Pot Luck by Emile Zola

“Then, going off on a tangent, he began violently to abuse the Empire; under a republic , things would surely be better. And amid all this rambling talk, the vague generalizations of a man of mediocre intelligence, there came a few acute remarks of the experienced physician thoroughly familiar with all his patients’ foibles. He did not spare the women, some of whom were brought up as dolls and were made either corrupt or crazy thereby, while others had their feelings and passions perverted by hereditary neurosis; if they sinned, they sinned vulgarly, foolishly, without desire as without pleasure. Nor was he more merciful to the men–fellows who merely ruined their constitutions while hypocritically pretending to lead virtuous and godly lives. And in all this Jacobin frenzy one heard, as it were, the inexorable death-knell of a whole class, the collapse and putrefaction of the bourgeoisie whose rotten props were cracking beneath them.”

pot luckPot-Bouille translates to Pot Luck in the Oxford University Press edition of the tenth novel in Zola’s incredible Rougon-Macquart series. After you begin to read the novel, the title will make more sense to you–it also translates to stew-pot, and that’s another apt description of the events that take place in this wonderfully entertaining novel. My edition is translated by Brian Nelson, and while it’s the only translation I’ve read, and therefore I can’t compare, this translation is as smooth as silk.

The protagonist of the novel (and it’s going too far to call him a hero) is Octave Mouret. To place him in the Rougon-Macquart family tree, Octave is the son of Marthe and Francois Mouret. Martha and Francois were cousins (Marthe was a Rougon–the sister of Eugene Rougon). In The Conquest of Plassans, Marthe and Francois are a middle-aged couple who’ve grown apart over the years. Marthe sublimates her sexuality and hunger for passion and attention into religious fanaticism after boarding a priest in the house.

Pot Luck makes no reference to the other novels in the Rougon-Macquart series or to Octave’s troubled background. Instead the novel begins with the young, enthusiastic, and ambitious Octave arriving in Paris from the country and moving into a boarding house full of bourgeois Parisians who cling–rather pathetically at times–to their social status.

Octave’s contact at the boarding house in the Rue de Choiseul is the architect Monsieur Campardon, and the book begins with Campardon showing Octave through the house while giving a rundown of the other tenants. Campardon’s superficial information is heavily coded with social markers, and he notes, for example, that Monsieur Gourd “used to be the valet to the Duc de Vaugelade.” Because Gourd was a servant to nobility, a property owner, and soon to get a respectable pension, he’s elevated to bourgeois status in the eyes of the boarding house residents. Indeed Gourd, not surprisingly is the fiercest combatant in the house when it comes to morality and much more importantly, maintaining strict hierarchy and social status. Gourd, a merciless employer of a poor half-crippled cleaner, is the moral policeman of the building, meting out moral outrage and banishment to the working class residents and turning a blind eye to the love affairs of the bourgeois.

An unhappy assortment of people share the boarding house. It’s difficult to pick the unhappiest family, but perhaps the Josserand family, ruled by domestic tyrant Madame Josserand are the most miserable. Madame Josserand, with her “massive bosom” lives to marry off her children, but frustrated by the lack and money (and subsequent social opportunities), she rains down abuse onto the head of her meek, long-suffering husband, who bears his burden with no complaints. The various servants in the boarding house aren’t treated well either, but the Josserand’s servant, the half-starved Adele, suffers more than most. Then there’s the landlord, Monsieur Vabre and his two sons–Theophile and Auguste–both poor specimens whose ineffectualness with their respective spouses leads to some hilarious scenes in the novel. On the third floor, there’s Marie and Jules Pichon. Marie is the nicest character in the novel. Raised by her boring, close-minded parents the Vuillaumes, she’s simple, innocent, kind, and gullible. Marie gives without asking for anything in return and so is taken advantage of by Octave rapidly:

“She had had a long-drawn-out childhood: all sorts of prohibitions she could not understand; lines in fashion journals which her mother had inked over–black bars that made her blush; pieces cut out of her lessons which embarrassed the governesses themselves when she asked about them. There had been a sweetness about her childhood, a soft tepid growth as in a greenhouse, a waking dream in which the words and the deeds of each day assumed a distorted, foolish significance. And even now, as with a far-off look in her eyes, all these memories come back to her, the smile on her lips was the smile of a child, as ignorant after marriage as she was before.”

It’s in his relationship with Marie that Octave’s character and his attitude towards women begins to develop. Octave studies the women in the boarding house and assesses them for possible seduction, reasoning that now he’s in Paris, love affairs will follow. By studying Marie, he begins to understand the fallow nature of her confined life, and he begins a relationship with her by bringing her novels to read. This maneuver is the first step in Marie’s seduction. It should be said that Octave, is a classical seducer. While he loves women, and the idea of women, finding something to love about each one, his love, for the most part, involves an objectification of the love object: she exists for his pleasure while he glosses over the finer points of his seduction as somehow or other contributing to a ‘greater good.’ Eligible bachelor Octave lays siege to several of the married women in the novel while his friend Trublot prefers the low level challenge of the sexually accessible servants.

It’s not long before Octave finds employment with Madame and Monsieur Hedouin at The Ladies’ Paradise and he is very rapidly absorbed into the social life, such as it is, in the house. This translates to being obligated to attend boring ‘evenings’ at the Josserands and listening to piano recitals in the rooms of the sanctimonious Judge Duveyrier and his wife.

It’s ironic that Campardon warns Octave: “Above all no women. My word! If you brought a woman here there would be a revolution in the house.” What Campardon should have said is: ‘if you have to carry on an affair, pick one of the women in the house because we all ignore that.’ One of the apartments is even maintained as a love nest by a wealthy man for his mistress, and the house residents ignore the fact that the couple meets there for assignations. The message is that the wealthy may have their assignations, but woe betide a working-class stiff who fancies he can have the same thing. Indeed a few working class tenants who rent bleak garrets at the top of the house, fall victim to Monsieur Gourd’s pitiless, skewed morality.

