Consumer Chronicles

Consumer Chronicles: Cultures of Consumption in Modern French Literature

Volume: 19
Copyright Date: 2011
Edition: 1
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Consumer Chronicles
    Book Description:

    At a time when the world is contemplating the depletion of non-renewable natural resources, the consumer society is increasingly being called into question. This is nowhere more acutely evident than in France, where since its beginnings in the nineteenth century, the consumer revolution, extending market forces into every area of social and private life, has been perceived as a challenge to core elements in French culture, such as traditional artisan crafts and small businesses serving local communities. Cultural historians and sociologists have charted the increasing commercialisation of everyday life over the twentieth century, but few have paid systematic attention to the crucial testimony provided by the authors of narrative fiction. Consumer Chronicles rectifies this omission by means of close readings of a series of novels, selected for their authentic portrayal of consumer behaviour, and analysed in relation to their social, cultural and historical contexts. Walker's study, offering an imaginative interdisciplinary panorama covering the impact of affluence on French shoppers, shopkeepers and society, provides telling new insights into the history and characteristics of the consumer mentality.

    eISBN: 978-1-84631-715-6
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgements
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-18)

    The aim of this book is to examine aspects of the socio-economic history of modern France as depicted in literary texts of the period between the end of the nineteenth century and the second half of the twentieth. This study takes as its specific subject patterns of behaviour pertaining to shops and shopping, spending money and acquiring merchandise. The centrality of such activities in modern culture can hardly be overstated. As a recent commentator has remarked, shopping ‘is now, arguably, the defining activity of public life’.¹ Already in André Gide’sLes Nourritures terrestresof 1897 the marketplace exemplifies an existential...

    • 1 Earning, Yearning and Making Do: Huysmans, Les Sœurs Vatard
      (pp. 21-43)

      Joris-Karl Huysmans is perhaps best known for his novelA Rebours, published in 1884. Its protagonist, Des Esseintes, weary of the real, revolted by its banality and vulgarity, turns his back on the external world and dedicates himself to the pursuit of extreme refinements in his sensibility, his aesthetic, intellectual and spiritual tastes. The book was proclaimed a breviary by fin-de-siècle aesthetes and decadents across Europe, and represents a key landmark in cultural history. But its refusal of the ordinary world presaged a specific spiritual journey on the part of its author, who subsequently charted his conversion to Christianity in...

    • 2 Flâneurs and Shoppers: Huysmans, En ménage
      (pp. 44-60)

      En ménagetakes up the story of Cyprien after Céline Vatard has ended their relationship. He bemoans the situation he now finds himself in, having expended his capital in fruitless speculations on women he hoped would inspire him to paint works that would make his fortune:

      Et, quand on songe que j’avais trois cents francs de rentes à manger par mois et que j’ai boulotté le capital avec des cocottes, sous le prétexte de mieux les peindre! – je devais regagner avec le tableau ce que me coûtait la peau du modèle […] fichue spéculation! […] Mes toiles ont été...

    • 3 From Shopping to Schopenhauer: Huysmans, A vau-l’eau
      (pp. 61-66)

      Though not exactly a sequel,A vau-l’eaugrew out ofEn ménageand indeed turned out to have so much in common with the preceding novel that Huysmans felt obliged to cut it short to avoid repeating himself.¹ The text was therefore published as a novella in 1882. Its protagonist, M. Folantin, is an older man than the characters in the earlier texts, and this, plus the fact thatA vau-l’eauwas written two or three years afterLes Sœurs Vatard, gives it a historical perspective lacking in its predecessors. As a result it is in this text that we...

    • 4 Transactions and Value: Gide, L’Immoraliste
      (pp. 69-90)

      Thus far we have considered a series of perspectives on the historical facts governing the evolution of commerce and shopping in the closing years of the nineteenth century. It is appropriate now to take account of shifts in thinking that pertain to the point of view of the consumer. For the increasing productive capacity of industry began to generate anxieties about the potential of the consumer to absorb the goods produced. An intimation of this occurs in Zola’s novelSon Excellence Eugène Rougon(1876), when adéputé, lobbying the eponymous minister on behalf of sugar refineries in Marseilles, seeks to...

