Kazuo in Kafka Country

 

© Faber & Faber

 

For me, one thing that’s suffered due to the Covid-19 pandemic has been my reading.  Before the appearance of the virus, on average, I was able to get through one book a week.  However, since the pandemic forced some lifestyle changes – starting with two months of strict lockdown, and then a period with more freedom but limitations on my social life and ability to travel, and also a new working life where I have to do everything on a laptop at home with the result that I sometimes don’t go outside for three days at a time – my reading ability has diminished and it commonly takes me twice or three times as long to read a book now.  I suppose it’s something to do with my brain receiving less stimulation than it did in the old days.  In the current situation, my brain has grown lethargic, its processing muscles have atrophied, and reading has become a struggle for it.

 

That said, even back before anyone had heard of Covid-19, I think I would have found the book I’ve just finished reading, Kazuo Ishiguro’s 1995 novel The Unconsoled, hard going.

 

I’d previously read only three of Ishiguro’s novels – 1986’s An Artist of the Floating World, 1989’s The Remains of the Day and 2005’s Never Let Me Go – but I’d enjoyed them and was looking forward to reading The Unconsoled when someone recently bought it for me as a present.  It tells the story of a world-famous pianist called Ryder who arrives in an unnamed city in the Germanic part of Europe a few days before he’s scheduled to top the bill of a concert there.  It gradually transpires that this concert has much invested in it.  It’s supposed to mark the rehabilitation of a local composer called Brodsky who, after many years as a chronic alcoholic, appears to be on the mend.  Brodsky occupies a talismanic position not just for the city’s artistic community but for the city as the whole, and the citizens whom Ryder encounters assume that Brodsky’s success or failure at the concert will lead to the city’s future well-being or decline.

 

This basic scenario is curious, then, but more curious still is what happens to Ryder after he books into his hotel in the city.  For he finds himself deep in the heart of what can only be described as Kafka Country.  Yes, Ishiguro drops his main character into a labyrinth of improbable confusion and frustration, like those that feature in the pages of the great Czech author’s The Trial (1925) and The Castle (1926).

 

Firstly, people he’s only just been introduced to pour out their problems to him and beg him for help – starting with Gustav, the hotel’s elderly porter, who believes that Ryder can somehow engineer a reconciliation between him, his estranged daughter Sophie and his grandson Boris.  Also requiring Ryder’s assistance is the hotel manager Hoffman (who thinks Ryder can help thaw the icy relationship between him and his wife) and Hoffman’s son Stephan (who wants to enlist Ryder’s aid in winning his parents’ respect).  Plus Ryder is soon being pestered by various city dignitaries in a panic about what Brodsky might do at the forthcoming concert, and by local journalists who for some mysterious reason want him to do a photo-shoot next to a controversial monument on the city’s outskirts, and by an embittered musician called Christof, whose fortunes have begun to wane as those of the now-teetotal Brodsky have begun to wax again.

 

Ryder agrees to help these many people out and soon ends up with a hectic pre-concert schedule.  But – and here’s the Kafka-esque part – he rarely manages to get from one appointment to another without being waylaid by somebody else.  The plot is a series of resolutions by Ryder to assist Person A by going to Place B, only to encounter Person C and get diverted to Place D.

 

From asianews.it

 

The laws of physics also conspire against Ryder.  Distances unaccountably expand so that addresses and buildings that seem only minutes away become harder and harder to get to.  But occasionally they contract too, so that function halls and restaurants in remote parts of the city turn out at the last moment to handily adjoin the very hotel Ryder is staying in.  Further weirdness occurs when Ryder acquires a temporary omniscience and finds himself eavesdropping on conversations that are happening rooms away from him or witnessing events that happened in his new acquaintances’ distant pasts.

 

To make things more confusing, it’s not just the physical universe that’s collapsing around Ryder.  His internal universe seems to be doing the same.  Improbably, as he beetles about the city, he keeps encountering people he once knew during his childhood and youth in England.  Even though he’s only just met Sophie and Boris, he somehow simultaneously seems to have known them for years, to the point where Sophie is his long-term partner and Boris his son.  And his elderly and ailing parents have supposed arrived somewhere in the city, with the intention of watching him perform for the first time.  But although he keeps hearing reports of his parents, he never quite manages to catch up with them.

