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[778] The Paradise – Émile Zola

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“She had been obliged to assist to the bitter end at this invincible work of life which requires death as its continual seed. She no longer struggled, she accepted this law of combat . . . she herself had been caught in the wheel-work of the machine.” (Ch. XIII, 393)

Zola’s 1883 novel that chronicles the life and extravagant growth of a fictional department store feels very modern, bearing a striking relevance to our consumerism today. Although it’s a love story, the book is quite a treasure trove for feminists and cultural critics, as it captures the social psyche of French people, women in particular, in their reception to the ambitious capitalistic endeavor of a department store, which drag the women out of their home into the public space.

Doesn’t Paris belong to the women, and don’t the women belong to us. (Ch. XI, 318)

The novel starts out conventionally enough, with a country girl’s arrival in Paris at the age of 20, with two younger brothers in tow. Denise Baudu’s parents are dead; she hopes her uncle, a draper, would provide work for her. But his business, as well as other small shops, have suffered tremendously from the opening of a large store across the street, the Ladies’ Paradise, which continues to expand and drive others out of business by cutting down prices. Denise accepts a probational, commission-only position as a saleswoman in the dress department, where for months other girls gang up to deprive her of sales, and ridicule her for her mild, submissive manner, and her lack of sophistication.

As one might have imagined, Denise’s career in Ladies’ Paradise is one from hell. It’s your Cinderella story set in retails. Life and trade, economic disaster and triumph teem about her. As small shops’ attempt to compete with the ever-expanding department store proves a dismal failure, Octave Mouret’s emporium has so captured the imagination of Parisian women that that take up the place by a storm, camping there as if they are in a conquered country. They even believe Mouret’s goods are more superior. To shop at Ladies’ Paradise has become the quo status. Amid all the commercial competition, the treachery and rivalry of saleswomen, the schemes of salesmen to oust their boss, Denise remains true to her values.

The Paradise is a rich tapestry of Parisian life in a period when the idea of a department store is a far-fetched idea that the banks are not willing to invest. There’s also the mandatory upstairs-downstairs struggle through the newcomer Denise, who against all odds manages to conquer the entire staff with her tenderness and modesty. In lavish detail and myopic vision Zola captures the greedy customers, the gossiping staff, and the vain obsession with image, fashion, and gratification.

438 pp. Penguin. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Reading “The Ladies’ Paradise”

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“The saleswoman looked at her without replying, with an air of disdain for her shabby dress, then turning to one of her friends, a short girl with a sickly white skin and an innocent and disgusted appearance, …” (Ch. II, p.50)

The book depicts the coming of Paris department store in the 1860s. The ambitious man is one Octave Mouret who, poised for commercial recklessness, wants to open an emporium of women at the expense of small businesses. It’s like the big box stores in the United States eating up all the local small shops by lowering the prices. He also exploits the desire that his luxuriantly displayed merchandise arouses in the ladies who shop, and the aspirations of the young female assistants he employs.

It reads like an allegory backed by strong social commentary. Denise is the poverty-stricken orphan girl with two younger brothers in tow. She toiled and struggled, chanced upon employment at Ladies’ Paradise, where she enchanted Mouret with her loveliness. This book, with frequent elaborate descriptions of store displays, explores the viperous world of ladies’ retail and the nascent capitalist machine.

[766] Candide – Voltaire

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” If this is the best of all possible worlds, what are the others like?” (Ch. VI, p.29)

Ever since 1759, when Voltaire wrote Candide in ridicule of the notion that this is the best of all possible worlds, this has been a gayer place for readers. The book has enjoyed a great success and scandal. The ridicule of the Catholic Church has rendered it banned in France and Spain. Yet Candide has not aged. Despite the change in circumstances, Candide is timeless, even more relevant today in its lambasting the vices of men. It is a fiercely relentless attack of men’s vices, unleashing against the evils of religions fanaticism, war, colonialism, slavery, avarice, and mass atrocities.

The villainy of mankind presented itself to his mind in all its deformity, and in his mind dwelt only on gloomy thoughts. (Ch. XIX, p.79)

Candide is a philosophical tale; a fast-moving and entertaining story combining adventures and voyages with an underlying moral theme. It’s the story of Candide, illegitimate nephew of a German baron, who catches Candide kissing his daughter, Cunégonde, and expels Candide from the castle. He is then forced to conscript into the Bulgarian army from which he later escapes and travels to Holland. Mistaken that Cunégonde had perished with her family when the Bulgars ravished the castle, he sails off to Portugal, where, upon, his arrival, is hit by an earthquake. To prevent future earthquake, the local church conducts a ceremony in which humans are burned as sacrifices. From there Candide travels across the Atlantic to Argentina, Paraguay, and back to Europe by way of France, and finally in Italy and Turkey. His voyage is a chain of shocking events that open the eyes of the gullible young man, who has been instructed in “optimism” by his master, Dr. Pangloss, whose credo that this is “the best of all possible worlds” has been humorously but effectively shredded by the story’s end.

