Sunday, January 11, 2009

Au Bonheur des Dames (The Ladies’ Delight), by Emile Zola


As I read this novel by French writer Emile Zola all I could think of was a line I read in former treasurer Peter Costello’s memoirs. In it he said how ‘like most men, I hate shopping’. How ironic that men like to run economies, but not to take part in them as consumers. That’s too feminine I guess; whereas men can measure up the numbers and make abstract theories.

This novel has a unique (as far as I can tell anyway) subject. It details the goings on in a department store, like our Myers or David Jones stores.

Octave Mouret wants to keep expanding his business. He’s a ruthless self-promoter and resorts to all types of methods to keep women entranced and buying stuff from his stores. He’s not only a brilliant businessman, but also a psychologist. He knows what sort of displays and store layouts will keep people buying.

A young provincial girl, Denise Baudu, comes penniless to the big smoke in search of a job. She finds one at The Ladies’ Delight, and puts herself through the worst aspects of the capitalist meat grinder. The other women treat her poorly and she barely makes enough to survive.

Things become desperate for Denise, as she is plunged further and further into penury trying to look after her two siblings. Then, would you believe it, Octave falls in love with Denise, and Denise likewise. Denise’s influence redeems Octave. He scales back the more ruthless aspects of his business practices, and hence capitalism is humanised.

This plot device sounds a bit far fetched, and readers will no doubt find themselves scratching their chins to see if they approve. It kind of worked for me. You can see the probability of it happening. (The introduction tells of how Zola researched the novel, and discovered that two of these department store moguls did indeed fall in love with and marry their female employees.)

I guess what is a bit harder to swallow is the psychological change that overcomes Octave Mouret. He was never a monster to begin with though, more a thoughtless bon vivant, and so his transformation seems (kind of) possible.

The most wonderful thing about this novel is Zola’s undisputed artistry. It’s a real page turner, and you can’t help but be jealous at how Zola can write so effortlessly, with such psychological depth and sympathy for his characters. He can really draw characters and delineate psychological states of mind. And the detail is fabulous.

I’ll be looking forward to reading other Zola books, as this is my first.

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