 

So what is going on?  I wondered if it was all happening in Ryder’s dazed mind and Ishiguro was trying to create a nightmarish satire on modern celebrity.  Ryder, in other words, has gone mad whilst constantly having to fight his way through throngs of obsequious yes-men and hangers-on, all determined to exploit his fame in different ways.  However, I don’t think it’s a spoiler with this type of novel to warn that you may not have got the answers by the end of it.

 

Incidentally, it’s interesting that The Unconsoled appeared in 1995, just before the Internet took off and just before the carrying of mobile phones became de rigueur for everyone.  I can only imagine what a tangled plot The Unconsoled would have had if it’d been written a few years later, with the beleaguered Ryder also being assailed by phone calls, texts, emails and WhatsApp messages as well.

 

I’m a fan of the works of Franz Kafka and there are plenty of other books I admire that could be described as Kafka-esque.  Alasdair Gray’s 1980 classic Lanark is one.  But what makes The Unconsoled such a slog is that Ishiguro appears to have no ‘edit’ function when it comes to the dialogue.  Or more accurately, the monologues, because the book has an endless succession of them.  People approach Ryder, ostensibly to flatter and fawn over him, but really to unburden their problems on him, which they do in screeds of repetitive and obsessive blather.  It soon got to the point where, whenever a new character appeared, I’d shudder and check out the pages ahead to find out how long the inevitable, pleading soliloquy would go on for.  New York might be the City That Never Sleeps, but the anonymous city here is the City That Never Shuts Up.

 

Of course, this incessant, unstoppable prattling adds to the Kafka-esque quality of the situation enveloping Ryder.  But it isn’t much fun to read, especially when the novel clocks in at 535 pages.  That’s an awful lot of prattling to get through.

 

If Ishiguro had made The Unconsoled half its published length, he’d have created a novel with the same uncomfortable, disorientating qualities, but one that would have been far less of a chore to read.

 

Incidentally, I’ve just checked out the most recent Penguin editions of Kafka’s The Trial and The Castle and found that they run to 208 and 320 pages respectively.  Would they have had the same impact if Kafka had added an extra 200 or 300 pages to them?  Or would this have diminished their effectiveness through overkill?  I suspect the latter.  As it stands, The Unconsoled doesn’t feel so much like a book influenced by The Trial as a book that’s just, well, a trial.

 

© Penguin Books

Ray of light

 

© Alan Light

 

I’ve just realised that today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of the stupendous American writer Ray Bradbury, who died in 2012.  So, in recognition of the great man’s centenary, here is a slightly revised version of what I wrote on this blog eight years ago when I heard of his passing.

 

The death a few days ago of American writer Ray Bradbury drew tributes, to both the man and his remarkable fiction, from everybody from Barack Obama to Stephen King.  It seems a bit pointless for the author of a lowly and obscure blog like Blood and Porridge to say more about Bradbury and his oeuvre on top of what’s been said already.  But of course, I’m going to say it anyway.

 

Bradbury I would definitely classify among the top ten writers, and quite possibly among the top five, to have most influenced me – not just as a writer (or an attempted one) but in my whole outlook.  Only last weekend, I was having lunch with a colleague and our conversation somehow got around to what our favourite flowers were.  Promptly and automatically, I quipped, “Dandelions, because Ray Bradbury wrote a book about them.”  This indicates how deeply the venerable author of Dandelion Wine (1957), The October Country (1955), Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962), Fahrenheit 451 (1953), The Illustrated Man (1951), The Small Assassin (1962) and so on had penetrated my psyche.

 

Unfortunately, in the obituaries written about Bradbury during the week, several things were said that I’d regard as misconceptions.  Here are three such misconceptions and my responses to them.

 

Misconception number 1: Ray Bradbury, science fiction writer…

William Shakespeare featured a ghost in Hamlet and three witches in Macbeth, but that didn’t make him a horror writer.  Similarly, Bradbury’s stories contained the odd dystopian future, the odd adventure set on Mars or Venus, and the odd rocket-ship, but that didn’t mean he was a writer of science fiction – certainly not if you define the term using proper ‘science’, because Bradbury plainly didn’t give a hoot about making his settings and plot devices in any way scientifically feasible.  His dystopian futures and alien planets might have been fairy kingdoms where he could let his imagination off its leash and his rocket-ships might have been magical spells that transported his characters to those places.

