise in 1883 it had an annual turnover of 80 million francs a year, compared with its comparatively modest 450 000 francs in 1852 when it began with its four departments and twelve employees (these figures come from Brian Nelson's excellent introduction to the Oxford University Press edition, 1995). Inspired, Zola visited le Bon Marché, took copious notes and conducted several interviews (two men and a woman, Mlle Dulit) as was the norm for his preparations for a novel, and even met with an architect, Frantz Jourdain, who designed La Samaritaine, a rival department store which opened in 1869. His notes ran to some hundred pages; he even noted the number of tills (seventy-three).

The department store is thus the subject of The Ladies Paradise, and the symbol is capitalism. As le Bon Marché, La Samaritaine, and the Ladies Paradise of the novel grew, the surrounding areas of shops and small businesses shrunk and failed: the Ladies Paradise quite literally consumes and destroys them in its growth. And of course this is no accident - competition, as is the spirit of capitalism, is annihilated. Those who can afford to shop in the Ladies Paradise are the bourgeoisie; the oppressors, yet conversely, they too are exploited, seduced by advertising, grand and beautiful structures and facilities within the department store, even the layout - the apparent disorder that forces the shopper to travel around the shop looking for purchases (a practice which continues today of course, and the shopper is further manipulated with sudden changes in layout) - it is a subtle yet deadly lure. Octave Mouret is the manager, and he seeks to seduce women by enticing them into his shop and spending money there (a reminder that a bourgeois woman may be both the oppressor and the oppressed: oppressed by men and by capitalism). Zola writes,
Mouret's sole passion was the conquest of Woman. He wanted her to be queen in his shop; he had built this temple for her in order to hold her at his mercy. His tactics were to intoxicate her with amorous attentions, to trade on her desires.
Émile Zola by Spy (Leslie Ward), 1880.
Within this venture exists contradictions. The store is at once a temple and a machine, a community united in goals but divided by motive, and likes and dislikes of fellow workers, like any job. Personalities are at once important and unimportant, and Mouret appears to both love and despise women by dehumanising them - they are a sum of parts catered for by different departments (which rather puts me in mind of the 1994 song "Doll Parts" by Hole!) . He is known not only for seducing "Womankind" with his shop, but also the women who work for him. However this changes with the arrival of Denise Baudu, a young woman from Valognes who arrives in Paris (many of Zola's Rougon Macquart novels begin with an arrival from a distant, or fairly distant, region: Pot-Luck begins with the arrival of Octave in Paris from Plassans) from Valognes in Normandy with her two young brothers to stay with her uncle and work in his draper's shop. However his shop is the victim of the Ladies Paradise and it is failing. Unable to work for her uncle she finds work in the Ladies Paradise itself and we see the inner-workings of this empire with all of its many conflicts. Mouret, the 'great seducer', finds himself falling in love with her.

It is another excellent novel from Émile Zola, one of my favourites of the series and it was so good to revisit it. It's a typical novel of his in that it begins with an arrival, and takes a subject and a character with which to explore, however the main character of the novel is not so much Octave but Denise, and it is a somewhat softer novel when compared to, say Germinal, L'Assommoir, or Nana. Though I love Zola he has a tendency to treat his characters badly and on some occasions simply use them as merely a mean to painting a bigger picture (sometimes his subjects are far more important than his characters) but not so much in this case. It isn't a "soft" novel, like perhaps the fairytale The Dream (1888), just a little gentler. And outstanding, as always!

As for illustrations - I have found some from the 1886 edition published by Vizetelly. Unfortunately I can't see who they're by.


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