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Published: October 1, 2001

 
 

Best Business Books: Business Novels

In achieving his goal, Mouret is forcing small neighborhood businesses into bankruptcy, but Zola, while sensitive to their misfortune, doesn’t wallow in it. Instead, he uses lush, lyrical prose that mimics the dazzle of Mouret’s window displays and the sumptuousness of the piles of merchandise in his emporium. The descriptions of the sales themselves border on the orgiastic. Mouret is a triumphant creation: the ultimate seducer.

Zola strives to write “the poem of modern activity.… Don’t conclude with the stupidity and sadness of life. Instead, conclude with its continual labor, the power and gaiety that comes from its productivity.” A sample of that “poem” describes, of all things, the chute down which trucks discharge their goods in the store’s receiving department:

[The goods] were weighed and then tipped down a steep chute; the oak and ironwork of this shone, polished by the friction of bales and cases. Everything entered through this yawning trap; things were being swallowed up all the time … falling with the roar of a river. During big sales especially, the chute would discharge an endless flow into the basement, silks from Lyon, woolens from England, linens from Flanders, calicoes from Alsace, prints from Rouen.… The parcels, as they flowed down, made a dull sound at the bottom of the hole, like a stone thrown into deep water.

As he was passing, Mouret stopped for a moment in front of the chute. It was in full activity: rows of packing cases were going down on their own, the men whose hands were pushing them from above invisible; and they seemed to be rushing along by themselves, streaming like rain from some spring higher up. Then some bales appeared, turning round and round like rolled pebbles.… Never had [Mouret] been so clearly aware of the battle he was engaged in. His task was to launch this deluge of goods all over Paris.

At the turn of the century, in Tono-Bungay (1908), H.G. Wells limned another master marketer: a roly-poly chemist named Uncle Ponderevo. He concocts a quack medicine, names it Tono-Bungay, adroitly advertises it — “Are you bored with your Business? Are you bored with your Dinner? Are you bored with your Wife?” — and makes a fortune. His nephew, George, joins him in the enterprise and discovers the satisfaction that can be found in making a business “hum.” Muses George, “It sounds wild, I know, but I believe I was the first man in the city of London to pack patent medicines through the side of packing cases [to prevent breakages], to discover there was a better way in than by the lid.”

A dabbler in socialist politics, George is not without his qualms and tells his uncle that Tono-Bungay is “a damned swindle … selling the cheapest thing possible in the dearest bottle.” Uncle Ponderevo rebuts him: “I’d like to know what sort of trading isn’t a swindle in its way. Everyone who does a large advertised trade is selling something on the strength of saying it’s uncommon.… It’s the modern way! … The point is, George, it makes trade. And the world lives on trade. Commerce! A romantic exchange of commodities and property. Romance. ’Magination. See?” As he prospers, Uncle Ponderevo makes the transition from commerce to finance, from humble abodes to ever-bigger mansions, and in such excesses lies his downfall. Like Melmotte, he “bursted himself.”

Flawed though they might be, Melmotte, Cowperwood, Mouret, and Uncle Ponderevo have reserves of energy and drive, a capacity for self-invention and outsized dreams, an ability to cut to the chase and gauge the future. Uncle Ponderevo puts it best when, early in Tono-Bungay, he says of the inhabitants of the sleepy village where he has a pharmacy, “But Lord! They’ve no capacity for ideas, they don’t catch on; no Jump about the place, no Life. Live! — they trickle.… It doesn’t suit me.… I’m the cascading sort.”

 
 
 
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