 

In fact, his supposed science fiction from the 1940s and 1950s has dated far less than that written by his peers, many of whom had engineering or scientific backgrounds and tried to restrict their plots to what the science of the time deemed possible.

 

Two of his most famous works, Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles, are often cited as key works in science fiction literature, and they do have a plethora of sci-fi trimmings, like mind-controlling totalitarian regimes, populations of citizens kept passive by drugs, wall-sized TV screens, space colonies, alien civilisations, robots.  But I actually find them among his less interesting works.   It’s telling that the most evocative moment for me in The Martian Chronicles comes in the final segment, The Million-Year Picnic, when the human father introduces his family to the Martians by pointing into a canal.  Looking down, they see their reflections in the water – an echo of the famous remark by J.G. Ballard, another great writer who got pigeonholed as a practitioner of science fiction, that the only truly alien world is our own one.

 

I much preferred it when Bradbury threw scientific caution to the wind and just got on with things – never more so than in his short story The Kilimanjaro Device (1965), where the hero travels back in time to prevent Ernest Hemingway from committing suicide.  To do this, he employs a time machine that’s actually a truck.

 

© Panther Books

 

Misconception number 2: Ray Bradbury, whose sentimental, nostalgic stories recalled his 1920s and 30s boyhood…

There was obviously a lot of sentimentality and nostalgia in Bradbury’s stories, many of which seemed to be set in small mid-western towns with neatly trimmed lawns and white picket fences and porches where people sat in the evenings and courteously hailed their neighbours as they strolled past on the street – and occasionally the tone of these stories threatened to tip over into twee-ness.  But it would be unfair to dismiss him as a literary Walt Disney because on closer inspection you’ll find a great deal of darkness lurking around those lawns, picket fences and porches.  And incidentally, many of Disney’s cinematic visions contain more darkness than first meets the eye too.

 

Take, for instance, the small town in Bradbury’s short story The Handler (1947) where the inhabitants mock and belittle the local undertaker – who secretly gets his revenge on them after they die, by burying them in gruesome conditions that match the foibles they had when they were alive.  He fills the veins of the town drunkard with alcohol rather than embalming fluid and stuffs the corpses of a couple of inveterate chatterboxes into the same coffin.   Or the fate of the nagging wife in another short story, The Jar (1947), who is not amused when her simple-minded farmer husband buys the titular vessel at a carnival because it has something strange and indescribable and yet fascinating floating inside it.  The husband eventually snaps at her nagging and what ends up floating inside the jar at the story’s close is not what was inside it at the beginning.  Even Bradbury’s rosiest evocation of his childhood, Dandelion Wine, contains a serial killer among its pages.

 

Perhaps the darkness in many of Bradbury’s stories eludes readers because he imbues his characters, even the very worst ones, with an ordinariness and even innocence.  They’re not the twisted psychopaths that stalk the pages of modern horror fiction.  Rather, they’re believably everyday characters who, somewhere along the line, often through gullibility or unfortunate circumstances, take the wrong turn, with grisly consequences.  Yet the innocence of those characters serves only to make the stories more disturbing.

 

© Panther Books

 

Misconception number 3: Ray Bradbury, with his unique writing style…

And yes, Bradbury was a stylist, but it does him an injustice to imply that that was all there was to his writing.  In fact, his stories would have counted for nothing if there hadn’t been ideas, brilliant ideas, propelling them along while his prose-style brought them vividly to life.

 

In fact, his work contains hundreds of lovely notions and sparks and fancies.  For example, there’s the short story A Season of Calm Weather (1957), where Pablo Picasso takes a walk along a beach in southern France, then stops and uses a stick to spontaneously draw a masterpiece in the sand – much to the delight of an art-lover who watches the creation of this masterpiece from a distance.  However, the art-lover’s delight turns to agony after Picasso walks away again and the tide starts to creep in…  Or there’s the vignette The Foghorn (1951), where the baleful horn sounding from a lighthouse gets answered by a roar out in the mist, which proves to be a last surviving dinosaur mistaking the horn for a mating call.   Or the short story The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit (1958), where a group of poor Mexican lads of similar build and height pool their money and buy an expensive white suit that they believe will improve their chances with the ladies.  Then, however, they have to figure out how they’re going to share the suit and keep it clean…

 

Even reading those stories when I was 13 or 14,  an age when I was trying my hand at writing myself, I found myself subconsciously cursing Bradbury.  I knew these were all wonderful story ideas but the old bugger had thought of them first.

