Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Zola's metaphors, of one kind or another - It was as if the god of cloth had his own white tabernacle

Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames was a good novel to read intermittently because of Zola’s taste for the big, chapter-length scene.  I just had to bull through a chapter and then time could pass, just as it did in the novel.  The beginning of a typical chapter catches me up on what happened in the white space between chapters, and then the long scene begins, often a day in the life of the department store.  Maybe there is a big sale, or it is inventory day.  Maybe we start with Mouret, the owner, who in his tour of the store crosses paths with Denise, our heroine, so the story can switch to her.  Or start with Denise, until Mouret wanders by.  Or start with some minor characters, shoppers, one of whom is a shopaholic, who at some point encounter etc. etc. 

Not that the novel has such a strong plot, but I was impressed by how much storytelling, including some pretty soapy stuff, Zola could do with this device.  But it is also useful for showing the workings of the store, from the goods unloaded in the basement to the bad food in the upstairs employee commissary.

My favorite aspect of Zola is his metaphorical exuberance, as with the “Symphony of Cheeses” in The Belly of Paris (1873), so it was disappointing that Au Bonheur des Dames is relatively restrained in its metaphorical language.  Descriptions of store displays are often pure long lists, just colors and forms and types of cloth.  I am tempted to quote a paragraph in Chapter IX describing a complex display of umbrellas, which does contain one simile (they are like “big Venetian lanterns”) but is mostly just colors and locations (umbrellas run up the columns and staircases and placed to form stars, like that).

But I now think metaphorical excess would distract from the concept.  I mean, the department store itself, and every part of it, is a blaring metaphor for our current period of Early-mid Capitalism, distinguished by advertising, shopaholism, and massive ever-changing piles of the most amazing stuff.  So it is sufficient for Zola to describe the thing itself, and unnecessary to say what it is like.  It is like so many things, too many things.  It is still the world in which we live, even if today’s Zola might write a novel set in an Amazon distribution warehouse.

Having said this, in the extraordinary final chapter XIV, Zola apparently decided to cut loose. Mouret, a “genius” of the “art of display,” throws a giant white sale in which the entire store is decorated in white. 

Nothing but white, all the white articles of each department, a riot of white, a white star whose fixed ray blinded at first, so one could not distinguish the details, in the middle of this unique whiteness…  [many white items, gloves and handkerchiefs and so on]… up to the second floor; and this ascent of white took wings, hurried and lost, like a flight of swans…  long jets of lace (guipure) seemed to hang from the swarms of immobile, humming white butterflies…  One would say like a great white bed, which in its virginal enormity awaited, like in the legends, the white princess, who must come one day, all powerful, with the white bridal veil.

It’s a “song of white,” it’s a church,  it’s a “fugue” with “complicated orchestration.  “It was as if the god of cloth had his white tabernacle.”  (“Il semblait que le dieu du chiffon eût là son tabernacle blanc.”)  The god of cloth!  It is everything.  If Zola titled his chapters, this one would be “The Whiteness of the Wh-ite S-ale.”

And this massive display not only prefigures the triumph of the department store – its first million-franc day – but the resolution of the romantic plot, the triumph of the heroine, who it turns out is the all-powerful princess and the store is the marriage bed.  “[A]ll-powerful” is actually the last word of the novel, although it describes the arms of Mouret, the owner, which I take as an irony, since it is Denise who is the big winner.

Translations, likely full of instructive errors, are mine.





Monday, October 18, 2021

Zola's Au Bonheur des Dames, the department store novel - the flashy, sunny way of the new Paris

For some dumb reason I thought this summer, in the middle of moving across the country, was a good time to pick a nearly 500-page Émile Zola novel, about as difficult as any French I’ve read, as my text for the daily study of French, “daily” often meaning “weekly.”  This has not been a high-concentration period.  Or maybe I was wiser, or luckier, than I realized, since Au Bonheur des Dame (1883, For the Pleasure of the Ladies) is perfectly structured to leave the book alone for long stretches.  Between chapters, time passes.  I know the feeling.

Anyway, three months later, I’ve finished it.

My wink wink nudge nudge smutty English title, although pretty literal, is obviously a disaster.  Brian Nelson, in his recent Oxford World’s Classics translation, uses The Ladies’ Paradise.  The title is the name of a Paris department store.  This is the founding text of the small but real genre of department store fiction.  Real Paris department stores, contemporaries of Zola’s, are called Printemps (Spring, pictured above, image borrowed from here) and Galeries Lafayette and Le Bon Marché (The Good Deal) and Louvre (across the street from the museum).  The Ladies’ Paradise is plausible, especially for the more visionary version of the department store Zola creates.  

