Plot Summary: ‘Pot Luck’ by Émile Zola

This is a plot summary of Pot Luck by Émile Zola (originally published as Pot-Bouille, 1882) and as such contains full plot details of the novel. As there are many characters in this novel it can get a bit confusing so I have tried to clarify the relationship between the characters in the summary. It’s aimed at people who have already read the novel, maybe a long time ago, who wish to remind themselves of the plot details. It is not intended to be read as a substitute for the novel – Pot Luck is one of the best novels of the Rougon-Macquart series and I’d thoroughly recommend reading it in its entirety.

Chapter I

Octave arrives at a four-storey house on Rue Choiseul, Paris. He meets M. Gourd, the concierge and M. (Achille) Campardon, whom Octave knows through Campardon’s wife. Octave is shown his room and they meet some of the tenants; his neighbours are the Josserands on one side and the Pichons on the other. While Campardon shows Octave his rooms he warns Octave that he must not make a noise or have women visitors. He talks about Gasparine, Octave’s female cousin, who had been involved with Campardon back in Plassans. Octave talks about his immediate past – he’s been in Marseille for three years and has been travelling around for another two. Compardon has found a position for Octave at his workplace, The Ladies’ Paradise, and they go to see his employer, Mme Hédouin. While Octave is shown around the shop he overhears Gasparine and Campardon arranging a meeting. Octave finds Mme Hédouin attractive as well as the fellow employee, Mme Valérie. On returning to his room he encounters the Josserands returning home.

Chapter II

Mme Josserand and her daughters, Berthe & Hortense, have left Mme Dambreville’s party and walk home. The daughters grumble as they’re getting muddy. Mme Josserand grumbles about not being able to marry her daughters and her ineffectual husband. They pass Octave on the stairs. M. Josserand is working late to earn a few francs. M. & Mme Josserand argue. The girls are hungry but can’t find much food when they go to the kitchen. The kitchen is in a mess. Back upstairs M. & Mme Josserand argue again. He states that her father never paid her dowry which infuriates her. She claims that her rich brother Bachelard has promised to pay dowry for Berthe, but M. Josserand is not so sure he’ll pay. They continue to argue and Hortense asks them to stop. She says that they are capable of getting husbands for themselves. This infuriates Mme Josserand as Hortense is infatuated with Verdier who has already had a mistress for fifteen years. She then criticises Berthe for letting another marriage slip through her fingers at the party that evening. The women go to bed while M. Josserand carries on working through the night.

Chapter III

Berthe & Hortense sit on either side of Bachelard at a dinner at the Josserands’. They encourage him to drink as they’re trying to get twenty francs out of him. Their simple brother, Saturnin, is making a mess with his food. At one point Berthe & Hortense start to playfully search Bachelard’s pockets for money. Meanwhile, people start to arrive for the soiree. They finish dessert. Berthe takes Saturnin upstairs while the diners join the other guests. Mme Josserand is upset that the Duveyriers haven’t come. Berthe plays the piano for the guests. Dr Juillerat arrives in the middle of the performance. Berthe has to go and see to Saturnin who’s making a racket upstairs. Mme Josserand has Octave in her sights for marriage to Berthe, Mme Juzeur thinks the landlord’s son, Auguste Vabre, would be a better match. Verdier arrives. Octave can’t keep his eyes off Valérie. Mme Josserand overhears Octave and his friend, Trublot, talking disparagingly about Berthe. She encourages Berthe to concentrate on Auguste and Berthe agrees. The guests leave.

Chapter IV

The next day Octave concentrates on his plan to seduce Valérie. Octave, though, is concerned that the Pichons might get in the way. At lunch the Campardons they reveal to Octave that they let their daughter, Angèle, go with Mme (Marie) Pichon to the park and that the Pichons have very strict principles. Octave decides to make the Pichons’ acquaintance. By helping Marie with her pram one day he gets to know her.

Every Sunday Marie’s parents, M. & Mme Vuillaume, come to visit. This Sunday Octave is invited in to meet them. They bore Octave with their prudish talk. They don’t agree with couples having more than one child. Mme Vuillaume explains how they brought up Marie, for example she didn’t read a novel before she was eighteen. When she could read one she became attracted to André by George Sand. Octave has to leave and tries to avoid them each Sunday. One day Octave meets Marie who is in a fluster as she doesn’t know how to dress Lilitte. Octave is astonished but helps her. Octave offers to lend her Campardon’s copy of André, which he brings round the next day. He visits her several times when Pichon is out and is both intrigued and annoyed by her.