 

At the time of his passing Bradbury was 91, so he certainly enjoyed a good innings.  Mind you, he’d lived for so long and his fans had become so used to him being around that I’d begun to wonder if he was like a character in one of his stories – someone with so much imagination, exuberance and enthusiasm for life that he’d managed to transcend such things as ageing, mortality and death.  I had a notion that he’d be around forever, kept going by the joie de vivre that was so apparent in his fiction.  But life, alas, is never as magical as it is in a Ray Bradbury story.

 

© Panther Books

Detours into dystopia

 

© Polaris Productions / Hawk Films / Warner Bros.

 

The world is in a dystopian condition at the moment.  It’s being ravaged by a deadly virus that’s especially rampant in countries run by authoritarian, anti-science, right-wing clowns like Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro (and not forgetting the UK’s own right-wing pipsqueak Boris Johnson).  Meanwhile, propelled by manmade climate change, temperatures continue their remorseless rise.  Much of Australia was in flames at the start of this year while the recent record-breaking heat in the Arctic Circle indicates that ecological catastrophe could be bearing down on us rather sooner than we’d expected.

 

I feel glad that I’m a big fan of dystopian fiction.  I’ve read so many books set in dystopian futures over the decades that now, when I actually find myself living in the dystopia of 2020, I don’t feel in the least bit surprised.  None of this came as a nasty shock for me.

 

I’ve also been thinking about dystopian fiction recently because I’m currently halfway through Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police (1994), which as its title suggests takes place in an authoritarian society where memory itself is policed.  Gradually, everyday items like flowers, perfume and photographs are deleted physically, from people’s everyday existences, and mentally, from their memories.  As the world loses its precious details and becomes drabber and greyer, the body enforcing these deletions, the Memory Police of the title, becomes ever-more oppressive.  I don’t know if Ogawa will manage to keep this premise interesting for the novel’s full 274 pages, but so far I’ve been impressed.

 

I’ve thought about it too because of the death last month of French author Jean Raspail, known for his apocalyptic novel The Camp of the Saints (1973).  I haven’t read Camp and don’t intend to, because from all accounts it’s the nightmare fantasy of an ultra-right-wing, ultra-Catholic, ultra-privileged white French male and is a bucket of racist slime.  Let me quote from its synopsis on Wikipedia.  Camp depicts France being swamped by a tidal wave of immigrants from India, who have names like ‘the turd eater’, have ‘monstrously deformed’ children, indulge in public fornication, are ‘filthy’ and ‘brutish’ and ‘flout laws, do not produce and murder French citizens’.  They’re aided and abetted in their takeover of France by lefty aid workers, journalists, politicians, ‘charities, rock stars and major churches’.   Needless to say, the book is much admired by the likes of Steve Bannon and Marine Le Pen.  I only hope that, before he croaked, Raspail took a look at the rankings of the world’s strongest economies.  Because he would find that India, source of his racistly sub-human bogeymen in Camp, is now in fifth place, which is two places above his precious France.    Maybe one day an Indian author will write a reply to Camp, in which an affluent India is invaded by hordes of starving, third-world Frenchmen.

 

Anyway, all this has set me thinking.  If I had to name my favourite dystopian novels, what would they be?

 

© Penguin Books

 

I’d better start by defining my terms.  By dystopian fiction I mean a story set in a society that’s gone seriously off the rails, either because of hellish political oppression of some sort, or because of a natural or man-made cataclysm that’s turned life into a scramble for survival.  It has to be set at least a little way into the future, not in the present.  And there’s the issue of location.  The horribleness described in a proper dystopian story, for me, has to be widespread, if not global.  Therefore, books like William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies (1954) or J.G. Ballard’s High Rise (1975), where the societal breakdown takes place respectively on an island and in a tower block, don’t qualify because they’re too localised in scale.

 

I will also disqualify novels where the setting for the story is pretty grim, but that’s all the dystopian element is – a setting, a backdrop against which the plot takes place.  We gets glimpses of bad stuff in the background, but we’re more interested in the narrative and in the psychology of the characters.  So for that reason I will exclude William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968).  In a proper dystopian story, the world is in an awful state and that state has to be at the forefront, so vivid that it becomes an important character itself in the story, if not the most important character.

