Monday, January 14, 2008

Au Bonheur des Dames

Since finishing my manuscript for the omnitopia book I've slowed down a bit to enjoy more leisurely reading, a delightful contrast to the fever of rapid page-flipping that were my experiences with books over the past couple of years. In that spirit, I returned to Émile Zola's (1883) Au Bonheur des Dames, determined to enjoy this book at a more proper pace than when I first plumbed its pages. It's a remarkably different encounter, reading a book purely for the pleasure of its evocation of images and ideas, not simply mining it for raw material, and I'm glad I gave Zola a second look.

Au Bonheur des Dames tells the story of Denise Baudu, who makes her way to Paris after being orphaned back home. Seeking employment in her uncle's shop, she discovers that his business, as well as other small firms throughout the city, is being throttled by the emergence of a new kind of department store that gathers all manner of wares under one vast roof. Eschewing the kind of specialization that is the hallmark of the family business, Au Bonheur des Dames is the Wal-Mart of its day. The novel follows the Denise's transformation from gullible, provincial waif to confident and courageous young woman, an evolution marked by her eventual conquest of the heart of the store's owner. While ostensibly concerned with whether Denise can keep her honor and dignity amid the treacherous social environment of the store, Au Bonheur des Dames introduces its readers to the transformation of Paris in the era of Haussmannization.

Students and scholars of literature praise Zola's modern characters and contemporary themes. Yet lovers of the written word can also treasure Zola's dazzling evocation of place, his rich and potent illustrations of a world that gave birth to our own. From this vantage point, I found myself returning again and again to my own efforts at understanding the sites and strategies of contemporary urban life. In this post, let me share some of my favorite passages that brought me back to the omnitopia project, excerpts also worth reading strictly for their own sake:

"The thought of the [tiny shop], narrow and black, made her see this huge store as even greater than it was, gilded it with light, like a whole city, with its monuments, squares and streets, through with it seem impossible that she should ever find her way" (p. 49, all citations from 2001 Penguin edition, translated by Robin Buss).

"Here were Turkey, Arabia, Persia and India: palaces had been emptied, mosques and bazaars ransacked" (p. 87).

"The moment had come for the fearsome afternoon rush, when the super-heated machine led the customers round the floor, squeezing the money from their very flesh . . . One could no longer hear the wheels of the cabs or the slamming of doors. All that was left, above the great hum of the sale, was a sense of the vastness of Paris, a vastness that would supply more and more customers" (p. 107).

"[I]n the fine mist, everything seemed to mingle, so that one could no longer distinguish one department from another" (p. 107).

"In the middle of the half-constructed walls, pierced by empty bays, electric laps cast wide blue beams of blinding light. Two o'clock in the morning struck, then three, then four. And in the tortured sleep of the neighborhood, the building site, made larger by this lunar brightness, took on colossal and fantastic proportions, swarming with dark shadows, with clamorous workmen, their silhouettes gesticulating against the harsh whiteness of the new walls . . . One day, Au Bonheur des Dames would spread its roof across the whole neighborhood" (p. 215).

"Space had been gained everywhere, air and light entered freely, and the public wandered around at ease beneath the bold vaults of the widely spaced trusses. It was a cathedral of modern trade, light yet solid, designed for a congregation of lady customers" (p. 231).

"Outside, the cold winds that carry March showers were blowing, while here in the galleries of Au Bonheur des Dames, the fine weather warmed them with light materials, the flowery shine of pastel shades and the rural delights of summer fashions and parasols . . . 'It's a world in itself' Madame de Boves announced" (p. 238, p. 239).

"It was like the concourse of a railway station, surrounded by the balustrades of the two upper storeys, cut by suspended stairways and crisscrossed with bridges. The iron stairways, in double spirals, formed daring curves with many landings. The iron bridges hung high up in straight lines across the void. And all this cast iron beneath the white light of the glass roof composed an airy architecture of complicated lacework which let the daylight through -- a modern version of a dream palace, a Tower of Babel with storey piled on storey and rooms expanding, opening on vistas of other storeys and other rooms reaching to infinity" (p. 245).

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