Well, here we are at No 7 in the recommended reading order for those wanting to read Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle of novels. It’s Pot-Bouille, written in 1882 and translated variously as Pot Luck, Restless House, and Piping Hot though none of these really capture the metaphorical meaning of the original title, according to Brian Nelson, the translator of this Oxford World Classics edition. There isn’t really an English word which manages to convey the ‘melting-pot of sexual promiscuity’ which pervades the building, and the stewpot of swill as a metaphor for the moral and physical corruption of bourgeois Paris in the 19th century. But if you can’t read the novel in the original French, this translation is a most enjoyable version instead, even if the translator himself isn’t happy with his title!
In this novel, a smart new building is Zola’s metaphor for the hypocrisy of the bourgeois. Octave Mouret, known to me as a man with his eye on the main chance from my previous (out-of-order) reading of The Ladies’ Paradise (see my review), comes to Paris from Plassans to make his fortune. Through his connections with relations of M. Campardon, Octave rents a room on the fourth floor of a new apartment building. The building is distinguished by elegant surface features of fake marble and mahogany which mask shoddy workmanship, peeling paint and sleazy servants’ quarters.
The concierge M. Gourd spruiks the building’s other tenants as he escorts Octave upstairs (where, alas, the posh red carpet fizzles out as they reach the cheaper rooms). Gourd is at pains to emphasise the respectability of the house, but these tenants are anything but respectable!
The landlord is M. Vabre, whose offspring all live in the building. They are:
- Clotilde Duveyrier (Vabre’s daughter) likes to hold court in her artistic salon, waylaying every eligible male to sing in her chorus, and subjecting both her piano and her listeners to muscular renditions of Chopin. Her husband Alphonse (a judge) spends most of his time with his mistress Clarisse, who (unbeknown to him) makes many a man welcome in the rooms he has furnished for her.
- Théophile, (M. Vabre’s second son) is married in name only to Valérie. She married expecting to inherit wealth. But it’s common knowledge that she gave up on Théophile because he’s impotent. She used a local stud to have a child so that they would get their share of the Vabre inheritance when the old man dies, and she’s been having meaningless affairs ever since.
- Auguste (M. Vabre’s eldest son) is a silk merchant who makes a disastrous marriage to Berthe. She is the daughter of the impecunious Josserands who (like Octave) live on the less salubrious fourth floor. He makes the mistake of making regular business trips away from home…
The other tenants are
- The Josserand Family: Madame Josserand is a termagant. Determined to marry off her daughters Hortense and Berthe but handicapped by not having enough money for the requisite dowries, she harangues her honest, hard-working husband into fraud and an early grave, and bullies the younger daughter into an unedifying pursuit of Auguste Vabre. The Josserands also have an older son who avoids them as much as possible, and a boy ominously called Saturnin, who suffers bouts of insanity and attacks anyone who upsets Berthe.
- The Campardon Family: Madame Rose Campardon is a pseudo-invalid, much given to languid loafing about and managing to look quite sexy although her ‘malady’ has made her ‘unavailable’ since the birth of their only child Angèle. Mildly fond of her husband Achille, Rose initially turns a blind eye to his long-standing affair with Gasparine, a distant cousin, but when she gets tired of his too frequent absences, she moves Gasparine in to live with them.
- The Pichon Family: This strange, completely passionless young couple are under the thumb of Madame Pichon’s interfering parents who have laid down the law about how many children it is respectable to have on their income. They come round for dinner once a week to make sure that proprieties are being observed. Things go badly wrong when Marie borrows a novel…
- Madame Juzeur: Inexplicably abandoned by her husband after ten days of marriage, she likes to flirt with young men and then refuse them. Today, she would be labelled a ‘tease’.
- There’s also an anonymous author, who keeps himself to himself!
Into this curious collection of sexually mismatched couples comes Octave, young, virile, and ambitious in more ways than one. He gets himself a job as a salesman at ‘The Ladies’ Paradise’ (just a drapery then, not then the spectacular department store it is to become in the later novel of the same name) and sets out to seduce his employer’s wife, Madame Hédouin. When she’s not interested he turns his attentions elsewhere, and elsewhere, and elsewhere! But he’s not interested in the servants, because he needs his conquests to lead to advancement in other ways.
The hypocrisy and sleaze spread outwards and upwards as well. The Josserands have a dissolute old uncle Bachelard who hangs around with Duveyrier and Trublot, a cynical young man who sleeps with almost all the servants. These hapless young women are caught between Gourd’s insistence on respectability (so much so that he evicts a young woman from the house on the eve of her confinement) and the expectation that they will submit to any man who wants a bit of fun upstairs. They are vulgar and dirty, and they have filthy mouths, but these servants are the only honest characters in the novel. In the most moving scene in the book, one of the servants gives birth alone and in silence, terrified of being caught and losing her job. The fate of her infant is heart-breaking, but was probably not uncommon. (It still happens today, though changes in social attitudes and the status of women make it rare, at least in the West).
Pot Luck is a biting satire, one of Zola’s best.
Next up in my Zola Project will be No 9 in the recommended reading order because I’ve already read No 8, The Ladies’ Paradise (Au Bonheur des Dames). There isn’t a nice modern OUP World’s Classic translation of La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret so I shall have to make do with one of these, listed on the Translations page at The Books of Emile Zola by the indefatigable Jonathan who has contributed so much to our collaborative blog there:)
- Abbé Mouret’s Transgression (1886, Tr: unknown, for H. Vizetelly, Vizetelly & Co.)
- Abbé Mouret’s Transgression (1900, edited by E. Vizetelly, Chatto & Windus)
- The Sin of the Abbé Mouret (1904, Tr: M. Smyth, McLaren & Co.)
- The Abbé Mouret’s Sin (1957, Tr: Alec Brown, Elek Books)
- The Sin of Father Mouret (1969, Tr: Sandy Petrey, Prentice-Hall)
Author: Emile Zola
Title: Pot Luck (Pot-Bouille)
Publisher: Oxford World Classics, reissued 2009
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Fishpond. (OUP have very generously sent me most of their Zola editions for review, but not this one, because I already had it).
Lisa Hill, August 2014