 

And I will leave out novels where, yes, present-day society has met its nemesis and collapsed, presumably bloodily and destructively, but where the narratives take place so far in the future that they feel like fantasy or fairy stories.  The settings are so distant and fantastical that there’s little or no link with our own world, and the reader isn’t disturbed by the thought of what happened to civilisation between now and then.  So that means H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1895) and Brian Aldiss’s Hothouse (1962) are both out.

 

I’ve seen lists of dystopian novels that include ones set in alternative universes, like Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (1962) or Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005).  But I’m excluding them too because, for me, a properly effective dystopian novel has to take place in a universe that’s recognisably our own one.  The thought, “This could happen to me or to my children, grandchildren or descendants” has to be prominent in the reader’s mind.

 

Finally, I’ve left out Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 (2017) because, although it’s set in a future New York that’s largely underwater thanks to global warming, and although it impressed me with its scale and ambition, I found it a bit too hopeful to qualify.  To hit the required nerve, dystopian fiction has to be depressing and pessimistic.  There’s no room on my list for nice dystopian fiction.  Sorry, Kim.

 

© Vintage Books

 

Right.  I’ve just disqualified nine or ten commonly cited classics of dystopian fiction.  Is there anything left to go on my list?  Well, actually, there is.  I’d have liked to present an alliteration-friendly number of titles, such as a ‘top ten’ or a ‘dystopian dozen’ or a ‘first fifteen’, but I’ve ended up with sixteen.  These are:

 

Greybeard (1964) by Brian Aldiss.

The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) by Margaret Atwood.

Oryx and Crake (2003) by Margaret Atwood.

The Drowned World by (1962) J.G. Ballard.

Fahrenheit 451 (1953) by Ray Bradbury.

A Clockwork Orange (1962) by Anthony Burgess.

The Death of Grass (1956) by John Christopher.

Make Room!  Make Room! (1966) by Harry Harrison.

Brave New World (1932) by Aldous Huxley.

Memoirs of a Survivor (1974) by Doris Lessing

The Iron Heel (1907) by Jack London.

I am Legend (1954) by Richard Matheson.

The Road (2006) by Cormac McCarthy.

1984 (1949) by George Orwell.

Fugue for a Darkening Island (1972) by Christopher Priest.

Day of the Triffids by (1951) John Wyndham.

 

A few books that are regarded as classics of dystopian writing aren’t on the list because, simply, I haven’t read them yet.  They include P.D. James’s Children of Men (1992), about a near-future world where mass sterility means that no children are being born and society is destabilising as the population ages.  A similarly-themed book is on the list, though, Brian Aldiss’s Greybeard, which takes the scenario further and imagines a future England where nobody is under 50, nature is quickly wiping out traces of human civilisation and the oldsters are finding it increasingly hard to distinguish reality from senility-induced fantasy.  Actually, the sci-fi writer Adam Roberts, who wrote the introduction to my copy of Greybeard, reckons it’s a better novel than the more acclaimed Children of Men.

 

© Signet Books

 

Some of my inclusions are predictable – Orwell, Huxley, Burgess, McCarthy.  Meanwhile, Margaret Atwood is the only person on the list with two entries, The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake, so Madge is officially the Queen of Dystopian Literature as far as I’m concerned.  I was tempted to include a couple of J.G. Ballard’s other works like The Drought (1964) and The Crystal World (1966), but I opted for The Drowned World because it’s the first and most famous of his surreal, psychological and hallucinogenic novels set during or after a global catastrophe.  And irrespective of their individual merits, The Drought and The Crystal World do feel like variations on a Ballardian theme.  Whereas with Atwood, the nastily patriarchal and reactionary society envisioned in The Handmaid’s Tale and the ecological disaster zone described in Oryx and Crake are two very different creations.

 

Many people would argue that Richard Matheson’s I am Legend is actually a horror novel, a vampire one, but the apocalyptic plague Matheson describes is given a scientific rationale; so it could happen, just about.  It was also a massive influence on George A. Romero’s zombie movies, which in turn gave rise to the zombie-apocalypse trope that’s now a major sub-genre of dystopian fiction, TV and cinema.