One day Octave meets Valérie’s maid on the stairs. She asks Octave to help as Valérie is having a fit. When she comes round Valérie is surprised to see Octave there and apologises to him. She seems at ease being semi-naked in front of him. He catches her round the waist but she rebuffs him; Octave leaves. He goes past the Pichon’s door and sees Marie in there and asks her about the book. Marie seems to try to kiss him. He starts to lead her into the bedroom but she stops him. He forces himself on her on the table. Meanwhile the book has fallen on the floor which damages the corner. Pichon returns home.

Chapter V

Reception at the Duveyrier’s. Octave is embarrased that the only conquest he has had in Paris is Marie. The Josserands plan their moves before going to the Duveyrier’s. It is crowded when they arrive. Mme (Clotilde) Duveyrier plays the piano; M. Duveyrier doesn’t like music. Octave notices that Mme Hédouin is there. Mme Josserand pushes Berthe on Auguste. M. Vabre, the landlord, explains his work cataloguing the paintings at the Salon, though he has no interest in art. Mlle Dambreville & Léon Josserand arrive. The men talk politics in the parlour; the women talk about their servants. Meanwhile, Octave flirts with Mme Hédouin. Clotilde asks Octave about his singing voice; he’s a tenor. Clotilde plays the piano while the male singers accompany her. Auguste and Berthe hide behind the curtains. When the music is over Berthe cries out and attracts everyone’s attention. Mme Josserand lets it be known that Bachelard will pay a fifty thousand franc dowry. The guests talk about morality and religion. Duveyrier says that religion makes marriage moral. Trublot points out to Octave that Duvreyier has a mistress. The guests start to leave. The Josserands are happy with how things have turned out. As for the dowry, Mme Josserand is certain that things can be sorted out with Bachelard.

Chapter VI

It’s Sunday and Octave is in bed; he feels certain that Mme Hédouin will fall for him. He gets the key for the attic from M. Gouard. M. Gouard spots a woman leaving the building and confronts her but she manages to leave. Octave spots Trublot when he’s up in the attic. He’s hiding there until he can leave – he’s been sleeping with the cook, Julie along with more of the servants. They listen to some of the servants’ gossip that’s shouted from the windows that open on the backyard. They discuss their masters’ lives and foibles. Octave notices a well-dressed woman leaving a room on the second floor. Out of curiosity he follows her out of the building. M. Gouard bows to her as she leaves. Octave shows some lace samples to Mme Juzeur. He kisses her fingers but she doesn’t let him go further.
Octave goes to the Pichons’ for dinner in the evening. When the Vuillaumes leave, Pichon takes them to the bus station which takes about two hours. Octave starts kissing Marie but Saturnin arrives and interrupts them. Marie refuses to go to Octave’s room. They open a window and hear M. Gouard accusing the carpenter of carrying on with prostitutes. The carpenter protests that the woman is his wife, but M. Gouard gives him notice to leave. Octave notices Trublot in the hallway – he’s goiong to see Adèle (Josserands’ maid).

Chapter VII

The Josserands have been asking Bachelard to dinner almost every evening. Mme Josserand confronts him one evening about the dowry but he manages to escape without committing himself. The next day M. & Mme Josserand and Berthe go to see him at work. They ask him about the fifty thousand franc dowry. Bachelard gets nervous and pleads poverty but M. Josserand knows better as he does the books for him. Bachelard brings up an insurance that they had on Berthe that came to fifty thousand francs. Mme Josserand states that it’s elapsed. Bachelard says that they should mention this insurance and agree to pay the dowry in installments. M. Josserand isn’t impressed but Mme Josserand can see the advantages of it.

The next day Octave & Trublot meet Bachelard in an inn. He’s drunk and having a row with someone. They join him and his employee, Gueulin and talk about women. Bachelard takes them to his mistress Fifi to show her off to them. He is very attentive to her and kisses her goodbye. They go back to the inn as they have an appointment with M. Josserand. They then go to Clarisse’s and talk to Duvreyier about the mariage with Auguste and the proposed insurance as dowry. Duvreyier accepts and they agree to meet at the notary’s in a few days time. A few days later the marriage contract is signed. Saturnin is taken away to an asylum as he was becoming too dangerous.

