Book News: Forget the Insufferable “Mr. Selfridge” — Turn to Zola’s “The Ladies’ Paradise” Instead

By Bill Marx.

Watching the miscast Jeremy Piven attempt to play a turn-of-the-century, American businessman fleecing the public by way of the creation of a fashionable mega-department store in the PBS Masterpiece import Mr. Selfridge is painful. (A second leg of the mini-series, set in 1914 and the lead-up to World War I, is slated to run here in 2014.) And it is not only because the title role and the storyline, the rise of a mercantile empire, calls for edgy Darwinian conflict rather than upper class benevolence sprinkled with layers of powered soap opera.

All of this is par for the fundraising course, as critic Ben Moore argues, seeing how this program “arrives in the wake of a number of successful British television period dramas, most conspicuously Downton Abbey, whose popularity and critical acclaim suggests that the appetite of UK and US audiences for class-based dramas combining buttoned-up propriety with a hint of sexual and political transgression continues to provide a lucrative market for programme-makers.”

No, what drives me nuts is that Mr. Selfridge and another recent British mini-series, The Paradise, draw (the latter quite explicitly) on Émile Zola’s marvelous 1883 novel The Ladies’ Paradise, but neuter the French writer’s radicalism. Gone is the later’s examination of how a monstrous machine of a French department store crushes opposition (and humanity) through the profitable packaging of female desire. Nothing and nobody is nice in Zola’s juicy critique—his characters are creatures of appetite, busy creating cutthroat economics by exploiting the fantasies of target audiences. “The sole passion” of the owner-manager of the store “was the conquest of Women. He wanted her to be the queen in his shop, he had built this temple for her in order to intoxicate her with amorous attentions, to trade on her desires . . .” Those not doing the selling are usually being sold out.

Where the British versions are cuddly and chic (with a dollop of aristocratic disdain), wallowing in the shiny attraction of pretty things and people, Zola’s tale focuses on the roughhouse seductions of power, sex, and class. The plot revolves around a woman battling her way from poverty to riches, but there is nothing in the least sentimental about her struggle upward. Zola cuts to the bottom line: dramatizing how the powerful roll over the powerless (mom and pop stores, craftsman, workers, the poor). Or, as the narrator puts it, the drive “of the thin to exterminate the fat.”

PBS’s Jeremy Piven — a disappointing Mr. Selfridge

I would highly recommend Brian Nelson’s translation of the Zola novel for Oxford University Press—the book is not in the same major literary league as Germinal and Nana, but it is a boisterous entertainment, serving up plenty of heavy-breathing, money-mad mayhem generated by a collision of naturalism, melodrama, and Marx. And it remains relevant: Zola’s over-the-top vision of corporate types becoming rich by selling faux-elegant images of escapist satisfaction says far more about the PBS fund-raising juggernaut than Mr. Selfridge‘s placid über-boutique.

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