 

Nowadays it’s fashionable to knock Day of the Triffids because of the middle-class cosiness of its characters.  Their personalities manage to remain decent, upstanding and Radio 4-ish even after 99% of the population have been blinded and giant, mobile, flesh-eating plants have invaded the streets.  And even some of Wyndham’s admirers might argue that The Chrysalids (1955) and The Kraken Wakes (1953), both of which feature dystopias of their own, are better books.  But I think Day of the Triffids deserves its place in the list because of its impact on popular culture.  The word ‘triffid’ has entered the English language.  I’ve heard it used to describe everything from a noxious-looking weed growing in somebody’s garden to the state of Helena Bonham Carter’s hair.

 

On the other hand, I’ve picked John Christopher’s The Death of Grass and Christopher Priest’s Fugue for a Darkening Island because they offer an antidote to Wyndham’s cosiness.  Both books have characters who start out as respectable middle-class English types whose personalities undergo a breakdown as violent and frightening as the disasters – a plague that destroys cereal crops in Death, a refugee crisis caused by a limited nuclear war in Fugue – rocking the societies around them.

 

One novel I feel really deserves its place on the list is Harry Harrison’s disturbing meditation on the dangers of human overpopulation, Make Room! Make Room!  It just annoys me when people compare Make Room with its 1973 film version, Soylent Green, and pontificate that the book isn’t as good because it doesn’t have the film’s two big gimmicks.  These are a euthanasia clinic, to which the character Sol (Edward G. Robinson in the film) goes when he decides that he can’t handle any more of the world’s ghastliness, and the film’s twist ending when it’s revealed that the mysterious foodstuff Soylent Green, a major component of the future human diet, is… people!  (You have to shout it in Charlton Heston’s voice.)

 

© Penguin Books

 

However, as Harrison pointed out, and unbeknownst to the filmmakers, euthanasia clinics and suicide machines are a bit of a cliché in science fiction.  (Not so long ago, I read Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow, published back in 1895, and it had something called a ‘government lethal chamber’ in it.)  And Harrison had researched Make Room meticulously to make its apocalypse seem as realistic as possible, so he knew that the idea of humanity relying on industrialised cannibalism to survive wasn’t feasible.  Human beings don’t fatten up quickly and require a lot of feeding and looking after, so as a form of livestock to meet the world’s dietary needs, they’re economically a bad idea.  And as this study shows, they’re not even that rich in calories.

 

On the other hand, one novel that nearly didn’t make my list was Doris Lessing’s Memoirs of a Survivor because it feels rather dated now.  The problem is that the feral kids and gangs of violent youths that populate the novel seem a bit, well, hippy-ish.  Sorry, Doris, but when I try to imagine a Mad Max-style dystopia I don’t normally see crowds of hippies running at me with chainsaws.  Of course, Memoirs was written in the early 1970s when memories of the Summer of Love, Woodstock, flower power, etc., were still fresh.  It’s a pity Lessing didn’t write it a couple of years later, after the much more dystopia-friendly punk rockers had appeared.  Still, I like the novel for its psychological depth, with the narrator escaping from the claustrophobic confines of her apartment by concentrating on a wall until she’s able to ‘pass through’ it into an imaginary realm.  And considering that dystopian novels are frequently dominated by male characters, it’s good to see one where female characters are at the forefront.

 

Incidentally, my brother, who works in the building industry, once told me that while he was attending a health-and-safety seminar about the dangers of asbestos, the speaker mentioned Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.  He said that in 1953, as a publicity gimmick, the publisher Ballantine produced 200 numbered and signed copies of Fahrenheit 451 that were bound in asbestos.  The joke was that in a future society where are books had to be burned, these 200 copies of the novel couldn’t be burned.  Obviously, at the time, people were unaware of the links between asbestos and lung cancer.

 

Now that sounds like a truly dystopian book – one that tells a story about a totalitarian future society whilst having the power to induce a dystopian-style breakdown inside the reader’s body.

 

© Ballantine Books

 

This is an updated version of an entry that first appeared on this blog in July 2014.

Est-ce qu’on vous sert?

 

© Penguin Classics

 

Anyone born at a similar time to me, and in a similar part of the world, and who therefore grew up watching 1970s British television, will have difficulty reading a novel about a department store without being reminded of the saucy British TV sitcom Are You Being Served?, created and written by David Croft and Jeremy Lloyd, broadcast from 1972 to 1985 and, yes, set in a department store in contemporary London.