Chapter VIII

The civil marriage between Berthe & Auguste is to take place and people are meeting in the Josserands’ drawing-room. The Josserands paid for the wedding out of money that was left to Saturnin. Théophile Vabre (son of the landlord) arrives in a furious state; he’s found an incriminating letter belonging to Valérie and he thinks she’s having an affair with Octave. Auguste Vabre turns up – he has a headache. They all go to the church and Théophile confronts Octave during the service. Even the priest notices something is going on at the back of the church. Octave shows an example of his handwriting to prove that the note is not his. It’s later and everyone is still talking about the note. Théophile confronts Valérie again; she starts to have convulsions and is taken into another room. She eventually recovers but Théophile still wants to know who wrote the note. Josserand tells him that the note was intended for the maid which Théophile eventually believes. Théophile and Valérie eventually join the party and dance together while Octave dances with Mme Hédouin. Bachelard is drunk and disgraces himself by doing an indecent dance. Back at the apartment block Octave and Berthe bump into each other on the landing.

Chapter IX

Octave arrives at the Campardons’ for dinner. Mme (Rose) Campardin and Gasparine get to know each other. It’s revealed that M. Hédouin has fallen ill. Octave is still intent on becoming Mme Hédouin’s lover. Rose suggests that Gasparine should move in with them. One day M. (Achille) Campardon comes home early and finds that Gasparine is in the process of moving in. Octave leaves and goes to the Pichons’ for dinner. They’re arguing with the Vuillaumes who are disgusted that Marie is having another baby. She’s five months pregnant which coincides with her encounter with Octave. Octave takes them all out for an expensive meal.

Octave regularly helps Mme Hédouin with the receipts. One time when they’re alone Octave reveals his ideas about expanding the shop and tries to kiss her. She is disappointed in him as she thought he was more serious than the others. He resigns out of embarrassement but she doesn’t see why he should.
When he visits the Campardons’ he often comes across Achille & Gasparine kissing. Achille doesn’t go out in the evenings now. Octave goes out for a walk and meets Berthe. She’s heard that he’s left the Ladies’ Paradise and offers him a job in her & Auguste’s drapery. He accepts.

Chapter X

Octave now spent more time at the Duveyriers’. Mme Duveyrier pretends that M. Duveyrier is working when he is really seeing his mistress, Clarisse. The Duveyrier’s servant, Clémence, comes in with news that M. Vabre has collapsed. Mme tells Octave to get her husband – she knows where he really is.
M. Duveyrier, Bachelard, Trublot & Gueulin are at a restaurant having an expensive meal. Bachelard intends to show off Fifi to his guests. Duveyrier mentions that Clarisse is waiting for them so Bachelard then decides that they should go to see Clarisse. When they arrive her flat is empty and Duveyrier is distraught. Octave arrives and he tells Duveyrier that he is wanted as his father-in-law is dying. Duveyrier and Octave go off in a cab; when they arrive the doctor is there but he doesn’t think Vabre will last long.

Chapter XI

The next morning everyone knows about Vabre’s illness and they speculate on his will. Octave goes to Berthe’s shop and tells them the news about Vabre; Mme Josserand is furious at Octave for not letting them know sooner as she’s suspicious of the others. Auguste and Berthe go to see Vabre. Clotilde and Théophile are there with their spouses. They argue. It’s revealed that there is no will. M. Vabre dies and his funeral is two days later.

Octave flirts with Marie, then goes to see Mme Juzeur and flirts with her; she claims she can’t relax with the corpse in the house. While the coffin is being taken out of the building a new female tenant, a boot-stitcher, arrives for the carpenter’s old room. After the funeral the family start to argue over the inheritance. They could find no will or money, except for 734 francs. They found notebooks with evidence of his gambling and evidence that he’d re-mortgaged the house. All that remains is the house which is worth three hundred thousand francs and only half of the mortgage has been paid. It is agreed that the house will be sold. After some dubious arrangements Duveyrier gets the house for one hundred and forty thousand francs and the others are furious. He then agrees to charge no rent to Auguste and Théophile for five years.

Chapter XII

Saturnin returns as the home refuses to look after him if he’s sane enough to sign over money to his parents; he goes to live with Berthe. Berthe becomes more like her mother and treats her husband the same way that her mother treated her husband. They take on a new servant girl, Rachel. Auguste resents the money that Berthe spends and they bicker constantly. Octave starts buying things for Berthe while reporting on Berthe to Auguste. Saturnin helps Berthe and Octave to get together. Saturnin often threatens to harm Auguste. One time after an argument Berthe locks herself in her room and Saturnin stands guard. He allows Octave to see her but not Auguste – Octave and Berthe make love.

