Au Bonheur des Dames (The Ladies’ Delight) (1883): Émile Zola

★★★★

Les Rougon-Macquart: Book 11

My first book of 2020 was Au Bonheur des Dames or The Ladies’ Delight, part of Zola’s sweeping Rougon-Macquart cycle, which explores various facets of 19th-century French life. This is the first time I’ve read Zola and I wondered whether it would matter that I was leaping right in at Book 11 of the series, but in fact Au Bonheur des Dames works perfectly as a standalone novel. No doubt I would have recognised certain characters if I’d read the other books, and I may have known a little more background about Octave Mouret, but I didn’t feel that I was missing out. I chose to start here because it’s supposed to be one of Zola’s more upbeat and cheerful novels – perfect for the start of a new year – and it was rather fitting for January, in that it focuses on the rise and development of a great department store. Zola writes of ‘the continuous purring of a machine at work, the customers shovelled in, heaped in front of the displays and dazzled by the goods, before being hurled against the cash desks‘. Well, in last week’s sales I was one of those being hurled, and so it added an extra level of interest and amusement to hear about how such great shops came into being. A fascinating story of a time of frenzied change.

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Adèle (2014): Leïla Slimani

★★★

Having read Leïla Slimani’s Lullaby last year, I was keen to try her new novel, Adèle. Like Lullaby, this takes us beyond the polished facade of a comfortable, upper-middle-class Parisian family and shows us the hypocrisy and unhappiness within. This time our protagonists are Adèle, a journalist, and her husband Richard, a successful surgeon. They have a son, Lucien, and spend Christmas holidays with Richard’s wealthy family in the country. It’s a superficially perfect existence; but there are cracks beneath the surface. Adèle, the beautiful, serene, accomplished wife, hides a dark secret: ever since she was a child, she has been a sex addict, compulsively seeking out sensual experiences with as many people as she can, using these moments to anchor herself against the great, vast meaninglessness of the world. Yet Adèle’s time is running out and, when she makes a pass at a colleague of Richard’s, her whole carefully-constructed world is about to collapse.

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Lullaby (2016): Leïla Slimani

★★★½

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Leïla Slimani’s bestselling novel evidently strikes a chord with its readers and it isn’t hard to see why. It plays on the deepest fears that any parent can have. What if our children are most at risk from those we’ve hired to care for them? On the very first page, we’re shown a horrific scene: two children brutally murdered, their nanny lying with self-inflicted wounds beside them. It’s a shocking, apparently senseless crime. But then Slimani takes us back, to tell the story of the family, the nanny and the children. Her novel raises uncomfortable but necessary questions about domestic service, modern parenting, class, and the desire to be needed.

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Sérénissime! Venise en fête de Tiepolo à Guardi (2017)

Longhi: The Ridotto

(Musée Cognacq-Jay, Paris, 25 February-25 June 2017)

The Venetians went down dancing. As their commercial and military power ebbed away in the 18th century, they became famous for something else: their carnival. Visitors were drawn by the lure of the masquerade: by the temptation of anonymity, liberty and decadence. But Venice didn’t just come alive at that period between Christmas and the onset of sober, joy-killing Lent. On the contrary, there were festivals all year round: regattas to welcome distinguished visitors; state ceremonies staged like fabulous plays; and the theatre itself, finding its most sumptuous form in Venetian operas. This small-scale exhibition in an equally bijou museum focuses in on Venice en fête, a phrase for which there is, perhaps tellingly, no English equivalent. With the Royal Collection‘s Canaletto show looming on the horizon, like the Bucintoro hoving into view, I thought this would be an excellent way to whet my appetite.

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Le Baroque des Lumières (2017)

Jouvenet: The Magnificat (The Visitation)

Chefs-d’œuvre des églises parisiennes au XVIIIe siècle

(Petit Palais, Paris, 21 March-16 July 2017)

Spare a thought for French history painters of the 18th century. They’re overshadowed on one side by their glamorous 17th-century predecessors, bathed in the reflected glory of the Sun King and, on the other side, by the tousled, poetic 19th-century Romantics. If people associate anything with the 18th century, it’s frills, furbelows, plump putti and simpering shepherdesses. But this isn’t actually representative of what people would have seen at the time. The concept of the public national gallery hadn’t yet taken hold, but the French could still admire splendid works by the leading artists of the day – not in the secular cathedral of the museum, but in the literally hallowed spaces of Paris’s churches. This splendid show reunites some of the period’s great religious canvases, many of which have been restored. Vibrant colours shimmer on the walls, dismantled schemes are reunited, and a generation of virtually forgotten artists is brought back to the public eye.

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