In short, this world is nothing but one continuous scene of civil war. (Ch. XXII, p.93)

The moral lesson is life is made bearable by useful activity rather than by idle theorizing. Voltaire condemns this rife complacency. The very folly of optimism is that the existence of any evil in the world would have been a sign that God is either not entirely good or all-powerful. The variety of horrors that Candide witnesses (and experiences) only points to the cruelty and folly of humanity. What makes the book a scandal is Voltaire’s satirizing of organized religion by means of a series of corrupt, hypocritical religious leaders who appear throughout the novel. They steal, violate celibacy, perpetrate the vow to poverty, and carry out inhumane campaigns of religious oppression. Though Voltaire elaborates on these sins, he does not condemn the everyday religious believer. As terrible as the oppression and poverty that plague the poor and powerless may be, it’s clear that money, and the power that goes with it, is the root of evil. This book is an intelligent satire that remains as fresh and pertinent today as when it was written in the 18th century.

146 pp. Barnes & Noble Classic. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Georges Perec

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The booksellers at Shakespeare & Company in Paris recommends Life: A User’s Manual by Georges Perec and introduces me to this amazing author. Georges Perec died in 1982 at the age of 46, leaving behind a dozen books and a brilliant reputation. In the words of Italo Calvino, he was “one of the most singular literary personalities in the world, a writer who resembled absolutely no one else.”

Life: A User’s Manual is constructed in the manner of a vast jigsaw puzzle. In it, Perec takes a single apartment building in Paris and uses 99 short chapters (along with a preamble and an epilogue) to give a meticulous description of each and every room as well as the life stories of all the inhabitants, both past and present. What emerges is a series of self-contained but interconnecting stories. They are all briskly told, and they run the gamut from the bizarre to the realistic. There are tales of murder and revenge, tales of intellectual obsessions, humorous tales of social satire and (almost unexpectedly) a number of stories of great psychological penetration. For the most part, Perec’s microcosm is peopled with a motley assortment of oddballs, impassioned collectors, antiquarians, miniaturists and half-baked scholars.

[666] Swann’s Way – Marcel Proust

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” The past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach of intellect, in some material object (in the sensation which that material object will give us), which we do not suspect. And as for that object, it depends on chance whether we came upon it or not before ourselves must die. ” (Overture, p.46)

Swann’s Way is a novel of the rediscovery of experience through memory, of desire and disillusionment. It has a story, characters, and a clear setting in time and place, but Proust is less concerned with these matters than with dramatizing a metaphysical system. Therefore, describing Proust and his work in terms of plot alone does no justice to the rich reflections, counter-reflections, digressions and musings that delve into the mundane details and nuances of life. As the novel begins, the narrator, a man apparently in early middle age, describes sleepless nights and fragmentary dreams in which bits of his past drift through his consciousness.

Swann’s Way tells two related stories, the first of which revolves around Marcel, a younger version of the narrator, and his experiences in, and memories of, the French town of Combray, where his bed-ridden aunt and grandparents live in a comfortable burgeois household. The young Marcel is nervous about sleeping alone, and dreads about his family’s entertaining dinner guests, because he will be deprived of his mother’s company and good-night kiss. Among the guests is Charles Swann, who has frittered away his time in social life and inconsequential love affairs, using his knowledge of art to advise society ladies on paintings and furniture rather than to complete his study of Verneer of Delft. Marcel’s family treats Swann with slight unkindness when he marries his former mistress for the sake of his child. So the novel transports back 15 years to relate the second story, that of the love affair between Swann and Odette.

The life of Swann’s love, the fidelity of his jealousy, were formed out of death, of infidelity, of innumerable desires, innumerable doubts, all of which had Odette for their object . . . But the presence of Odette continued to sow in Swann’s heart alternate seeds of love and suspicion. (Swann in Love, p.391)

Odette is a woman with an invented name and a murky past. She is a guest of an ambitious couple, Verdurins, who have created a salon where they tyrannize a group of obscure people who are both envious and critical of high society. He quickly falls in love with her, and his love becomes an infatuation, to the extent that he’s jealous of her not being exclusively subordinated to him. His obsession runs so deep that he ignores the truth of their failed romance until there is no turning back: he must suffer the tormenting pangs of unrequited love. One of Swann’s closest friends, Charlus, tries to turn Odette back toward Swann that ends up sending him an anonymous letter about Odette’s history of infidelity.