    • 5 La Lente Agonie du petit commerce? Balzac, Grandeur et décadence de César Birotteau and Zola, Au bonheur des dames
      (pp. 93-105)

      The nineteenth and twentieth centuries witnessed the creation of the department store and the concomitant decline of the small shop. Robert Burnand, in a complaint echoed by many, laments ‘le déclin du petit commerce, sa lente agonie, la désaffection de la clientèle pour le fournisseur, la rupture d’un lien noué souvent depuis plusieurs générations. Fidélité réciproque, tradition, goût de l’ouvrage bien fait disparaissent petit à petit’.¹ But this somewhat nostalgic, even rose-tinted evocation does not tell the full story, and opposition between the two forms of commerce was perhaps not inevitable. Balzac adds nuances to the picture inCésar Birotteau,...

    • 6 Elevé dans le commerce: Céline, Mort à crédit
      (pp. 106-120)

      The facts do not wholly support the proposition, advanced by Zola inAu bonheur des dames, that having agrand magasinin the neighbourhood spelled the end for the localpetits commerçants. Philip Nord has examined the detailed evidence, in a case study of thequartierdu Palais-Royal (extending west as far as the rue Saint Roch), and concludes: ‘Proximity to a department store was by no means a sentence of death for the luckless retailer’.¹ In fact, thegrand magasincould bring new trade into a neighbourhood, as Francis Ambrière points out: ‘C’est que, par sa publicité, par ses...

    • 7 The Emporium Strikes Back: Dutourd, Au Bon Beurre
      (pp. 121-136)

      In the depths of the economic crisis of the 1890s, the powerful lobbying that thepetits commerçantsorganised to defend their interests did not always provoke sympathetic reactions. Many members of the public had a less than favourable view of shopkeepers. Eugen Weber explains that the era saw ‘the accentuation of age-old frictions connected with trade, the marketplace, and, increasingly, shops. Everybody cheated on weights and measures, almost everybody on quality. Eggs were hardly ever fresh. Sausage or minced meat contained almost everything but what it was supposed to. Wine, when not watered, was chemically adulterated. Milk, when it was...

    • 8 The Big Sell
      (pp. 139-154)

      It was not simply the creation of thegrands magasinsthat offered an alternative to the unattractive little shop that was hostile to change and relied on local clients in thequartierfor its custom. Indeed, certain groups of small shopkeepers clustered together in arcades in order to provide a more congenial environment and attract customers; these are an important forerunner of the department store and in fact anticipate the modern shopping mall. The significance of the Passage des Panoramas, the Passage Véro-Dodat, the Passage Vivienne, the Passage Choiseul, the Passage de l’Opéra and numerous others is illustrated in the...

    • 9 The grand magasin: Zola, Au bonheur des dames (2)
      (pp. 155-167)

      Au bonheur des dames(1883) is essential reading for anyone who wishes to understand a key turning-point in patterns of retail commerce and consumption in the nineteenth century. In accordance with his customary working methods, Zola documented himself extensively on his subject, taking copious notes, notably during visits to theBon Marchéand theMagasins du Louvre. Indeed, the ‘dossier préparatoire’, the manuscript records of his research, preserved at the Bibliothèque National de France, have proved a valuable resource for historians and are frequently cited.¹ Zola based his fictional store mainly onAu Bon Marché, with which, from 1852, Aristide...

    • 10 ‘Les Vénus des comptoirs’: Feminism and Shopping in the 1920s
      (pp. 168-180)

      The early 1920s are associated in France with monetary difficulties and financial crisis.¹ And yet, the economy of the country underwent one of its most intense phases of growth and for many citizens this proved to be a period of great prosperity.² ‘The 1920s was probably the first decade to proclaim a generalised ideology of affluence’, asserts Don Slater, adding, ‘The 1920s appear as the first consumerist decade […] it is in this period that all the features which make up consumer culture take on their mature form.’³ Moreover, at this time can be discerned in certain sectors the beginnings...

    • 11 Total Retail: Figures of the Dystopian Superstore
      (pp. 181-200)

      From its earliest manifestations, thegrand magasinwas viewed as a baleful monster encroaching on surrounding territory. Jules Vallès notes in 1882 that ‘la terre classique du petit commerce heureux’ has been taken over by big shops: ‘C’est maintenant le grand magasin qui occupe le bas des larges immeubles, hangars luxueux, bazars à mines de caravansérails.’¹ Zola bequeathed to subsequent generations a series of characteristic tropes for imagining and depicting the successors of thegrand magasin. Despite the positive associations Zola is seeking to propagate, from the opening pagesAu bonheur des damesis a ‘monstre’ (66, 70, 75, 249,...