Hypocrisy reigns supreme in this novel. While the characters (both male and female) wax on about marriage and morality, what happens after dark or behind closed doors is another matter entirely. Every married couple in the house is under siege from some dreadful unhappiness, and the married men blatantly maintain mistresses. As Campardon sagely notes to Octave on his very first day in Paris: “You know, women have always got something wrong with them.” Several married woman suffer from some sort of hysterical malady. From the gargantuan, ribbon-sporting Madame Gourd, who rarely moves from her chair, to Madame Campardon who suffers from a legendary vaginal stricture, and to Clotilde (Vabre) Duveyrier who sublimates her passion (and her frustrations) into her thunderous piano playing, the married women in the house lead peculiarly cloistered lives. Maintained as pets by their husbands, they receive a wide range of attention. Plump, rosy Madame Campardon sweetly capitalizes on her invalid status with Monsieur Campardon encouraging this condition by pampering her and placing her in bed. This arrangement suits them both perfectly as Madame Campardon’s mysterious medical condition excuses her from any marital obligations and allows Campardon to continue his long-time affair with Madame Campardon’s crafty cousin Gasparine. Campardon’s behavior is scandalous and even Octave is shocked when he discovers the layers of deceit maintained in the Campardon household, but no one is exempt from Zola’s blistering and yet very, very amusing tale which skewers bourgeois morality. It should be remembered, however, that Pot Luck follows Nana–a novel that skewered the morality of the rich. So with this novel Zola effectively levels the playing field, and we are left idly speculating whether the rich or the bourgeois are worse!

The boarding house is brilliantly detailed within the book’s first few pages, and although this monument to bourgeois style impresses Octave, it’s obvious that the newly constructed house, which is already falling apart, isn’t a particularly pleasant place to live. The house has a certain “gaudy splendor” but most of it is imitation–imitation marble, imitation windows, and imitation oak paneling. Today, we could compare the boarding house to the pretentious mini-mansions of the middle-class, with their grandiose entryways, faux turrets, sweeping staircases and open floor plans that mimic the mansions of the far wealthier sliver of the population. Octave notes that the house’s décor begins to slip the higher one goes, and by the time he reaches the third floor, the “red carpet came to an end and was replaced by a simple grey covering.” This is significant as the house’s décor is directed more to outward appearances and similarly and its occupants are more concerned about image and mouthing platitudes than anything else.

The house also holds its secrets, and the vivid, often sour life of the servant class is largely unnoticed by their bourgeois employers. The servants entertain their lovers who are sometimes their married male employers, and while the employers only notice the servants to bitch and complain about their laziness, simultaneously they imagine that their private lives–which they go to great pains to conceal from their spouses and neighbors–is also hidden from the servants. It’s in the bourgeois employers’ treatment of the servants that hypocrisy is at its worst. To the bourgeois, morality means only one thing: sex and the importance of not speaking about it. Morality towards another human being under your control does not enter into the spectrum of moral behavior, and the bourgeois are mainly concerned with keeping up appearances and maintaining strict hierarchal considerations. The servants however, are fully aware of their employers’ darkest secrets, and the foibles of their ‘betters’ are a matter for gossip, hilarity and disgust. As one servant notes, the houses of the bourgeois are all alike: “if you’ve been in one of ‘em you’ve been in ‘em all. They’re just pig-sties.”

As always with Zola’s novels, he is the master of constructing marvelous, memorable scenes. In this novel, the memorable scenes include: the night when Octave and Berthe play musical beds (at this point Pot Luck resembles a French bedroom farce), Bachelard showing off his mistress, Octave’s visit to Judge Duveyrier’s mistress, the scene detailing the appalling gentrification of Clarisse, and Auguste Vabre’s wedding.

Of all the Rougon-Macquart novels I’ve read so far (this is number ten), I would say that Pot Luck is the most enjoyable, and there were several points while reading the novel that I laughed out loud. I loved Berthe’s capricious behavior with Octave and his frustration when he realizes that for all the presents he’s buying Berthe with the expectation of getting sexual favours in return, he’s getting less sex than Berthe’s husband. Additionally, the scenes of Judge Duveyrier–a besotted man who exchanges one type of domestic tyranny for another are simply priceless. Pot Luck, which is amazingly frank about sex, may not be considered the greatest of the novels, but it’s the hypocrisy, the squabbling over non-existent dowries and the twisted love triangles that create the sheer enjoyment of reading the antics of the residents of the boarding house.

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3 Comments

Filed under Rougon-Macquart, Zola

3 responses to “Pot Luck by Emile Zola

  1. Jonathan

    I think I liked your review nearly as much as I liked this book! Thanks.

    I can almost imagine Zola enjoying himself writing this one. I don’t know about you but I found it quite unlike the other books in that it didn’t have one of his crowd scenes or much descriptive prose – in fact it’s more like a play.

    I particularly liked the way Octave just slinks away after the ‘incident’ with Berthe, gets married and avoids all the subsequent disturbances in the house. He’s a born survivor.

    This is my 19th R-M book. I’m going to re-read ‘La Bete Humaine’ then finish with ‘Doctor Pascal’. It’s been a great journey.

    • A great journey indeed with you on this one–it is a very different book. They are all different, of course, but this one has a different tone. There’s a hint of a bedroom farce here.

      • I think you can see a definite sense of Zola’s humour in this one. Just thinking about it–so many of the other novels, while amongst the best I’ve ever read–are undeniably heavy going. (the Earth is positively Shakespearean) But this one has some very understated funny parts to it.

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