Sometimes the fragment of landscape thus transported into the present will detach itself in such isolation from all associations that it floats uncertainly upon my mind, like a flowering isle of Delos, and i am unable to say from what place, from what time—perhaps, quite simply, from which of my dreams—it comes. (Combray, p.194)

Swann’s Way on the surface is a bitter love story, but at the core, as the French title of the larger work suggests, is the narrator’s mental and moral activity in search of the meaning of his experience in time. The hero is neither Marcel nor Swann, but time itself. Proust jettisons completely the methods of the conventional novelist. For him, being is not a chronological succession of events. Being is the complete past, which is evocable by memory; but this memory is not under our control. We might not understand ourselves at any given moment, nor are we merely the static sum of all the moments we have lived—because we are continually reliving them. Living memories of the past return with stunning immediacy, but at random. The structure of the novel evokes an image of the labyrinth of consciousness, which is explored in a style almost as complex and ramified as the mind itself. The style is one such that narrative adopts an ambiguous temporality, a fluid medium in which all times mingle without chronology. Time turns and twists upon itself like a snake, past and present merge, motifs and themes are recalled and redeveloped and answer each other in echo and counterpoint. Proust’s long, multi-clause sentences also force reader to slow down, to read and to re-read, to grasp every word, to tap into the rhythm of an emotional and psychological experience. This tension that pushes the sentence toward its continually deferred conclusion is heightened to almost a painful but intriguing degree. Proust is meant to be savored.

466 pp. Translated by C.K. Scott Moncrieff. Barnes & Noble Classics. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[654] The Novel Bookstore – Laurence Cossé

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” Van and Francesca talked about the issue for a long time. Francesca would have lied, to a greater or lesser degree, for the public image of the store to be: at The Good Novel, you don’t go looking for books that everyone is talking about. ” (Part II, 20, p.147)

Mystery abounds in the opening pages of The Novel Bookstore: three people are given a glimpse of death but all survived their ordeal. A devotee of Stendhal was kidnapped and left for dead in a forest. An older man of unbreakable habits is threatened and taunted by two men during his morning walk. A mother who spends much of her time shuttling children skidded of the road on a twisty mountain road. These victims are ordinary people who share a common link: they are anonymous members of an eight-person committee at The Good Novel, an elitist bookstore in Paris, that sells books the owners hold in high esteem.

We want splendid books, books that immerse us in the splendor of reality and keep us there; books that prove to us that love is at work in the world next to evil, right up against it, at times indistinctly, and that it always will be, just the way that suffering will always ravage hearts. We want great novels. (Part III, 36, p.279)

The identities of the committee members are known only to Francesca and Ivan, the unlikely business partners of a unique Parisian bookstore, The Good Novel, that sells only the best fiction—high-brow literature, suggested and compiled by the said committee, considered superior to the usual bestseller-list foderol. Despite the immediate success, the bookstore’s provocative stance of offering nothing but “great” literature unleashes a tide of hatred. Detractors publish diatribes accusing its proprietors and denizens of snobbery and elitism.

Cossé devotes many pages to the intricate selection process and preservation of secrecy. Physical assault of the committee members quickens the pace of the book. It becomes obvious that the organized campaign makes use of both propaganda and business tactics. Newspaper editorials attack The Good Novel, the internet condemns it, armies of the night cover Paris with posters descrying their exclusionary practice, and rival bookstores open across the street.

While the mystery of assaults stalls and dissipates without satisfactory resolution, it is, however, incidental to the larger themes of what superlative work in the literary sphere constitutes. The struggle of this fictional literary idyll invokes the debate of reading what gives pleasure vs. reading what one’s supposed to read. Manifested also in the plight is a bigger, more encroaching issue that concerns the entire book industry: what place is there for high-brow, highly lyrical and often difficult literature in a consumerism-oriented, mercenary world? Although the ending falls flat, the book is a creative endeavor that compels readers to consider their own literary preferences more consciously.

416 pp. Europa Editions (2010). Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Les Misérables

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At 202 pages, I’m making good progress on Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy. The book, which unveils slowly but with a steady build, represents a massive portrayal of the society whose values both shape Clyde’s tawdry ambitions and seal his fate. In light of this rich tapestry of social psyche, my spirit soars and wants to read more books like Dreiser’s. Les Misérables is next. Examining the nature of law and grace, the novel elaborates upon the history of France, the architecture and urban design of Paris, politics, moral philosophy, anti-monarchism, justice, religion, and the types and nature of romantic and familial love. It’s more than an epic story.

The Necklace – Guy de Maupassant

She was one of those pretty and charming girls born, as though fate had blundered over her, into a family of artisans. She had no marriage portion, no expectations, no means of getting known, understood, loved, and wedded by a man of wealth and distinction; and she let herself be married off to a little clerk in the Ministry of Education.