    • 12 Speculations on Value
      (pp. 203-222)

      Before the outbreak of World War I, France was the second most wealthy nation on earth.¹ Everyday shopping was carried out using gold and silver coins, and thefranc-orwas internationally recognised as a guarantee of monetary security, witness to the stability of the French economy and the authority of the Banque de France, which had even come to the rescue of Britain and the USA during the financial crisis of 1906–07.² Some could claim never to have seen a paper banknote as such, but international travellers were assured by the Baedeker guide that ‘Le billet de la Banque...

    • 13 Post-war Visions of Paradise: The Dawning of the Consumer Society
      (pp. 225-240)

      Already in the nineteenth century the influence of America on France was being deplored, and for those who remained attached to traditional French culture, the prospects for future relations did not look bright. Huysmans, inA vau-l’eau, has M. Folantin exclaim: ‘décidément Paris devient un Chicago sinistre! […] profitons du temps qui nous reste avant la définitive invasion de la grande muflerie du Nouveau-Monde!’ (506) His sentiments were echoed inA Reboursby Des Esseintes, who laments the fact that the world has been taken over by ‘la tyrannie du commerce’, which he calls ‘le grand bagne de l’Amérique transporté...

    • 14 Managing the Consumers (1): Motivational Analysts
      (pp. 241-255)

      The protagonists of Georges Perec’s novelLes Choses(1965) are not named until chapter 3. Up until then they are referred to solely as ‘ils’. The effect – or purpose – of this is to emphasise that they have little identity other than as symptoms of an era. Indeed, in a reference to the student phase of their lives, which is coming to an end as the novel begins, we are told that ‘Ils avaient longtemps été parfaitement anonymes’ (35).¹

      The moment at which the protagonists acquire names is also the point at which they obtain jobs, and the nature...

    • 15 Managing the Consumers (2): Advertisers
      (pp. 256-265)

      Published in 1965, Simone de Beauvoir’sLes Belles Imagesis marked likeLes ChosesandLes Géantsby a certain mentality that arose as the post-war French economic ‘miracle’ transformed social structures, customer expectations and individual perceptions.¹ The main character, Laurence, works in an advertising agency, and, among her family and acquaintances, in a social milieu populated by industrialists, architects, broadcasters and lawyers, there prevails an optimistic view about the prospects of humanity at large in a world where science and technology are working to enhance the quality of life. The books that Laurence’s husband Jean-Charles reads all have the...

    • 16 The Consumers Managing (1): Making Do by Instalments
      (pp. 266-282)

      The post-war economic boom in France raised the whole society to unprecedented levels of affluence. The decade of the 1950s witnessed a period of industrial expansion that exceeded even those of ‘La Belle Époque’ and the 1920s.¹ Purchasing power and standards of living increased across the board,² even allowing for inevitable variations between different social strata.³ As technology advanced, production increased and the range of products extended and diversified: more and more goods and services flooded into the marketplace. The proportion of income spent on basic necessities such as food and clothing fell significantly, releasing income for discretionary expenditure.⁴ Spending...

    • 17 The Consumers Managing (2): Making Do and Producing
      (pp. 283-295)

      Claire Etcherelli’s novelElise ou la vraie vie, though published in 1967, centres on Paris during the period of the 1950s, at the time of the Algerian war. Thus it overlaps in certain respects withLes Choses,Les Belles Images, andRoses à crédit. Its characters, however, include immigrant workers from North Africa and elsewhere, this time operating on an assembly line in a car plant (based on the Citroën factory). Elise, the narrator, tells how she fell in love with Arezki, anouvrier spécialiséin the factory who is also a pro-Algerian activist. The daily labour on the assembly...

  11. Conclusion: A Good Buy?
    (pp. 296-310)

    InLa Prisonnière, volume vi ofA la recherche du temps perdu, Proust famously depicts the death of Bergotte, a writer for whom the narrator has a great deal of admiration and whose work constitutes a step on the way to his own vocation as novelist. The narrator muses on the posthumous fate of the deceased author, and concludes his meditation as follows:

    l’idée que Bergotte n’était pas mort à jamais est sans invraisemblance. On l’enterra, mais toute la nuit funèbre, aux vitrines éclairées, ses livres, disposés trois par trois, veillaient comme des anges aux ailes éployées et semblaient, pour...

  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 311-321)
  13. Index
    (pp. 322-328)