The fictional Au Bonheur des Dames is about halfway between Louvre and Printemps, near the Palais Garnier, utterly plausible, although so specifically placed – the first real street name is in the first paragraph - that I wondered what contemporary Parisian readers thought.  “There’s no department store there!”  But what if there were?

Denise is a virtuous orphan girl whose only adult relative runs a doomed umbrella shop across the street from the new department store.  Mouret is the entrepreneur who creates the department store out of his deceased wife’s shop and fortune.  The character’s paths inevitably cross, which creates a story, although not much of a story.  Mouret’s earlier history can be found in Zola’s 1882 novel Pot-Bouille, unread by me.  That novel is about the little shopkeepers; this one is about the big time, three thousand employees and daily receipts of a million francs.

Au Bonheur des Dames is as authentically Darwinian a Zola novel as I’ve read.  There are two strands, first, the department store gradually crushing all the little shops around it, and second, the tournament-style labor market within the department store, where it is either up or out and the only way up is to outsell the employee next to you.  Denise gets a happy ending, since she wins the tournament, in a surprising way or perhaps in just the way you expected.  Her uncle and all the other little guys, their ending is not so good.  Many of the Zola novels I have read end in catastrophe, the deaths of the main characters and even the destruction of the setting, but here the glorious modern department store is bigger than ever, while on the last little store:

… was spread, like a flag planted in a conquered empire, an immense yellow poster, brand new, announcing in two-foot-high letter the great sale at the Ladies’ Paradise.  One might say that the colossus, after its successive growth spurts, taken by shame and repugnance towards the black neighborhood, where it had been born so modestly and which it later swallowed, turned its back, leaving the mud of the narrow streets behind it, presenting its upstart face to the flashy, sunny way of the new Paris.  (Ch. 14, tr. mine)

If only the whole novel were written like this, but my impression, which I hope is not just an artifact of reading it in French, is that Au Bonheur des Dames is less metaphorically inventive than some of the other Zola novels I have read, besides the fact that the main characters are less interesting and the story is minimal.  Yet the reputation of Au Bonheur des Dames has grown ever since it was published, inside France, at least.  Tomorrow I will poke at why.  Perhaps the reason is obvious.

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Christopher Isherwood and Natalia Ginzburg write some fascist-era autofiction - “How monotonous you are! All you do is repeat yourself!”


I mean to write shorter, but I usually don’t.


Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935) and Goodbye to Berlin (1939) by Christopher Isherwood.  Character portraits, just one at novel length in Mr Norris, many in Goodbye, against the background of the Nazi takeover of Germany, background noise but suddenly the only thing that matters.  Charming, funny, elegant, all the nice words that go with a light, even simple, version of the British prose “house style” of the 1920s and 1930s, the most immediately appealing English house style I know.

The atmosphere of the novels is homosexual.  The ethos, even.  Armistead Maupin writes, in the introduction to the New Directions edition, that he was at first frustrated by the passive “camera eye” side of Isherwood – “his own life, particularly his sex life, was a blank” (p. ix), but these are novels where the absences are highly visible.  I mean, if I had read these as a naïve 14-year-old, I would have missed a lot, but not this:

The little American simply couldn’t believe it.  “Men dressed as women? As women, hey?  Do you mean they’re queer?”

“Eventually we’re all queer,” drawled Fritz solemnly, in lugubrious tones…

“You queer, too, hey? demanded the little American, turning suddenly on me.

“Yes,” I said, “very queer indeed.”  (p. 396)


Family Lexicon (1963) by Natalia Ginzburg.  A memoir, a novel, I don’t know.  It’s another book about creeping, and then open, fascism, this time in Turin, beginning as a portrait of Ginzburg’s goofball parents but turning into something else.  A resistance memoir.  “Leone was arrested in a clandestine printer’s shop” (154 of the NYRB edition). 

Curiously, though, the bulk of the novel is described exactly in the title.  Ginzburg catalogues all the strange phrases and inside jokes that every family has, the endless repetitions.

“How I do love cheese,” my mother invariably would say whenever cheese was served.

And my father would say, “How monotonous you are! All you do is repeat yourself!” (29)

Irony there, outstanding irony.  In the book’s extraordinary conclusion, the parents old, the fascists defeated, Ginzburg constructs an extended semi-dialogue consisting of nothing but decades of old stories and lines, all ending with exclamation marks, a high-level babble that only the family members, and the people who read Family Lexicon, can understand.

Jenny McPhee did the translation.  Admirably, she was not afraid of keeping all sorts of Italian obscurities, explaining them in notes.  Readers for some reason often praise a book for not sounding like a translation.  This translation sounds like a translation, thank goodness.