 

Even though the novel in question is the classic French one The Ladies’ Delight (Au Bonheur des Dames) written by Émile Zola, published in 1883 and set in Paris, I’m afraid that while I read it I kept hearing in my head Ronnie Hazelhurst’s theme song from Are You Being Served?  This was a simple but maddeningly relentless number wherein a lift-girl talks over the non-stop chiming and chattering of a cash register: “Ground floor, perfumery / Stationery and leather goods / Wigs and haberdashery / Kitchenware and food / Going uu-uup…!”  I’ve heard people claim that the Are You Being Served? theme invented rap music, but maybe that’s pushing it a bit.

 

Anyway, on a more serious note…  I admire Émile Zola because of his variety.  He didn’t confine himself to writing about one particular section of society but gave each of his novels a different and distinctive focus.  For example, Nana (1880) is set in Paris’s theatrical world while Germinal (1885) is set in a mining community in northern France.  The Beast in Man (1890) deals with workers on the French railways while The Debacle deals with soldiers fighting and civilians caught up in the Franco-Prussian War.  Thus, his body of work becomes a massive, fictionalised document of French life in the mid-to-late 19th century.

 

With The Ladies’ Delight, Zola turns his attention to retailing industry and the changes it was undergoing at that time.  He tells the story largely through the eyes of young woman, Denise Baudu, who arrives in Paris from the provinces in the 1860s and finds work as a saleswoman at a booming department store, the titular Au Bonheur des Dames.

 

Denise’s job at the store is troubled from the start.  By working there, she incurs the displeasure of her only Parisian relatives, her uncle Baudu and his family, whose little draper’s shop has the misfortune of being across the street from Au Bonheur des Dames and is quickly being put out of business by it.  She comes to the capital with her two younger brothers, teenaged Jean and little Pépé, and Jean – with an irresponsibility typical of many of Zola’s male characters – is soon sponging off her while she barely earns enough to keep Pépé fed, clothed and in school and keep herself alive.  In fact, she almost doesn’t get employed at Au Bonheur des Dames at all.  On the day she applies for a job, the general overseer Bourdoncle rejects her for being ‘too ugly’.  But he’s overruled by the store’s owner, Octave Mouret, who hires the rustic-looking and waif-like Denise on a whim.

 

Nor does Denise – gentle, principled and clean-living – prosper in the licentious and back-biting environment of Au Bonheur des Dames.  The intensity of her workmates’ carnal obsessions is matched only by their determination to shin their way up the promotional ladder, usually by plotting against and undermining whoever’s immediately above them.  She’s eventually dismissed and finds a new job with Robineau, a one-time buyer at the store who was himself elbowed out and has now taken over a shop selling silk garments.  But Robineau’s business is unable to compete against the remorselessly growing, evermore popular establishment he once worked for, and he’s soon forced to let Denise go.  However, she manages to get back onto Au Bonheur des Dames’ payroll and this time she gains the ear of her boss, Mouret.  Though she’s naïve, Denise has excellent common sense and an unerring instinct for knowing what the public wants.  The advice she gives Mouret about how best to treat his customers, and his employees, leads to her rapid promotion.  Meanwhile, the cynical, worldly-wise Mouret starts to find himself unaccountably attracted to her…

 

From wikipedia.org

 

As well as relating the ups and downs of Denise’s career in and outside Au Bonheur des Dames, Zola describes Mouret’s efforts to expand his business and reel in more customers.  His activities include becoming the beau of society widow Madame Desforges, in order to get access to the super-powerful Baron Hartmann, who’s another of Madame Desforges’ lovers.  (Well, these folks are French.)  If he can secure Hartmann’s financial and political backing, Mouret believes he can grow Au Bonheur des Dames until it encompasses an entire city block.  Mouret’s romancing of Madame Desforges, and the flirting and flattering he does with the wealthy ladies who make up her social circle, become a metaphor for the seduction of Paris’s female shoppers that his store is performing on a commercial level.

 

However, it’s the novel’s third strand that’s the most powerful.  This describes the impact that Au Bonheur des Dames has upon the traditional shopkeepers who specialise in one particular type of good and are unlucky enough to share a neighbourhood with it.  The store begins by ruining the drapers but, as it gets bigger and Mouret creates more departments and sells a wider range of products, it also threatens the local furriers, glovers, hatters and so on.  Mouret even encroaches on the business of an old man called Bourras who looks ‘like an Old Testament prophet’ and makes and sells umbrellas and walking sticks.  Bourras’s decrepit shop occupies a sliver of one of the street-fronts that Mouret is expanding his premises along.  The old man refuses to sell and move out, so that his shop ends up with Au Bonheur des Dames on either side of it and resembles a ‘wart’ in its grand façade.