Chapter XIII

One day Octave comes across M. Gouard spying on the tenants, which makes him nervous. He is afraid that he and Berthe might get caught. One night Berthe comes to visit Octave and she stays the night. She wakes late and is scared about getting back downstairs without being detected. While Octave occupies Marie, Berthe makes her escape down the outside stairs. She manages to get back to her flat but Rachel is in her room; she tips her to keep her quiet. Octave goes out. When he returns he talks to M. Gouard, who points out to Octave the boot-stitcher who is obviously pregnant. M. Gouard has given her notice to quit. Octave flirts with Mme Juzeur in her room. Octave and Berthe meet less frequently as Berthe is frightened of getting caught by Auguste and Octave is frightened of getting caught by M. Gouard. September approaches and Rachel is going to be away for a few days. Octave suggests that he and Berthe should meet in her room. On the planned night Octave gets there first and waits. He bumps into Trublot outside the room; Trublot reveals how Duveyrier has had Adèle and he tells Octave all the other goings on in the house. At four o’clock Berthe still hasn’t arrived. Octave can hear Trublot and Adèle next door. Berthe arrives in the morning and is surprised to see Octave still there. She couldn’t come to him at night because it was all too squalid. They listen to to the servants’ chatter at the back of the house and arrange to meet the following week. Berthe leaves and Octave overhears the servants talking about M. Hédouin’s death. The boot-stitcher is evicted.

Chapter XIV

Auguste is away in Lyons. At dinner with the Campardons’ Achille reveals to Octave that Duveyrier has found Clarisse. At ten o’clock Octave leaves, Rose goes to bed and Gasparine & Achille sleep together. Octave has a drink with the Pichons and the Vuillaumes and flirts with Marie when they’re alone . He forces himself on her again and then goes to his room to wait for Berthe, who turns up after midnight. They talk and begin to argue then go to bed. As soon as they’re in bed Auguste starts knocking on the door and shouting, he then breaks the door down. Auguste and Octave scuffle. Berthe runs out the room and hides in the Campardons’ flat. Gasparine and Achille comfort her but Gasparine is ashamed of her behaviour. They try to get her to go to her parents’ but in the end Marie takes her in.

Chapter XV

The next day the tenants are talking about the night’s escapades. Auguste reveals that he’s going to challenge Octave to a duel. He wants Duveyrier to be his second but he is with Clarisse. They go off to find her new address. They meet Bachelard who reveals that he’s found Fifi and Gueulin together. They eventually find Clarisse’s house. Clarisse is now very fat. Duveyrier, Trublot, Bachelard & Auguste go to a restaurant. After a large meal Auguste returns home; the duel is forgotten about.
Octave meets Mme Hédouin who offers him a job. He then meets Valérie and they talk. He returns to his flat; Duveyrier and Bachelard arrive and lecture him about his behaviour. Octave mentions that he is leaving the building. Duveyrier goes to see Auguste and interrupts Saturnin, who is having one of his violent fits and is threatening to kill Auguste. Saturnin is taken away again.

Chapter XVI

Marie takes Berthe back to Mme Josserand. Berthe and Hortense talk about the events and Hortense reveals that she’s still intent on marrying Verdier even though his mistress had just had a child. The next morning M. Josserand doesn’t go to work as he is unwell. He does not yet know what has happened though. During breakfast Mme Josserand accuses Adèle of stealing the food and dismisses her. Mme Dambreville arrives and is shown into a waiting room. She’s upset because Léon is now seeing Raymonde, her niece and she asks Mme Josserand to try to influence him. As Léon is expected she decides to waits for him. Meanwhile Auguste arrives and is in a belligerant mood. M. Josserand thinks the disagreement is over the dowry but they start talking about the adultery. Mme Josserand doesn’t defend Berthe’s actions but she says that Auguste is to blame as he doesn’t know how to treat a wife. It soon turns nasty and M. Josserand now understands. Auguste leaves in a temper and the Josserands bicker amongst themselves. Mme Dambreville is still in the house. She says she’ll now agree to the marriage beween Raymonde & Léon as long as they live with her. While the others are busy M. Josserand has fainted and knocked his head.

