Written in 1844, this very short story of less than 4000 words is a sardonic portrait of Parisian salesmen. Where the travelling salesman in Balzac’s tale of The Illustrious Gaudissart got his comeuppance at the hands of the wily Tourangian peasants, in Paris – a citadel of commerce with shops to rival Versailles – things are different…
‘To know how to sell, to be able to sell, and to sell’ – these are the attributes that really make Paris stately. The cafés, shop windows and vast Babylonian galleries are as brilliant as the salons were before the Revolution of 1789, and the staff within them are highly skilled at parting the customer from her purse, ‘much as myriads of Seine whitebait fall upon a chance crust floating down the river’.
Balzac has coined the label Gaudissart to evoke the cunning masters of the art of salesmanship who inhabit these establishments in which architecture and the decorative arts conspire to bewitch the customer.
‘A French shopman is better educated than his fellows in other European countries; he can at need talk asphalt, Bal Mabille, polkas, literature, illustrated books, railways, politics, parliament, and revolution; transplant him, take away his stage, his yardstick, his artificial graces; he is foolish beyond belief; but on his own boards, on the tight-rope of the counter, as he displays a shawl with a speech at his tongue’s end, and his eye on his customer, he puts the great Talleyrand into the shade; he is a match for a Monrose and a Moliere to boot. Talleyrand in his own house would have outwitted Gaudissart, but in the shop the parts would have been reversed’.
Balzac provides two examples of the salesman at work, one where he is outwitted, and the other where he succeeds:
At home in his palace, the great diplomatist Talleyrand is invited to advise a couple of duchesses who can’t decide between two bracelets. The sales assistant has come from a great Parisian jeweller. The ladies dither, each anxious not to be shown to have worse taste than the other. The Prince, without so much as looking at the bracelets, asks the assistant to indicate which he would choose for his sweetheart. The Prince then suggests that the duchess take the other one – to ‘make two women happy’ – and he tells the assistant to take the other for his sweetheart. This expedites the sale without further ado, and of course since the salesman recommended the more expensive one, the duchess has bought the lesser.
However, on his own turf, the salesman is supreme.
Corresponding perhaps to female enthusiasm for handbags today, Parisian women in Balzac’s era were particularly susceptible in the matter of shawls. To assist them in their purchases, the charming young men who staff the shops are hand-picked and trained to correspond to certain types of female customers. There is the very young innocent, who cannot possibly be distrusted; there is the diffident one who evokes sympathy for one so unsuited to business; there is one with a lively good humour and another who ‘with his portentous cravat, his sternness, his dignity, and curt speech’ is attuned to the lady who doesn’t intend to be taken in by anyone. He who is charge of all this, descending ‘like a deus ex machina, whenever a tangled problem demands a swift solution’ is a person of great respectability, who occasionally wears ‘the ribbon of the Legion of Honor in recognition of the manner in which he supports the dignity of the French drapers’ wand’.
These Gaudissarts know and understand every whim and ‘every vibration of the cashmere chord in the heart of woman’. They analyse the woman, her dress and mannerisms from the moment she steps inside, and they ‘communicate their conclusions to one another with telegraphic speed, in a glance, a smile, the movement of a muscle, a twitch of the lip’.
One of Balzac’s characters brags about the cleverest trick: the one with the Selim shawl, which is totally unsaleable, and yet they sell it. They do it by keeping it in a plain but satin-lined cedar box that comes with a story that the shawl was one of those that Selim sent to the Emperor Napoleon. They bring it out when the sale seems lost. And just as this story is being told, an Englishwoman arrives…
English women are particularly difficult so they get the treatment from a dark, mysterious, portentous type of Gaudissart. If she’s from the city, the oldest salesman confuses her so much with hundreds of shawls in 15 minutes that she has to ask his advice who places before her a choice of two: the fashionable, and the one which will go with any dress. But still these Englishwomen regard shopping as mere amusement and are resistant to most of the tricks.
This one scrutinises everything but is indifferent to it all. They flatter her fastidious taste; for her part she makes it obvious that she can’t stand the idea that in post-Revolutionary France mere shopmen might stand for Parliament or dine at the Tuileries. He brings out the Selim shawl, pretending that he was going to give it to his wife because – since it once belonged to the Empress Josephine – he now can’t sell it. He exaggerates its value but says he was never paid for the one that the Empress swapped for it.
It is of course unspeakably gaudy, but the woman has no taste and its provenance has great appeal since Waterloo. The shopmen exchange amused glances. ‘Sold’ they think, but no, he’s overdone the price of it, and she says she would rather have a carriage with her money.
Is he defeated? Not on your life. This Gaudissart has the very thing, a very nice carriage, nearly new, which belonged to a Russian princess. He suggests that she keep the shawl to try out its effect in the carriage (which is of course only a common brougham). The watching staff are fascinated, finding this contest extra exciting because of ‘the additional interest attached to all contests, however trifling, between England and France’.
20 minutes later the shawl is sold for 6000 francs, and the proprietor explains to his incredulous staff how it was done. He had known from the start that she didn’t know what she wanted and it turned out that in her dull, respectable life what she really wanted was to be conspicuous. Having no taste of her own, she enjoyed the way everyone stared at her in the gaudy shawl because she thought their attention represented admiration.
In other countries of the world a shopkeeper is merely a shopkeeper, concludes Balzac, but in France, especially Paris, he is all things to all people.
And the coda? Another satin-lined cedar box is ordered from the joiner, and they go through the stock to find another Selim shawl!
Read it here.
Lisa Hill, November 12th, 2011