So, two books that are fascinating enough for their historical setting – Isherwood’s, especially, must have seemed like news from the front – but that also have more complex literary conceptions at their core.  And both have terrific characters with big personalities, observed and enjoyed by the narrator, and by me.


Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Pekka Hämäläinen's Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power - theory and practice

Portland has, by my standards, an outstanding public library, meaning they have new books but also old books, even in languages other than English.  The process of moving has not been good for what I will call intellectual activity, but I now have a new library to play with, and my reading has become a little more ambitious. 

And this book needs to get back to the library, so here it is.

Long ago, I wrote a little four-post series on Pekka Hämäläinen's original and surprising The Comanche Empire (2009), in which Hämäläinen conceives of Comanche-occupied territory as a state, a nomad empire, allowing him to apply a great deal of illuminating international relations theory to what at first seems to be sparse evidence.  Much becomes clear.  He finds an interpretive framework that makes sense of a lot of puzzles.

In Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power (2019), he does something similar with the history of the Lakota Sioux.  The differences are, I think, as follows:

First, the new book is much more synthetic than The Comanche Empire, based less on Hämäläinen’s own archival work and more on that of other historians.  Having said that, it is clear from the notes – not the bibliography; there is no separate bibliography – that the last twenty years, and perhaps especially the last ten, have been an exciting period in the history and anthropology of the interior of America.  There must have been plenty of times when Hämäläinen had to tear up some part of his own book as new archeological or documentary results were disseminated.  The work on Sioux sources, especially the complex pictographic winter counts, is crucial.

Second, and related, Lakota America is more of a narrative history and less of a social history than The Comanche Empire, with more “characters” and with much of the methodology and theory moved to the background.  More readers will likely find the book accessible.  Perhaps that is intentional.

I remember Larry McMurtry, in the New York Review of Books, complaining that there were so many books about Custer and the battle of the Little Bighorn that even he, a top collector of books about the American West, had stopped bothering with “Custeriana” (although a few years later he wrote his own Custer book).  One little irony here is that Lakota America becomes, in the last third or so, another Little Bighorn book, even if here, from the Lakota point of view, it is the battle of the Greasy Grass, and the opposing, losing, general, PȟehíŋŋskA (Long Beard), is neither a martyr nor hero.

But it’s an exciting story from many perspectives; what can you do.  The entire history is an exciting story.

Monday, October 11, 2021

In search of the meaning of Maine - a note of Richard Russo's Empire Falls


Recently, I moved to Portland, Maine, and have settled in enough to see if I can write anything coherent.  The last time I moved, eleven years ago, I wrote five posts a week, only resorting to a poetry-quoting post once.  That was a more energetic fellow. 


The photo is from nearby Mackworth Island, taken in September.

Expect to see me reading more books about Maine.  I will try not to harp on their Maineness, of limited interest, even if that is why I am reading them.  Richard Russo’s 2001 novel Empire Falls is eminently Maineish, set in a version of the many Maine mill towns, with the (former) mill owner on one side of the river and the (former) mill employees scrabbling on the other side, the mill itself an empty hulk dominating the town.  Today, the mill has likely been converted into condos or craft breweries or performance space, but not when Russo was writing.

The characters are ordinary people with ordinary lives, except exaggerated for comic effect, like they are drawn with thick outlines, speaking dialogue ready for actors as good as these.  Empire Falls is not as funny as Straight Man (1997), but I thought parts were awfully funny.  Russo is especially good with movement, just getting people in and out of cars and cars on and off sidewalks, that kind of thing.

Near the end, Russo pulls in a Big Social Issue of the Time that seemed to me like a mistake, since it is used primarily to jolt the characters forward in their ordinary-life plot.  I am not convinced Russo has any particular insight into the Big Social Issue, or uses it in a way that gives the novel any extra ethical meaning.  The Pulitzer Prize committee disagreed with me, but I have never understood them.

Russo’s ongoing critique of masculinity, now he has a lot of insight there.  It is not pretty to see, but in his hands it is at least funny, in a wincing kind of way.

I should provide a quotation or two to support some of the above notions, but just about the last thing I did this summer was take any notes.  I would especially like to support that bit about the craft of motion verbs.  Oh well.

I am 90% sure I have already run into Richard Russo, at Print, his – or his daughter’s? – perfect little bookstore, which I have visited once a week.  He was wearing a mask and hat, so I cannot be completely sure, but he had his dog in the store and was advising – ordering? – the manager to stock Inferno, since it’s the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death.

If you see me reading more Russo, or Sarah Orne Jewett, Stephen King, E. B. White, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Brock Clarke, Edwin Arlington Robinson, or Rachel Carson, you will know I am in pursuit of the essence of Maine.  It seems nice so far.  If you come by, let me know.  We can go to Print.