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.


  1. I liked Au Bonheur des Dames, though it isn't my favorite Zola. I actually prefer the previous novel Pot-Bouille, which is more of a farce about the inhabitants of a Paris apartment building, including a writer who I suspect is modeled after Zola himself. It was a bit confusing at the beginning because Zola throws a lot of characters at the reader all at once (in retrospect I wish I had kept a chart of how they were all connected!). But once I got into it I loved it and read it only a few days.

  2. A few days, how nice that must be. As long as Bonheur, even with better concentration it would take me five weeks.

    I see, it is more of an apartment building novel, although Mouret's adventures are in the little shops. The petit bourgeois in various forms.

    It sounds like it has more story than Bonheur.

  3. I think this one is well loved because of the unusual happy ending for a book by Zola.

    I had in mind that the department store was described after Le bon marché (I don't know if the name means The Good Deal or The Good Market)
    It is a fascinating book to discover the roots of marketing techniques.
    I should re-read it.

  4. The happy, romantic ending is almost shocking.

    I think you are right, that Le Bon Marché is where Zola did his research. I had trouble finding a vintage photo of Le Bon Marché that was attractive enough.

    In real life, I am loyal to Printemps and their wonderful 8th floor, the food floor. A glass of wine, a little plate of salmon, and a superb view of Paris.

  5. My first comment here in a very long time, so bonjour, bonjour, bonjour. I've read in this Zola novel (different from reading the novel) and feel compelled to throw in a plug for Daniel Pennac's playful rejoinder to Au Bonheur des dames, his very funny work Au Bonheur des ogres.

    I've found Paris department stores to be nearly as glorious as anything else in the city, though each new renovation seems to diminish them a bit - the recent restoration of Samaritaine has all but destroyed its former charm and democratic ambiance. But one can still find marvels in these stores; a 69-year-old French friend swears that the best place in the whole city she's found for picking up men is the basement bricolage at BHV, and that terrace at Printemps is lovely, especially since Samaritaine's fantastic terrace did not survive the renovation except as a narrow sliver of reservation-only outdoor tables for clients of the swank new hotel's indoor bar - built right on top of the former terrace.

  6. I tried a Pennac - not Ogres but the next one in the series - when it was too difficult for me. I hope to revisit someday. Pennac is such an interesting figure.

    One theme that links Zola and Millhauser is that the department store has to be fluid. Better, worse, but anyway it has to keep changing.

    I have a mental list of "free Paris," since Paris can be so expensive - the parks, the museums in the city system - and also, for the non-compulsive shopper, those department stores.

  7. So what other department store novels are there?

  8. This tweet by Adam Roberts, and the accompanying post about a James Gould Cozzens department store novel, contains more examples than I would have thought possible. Only, like, three are by Terry Pratchett.