I first read The Necklace for my 9th-grade World Literature class. It certainly made a lasting impression. Guy de Maupassant infuses this short work with such heartache. The whip-crack ending, and that the graduating class adopted it and made into a play in my senior year, perpetuate it in my memory.

She had no clothes, no jewels, nothing. And these were the only things she loved; she felt that she was made for them.

A vain woman who incessantly complains about her poverty always makes the perfect subject of a drama. Madame Loisel is such a woman: she’s got the beauty, grace, and charm that put the slum girl on a level with the highest lady in the land. She is embittered that fate has blundered over her, for she is born for luxury and delicacy.

‘Wear flowers,’ he said. ‘They’re very smart at this time of the year. For ten francs you could get two or three gorgeous roses.’

In describing Mathilde Loisel’s reaction to her husband—that she refuses to humiliate herself at the upcoming party, Maupassant expertly portrays Mathilde as a woman who is disgusted that she would have to wear an old dress and no jewelry to the ball. In doing so, Maupassant actually raises the level of disgust from his reader towards this character. I feel no sympathy for her, although pity for her husband. I almost want some tragedy to befall this ungrateful woman to teach her a lesson. It does! She is miserable not because she’s poor, but because she is ungrateful for what she has. In her vain quest for materialism Mathilde does end up losing the good lifestyle she and her husband share before the ball. Mathilde must live a life of toil and sacrifice to pay off the debt for the necklace she bought to replace the lost one that she wore at the party. Her former life is a luxury compared a decade of poverty as penance for her stolen night of pleasure at the party. Also ironic is that Mathilde’s beauty, which had been her only valued asset, withers as a result of her labor for the necklace.

I haven’t read this story for years, only recently reminded of it when I downloaded for free on my Kindle. Bits and fragments of the story linger in my head over the years like air captured in the symphony hall immediately after the end of a piece. To re-read it is to re-live the vivid memory of the play some twenty years ago. I remember the girl who played Mathide Loisel broke down in hysterical tears in the scene where she lost the necklace. That was so funny and also a served as a gesture of mocking her character’s vanity. Hopefully I will see the cast members in the upcoming 20th year high-school reunion. Now I have set my heart on reading the the volume of Guy de Maupassant’s short stories.

[230] The Elegance of the Hedgehog – Muriel Barbery

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“Indeed, what constitutes life? Day after day, we put up the brave struggle to play our role in this phantom comedy. We are good primates, so we spend most of our time maintaining and defending our territory, so that it will protect and gratify us; climbing—or trying not to slide down—” [97]

The highly educated Renée Michel has been a concierge in Paris for twenty-seven years. As befit to her social position as a concierge, Renée chooses to remain discreet for fear of giving herself airs. The self-taught scholar subjects herself in a voracious pursuits in philosophy, music, art and Japanese culture. Owned up to the social prejudices that define her, Renée has long recognized that to be poor, ugly, moreover, intelligent condemns one in the society. Even though intelligence is no longer seems as adequate compensation for ugliness and poverty, she takes pride in her mind, sound and unrivaled. With cold and distant eye she scrutinizes lives of her building’s tenants.

Some people are incapable of perceiving in the object of their contemplation the very thing that gives it its intrinsic life and breath, and they spend their entire lives conversing about mankind as if they were robots, and about things as though they have no soul and must be reduced to what can be said about them— [34]

Asymmetrical in age, condition, and circumstances is Paloma Josse, a twelve-year-old daughter of a parliament member who has the brain of a college senior. Raised in a very privileged background, the precocious and perspicacious girl has come to terms with life’s futility. To prevent herself from making the same inevitable mistake that most adults have made, Paloma has decided to terminate her life on her thirteenth birthday, sparing herself a life of absurdity and emptiness. Until then she will continue hiding her genius behind a mask of mediocrity.

The mystery remains intact, but all your available energy has long ago been wasted on stupid things. All that’s left is to anesthetize yourself by trying to hide the fact that you can’t find any meaning in your life, and then, the better to convince yourself, you deceive your own children. [22]

Filled with caustic humor and philosophical discourses, The Elegance of the Hedgehog is an enjoyable read. The biting humor and wittiness remind me of The Uncommon Reader. With the simple plot (although it doesn’t seem to be plot-driven at the beginning) and sudden denouement the book truly mobilizes the consciousness of literature. As fictitious as it imposes to be, literature roots in the truth of our day-to-day experience. The one thing that separates literature from reality is the ability of literature to make the fulfillment of our essential duties (in life) more bearable. Both in and out of the novel, this purpose is being served. Paloma and Renée both hide their true and finest qualities, withdrawing from the world that they feel has no place on them. But ironically they come to terms with their kindred souls through a total stranger, a retired Japanese businessman who moves into the building. How these three individuals cross paths and alter the course of their lives are serendipitous.

325 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss] Could Muriel Barbery have redeemed the name of French literature?