 

Denise’s Uncle Baudu not only loses his draper’s business but also his daughter Geneviève to the store.  Geneviève’s fiancé abandons her after becoming infatuated with a coquettish salesgirl working across the street, and the broken-hearted Geneviève wastes away and dies.  Her funeral provides the novel with its most effective scene.  The mourners include all the shopkeepers who’ve had their trade pulverised by Au Bonheur des Dames and they’re obliged to follow the coffin past the building that’s the source of their misery.  Old Bourras laments, “Oh, we’re a pretty sight; a fine cortege of carcasses we make for the dear child!  It must be odd, for people watching this line of bankrupts going past.  And it seems that the clean-out is continuing.  The scoundrels are opening departments for flowers, for fashions, for perfumes, for shoes, and who knows what else?”

 

While Zola doesn’t hold back in depicting Au Bonheur des Dames as a rapacious monster, his imagination is clearly besotted with the place as well.  He devotes many pages to describing it.  It’s variously likened to ‘an awakening beehive’, ‘an enormous fairground display’, ‘a sumptuous pasha’s tent’, ‘a cathedral of modern trade, light yet solid, designed for a congregation of lady customers’, ‘a monumental gallery’, ‘an enormous carnival’, ‘a vast, many-coloured architectural pile with gold highlights’, ‘a boreal vista’, ‘a great love nest’, ‘a white chapel’ and ‘a dream heaven, a window into the dazzling whiteness of a paradise.’  Whenever you think Zola has finished writing about its appearance, he has Mouret give the premises another upgrade and off he goes on another flurry of description.

 

In my mind’s eye, I found myself embellishing the store’s architecture and décor with flourishes of Art Nouveau.  I visualised the building as resembling some grand project designed by an Art Nouveau artist like Alphonso Mucha, Koloman Moser or Eugène Grasset.  But that would be wrong, since the novel’s 1860s setting precedes the Art Nouveau movement by at least 20 years and those artists would have been youngsters at the time.

 

From alphonsemucha.org

 

The Ladies’ Delight isn’t one of Zola’s best books.  His lengthy descriptions become tiresome.  This is especially true towards the end, when the reader is impatient to see how the various plot strands will be resolved and when those descriptions just seem to get in the way.  Also an issue is the characterisation.  Denise seems too innocent to be true, especially when there’s such a rogue’s gallery of schemers, chancers and letches inhabiting the store around her.  Correspondingly, it seems unlikely that somebody like Mouret could fall for her, even briefly – let alone become obsessed with her, to the point where he loses interest in everything else, including his business, as he does later.  (Predictably, the virtuous Denise rebuffs all his advances, which only leaves him more smitten with her.)

 

Enterprises launched by characters in Zola’s books tend to overreach themselves and come crashing down, both small-scale ones like Gervaise’s laundry business in L’Assommoir (1877) and grand ones like the title character’s theatrical career in Nana.  But that doesn’t happen to Mouret’s store in The Ladies’ Delight.  It simply continues to grow – the cash-register from Ronnie Hazelhurst’s Are You Being Served? theme was clinking particularly loudly in my head during those scenes where Zola describes the cashiers struggling to count and gather up and lock away Mouret’s ever-swelling profits.  In the absence of Mouret getting his financial come-uppance, I suppose Zola felt obliged to give him a romantic come-uppance instead, which is where he deploys Denise.  But as a plot device it doesn’t feel plausible.

 

The Ladies’ Delight is effective, though, when it chronicles how the new store tramples all over the businesses of the old-style traders and leaves a trail of bankruptcies in its wake.  It’s ironic to reflect that in 2020 the same department store would probably be a much-loved historical landmark.  It’d be regarded as an important, if vulnerable, part of its city’s commercial heritage.  Fearful that modern online traders like Amazon might trample all over its business, citizens would be calling on the government to subsidise it and keep it propped up.

 

Yes, this youthful monster of 19th century capitalism would now be regarded as, potentially, an elderly victim of 21st century capitalism.  The French saying ‘plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose‘ isn’t quite true.