Chapter XVII

Months pass. Octave is back at the Ladies’ Paradise and people are talking of marriage between him and Mme Hédouin. He, however, remains emotionally distant from her and he concentrates on the expansion of the shop, which includes buying Vabre’s shop. Mme Hédouin raises the subject of marriage between them.

Duvreyier, now the landlord, asks Auguste to make up with Berthe for the sake of propriety. He suggests that Auguste take her back on the condition that the Josserands pay the full fifty thousand dowry. Since he lost Fifi, Bachelard is constantly drunk and rude but will not pay the money which infuriates Mme Josserand as Bachelard paid the same amount to Gueulin to marry Fifi. The doctor and the priest arrive to see M. Josserand who is dying. Bachelard won’t pay the money so the Josserands say that Auguste will have to have Berthe back first. Auguste misses Berthe. Duvreyrier urges Auguste to make it up with his wife.

Duvreyrier’s relationship with Clarisse is getting worse. Clotilde has caught the servants Clémence and Hippolyte together and urges them to marry. Later on Hippolyte reveals that he’s already married.
M. Josserand dies before Mme Josserand can arrange a bedside reconciliation between Auguste and Berthe. After the funeral Auguste and Berthe make up. Meanwhile, Marie gives birth to another child. Duveyrier is driven away by Clarisse and he buys a revolver. He thinks about killing himself at the funeral but tries it later in the toilet but he just blows his jaw off.

Berthe dismisses Rachel who then reveals all their secrets to anyone that will listen. Octave and Mme Hédouin announce their marriage.

Chapter XVIII

Adèle is nine months pregnant though no-one, including herself, was aware of this. She goes into labour in her room and tries not to make too much noise. The birth is relatively straight forward; she wraps the baby up and puts it on the building’s entrance and returns to bed. She has the next few days off work.

The Duveyrier’s hold a dinner. Auguste gets irate at the thought of Octave arriving and threatens to leave if he turns up. Octave arrives late; Auguste fumes but doesn’t leave. Octave joins the choir. Duveyrier’s voice is now more distinguished since his suicide attempt. They discuss the case of a woman who was guilty of infanticide. It turns out that it was the boot-stitcher who couldn’t feed her baby. They’re shocked by the increase in debauchery of the lower classes. The women discuss the servants and they reproach Adèle. Duveyrier meanwhile has a new mistress. Auguste tries to leave but Berthe refuses. He gets a migraine. It all seems as if everything has returned to normal. The novel ends with the servants discussing their employers. Adèle tells the others that she’d had a bad stomach ache.

Exceptional Excerpts: The Belly of Paris #2 by Émile Zola

The Belly of Paris cover

The Belly of Paris

The majority of the novel takes place in the Parisian food market, Les Halles which is ‘the belly of Paris’. This excerpt is from the final page of the book and is an excellent ending to the story, symbolising the defeat of the ‘Thins’ by the respectable ‘Fats’, the petit bourgeois shop keepers. Although it consists of the final few paragraphs, I don’t think reading this excerpt will ruin the book for anyone that hasn’t read it.

On his left, La Belle Lisa, looking out from the charcuterie, occupied the entire width of the doorway. Her linen had never been as white as it was now; never had her pink, refreshed complexion been so neatly framed in smooth waves of hair. She exhibited the deep calm of repletion, a massive tranquillity unruffled even by a smile. She was a picture of absolute quietude, of perfect bliss, not only untroubled but lifeless, as she bathed in the warm air. She seemed, in her tightly stretched bodice, to be still digesting the happiness of the day before; her plump hands, lost in the folds of her apron, were not even outstretched to grasp the happiness of the day, for it was sure to fall into them. And the shop window beside her seemed to display the same bliss. It too had recovered; the stuffed tongues lay red and healthy, the hams were once more showing their handsome yellow faces, and the strings of sausages no longer had the sad look that had so upset Quenu. Hearty laughter rang out from the kitchen at the back, accompanied by the joyful rattle of saucepans. Once again the charcuterie exuded health, a kind of greasy health. The great strips of bacon and the sides of pork that hung against the marble brought to the picture the rounded contours of the belly, the belly triumphant, while Lisa, standing there, motionless and imposing, greeted Les Halles with her large, well-fed face.

Then both ladies turned to each other. La Belle Madame Lebigre and La Belle Madame Quenu exchanged a friendly greeting.

Claude, who had no doubt forgotten to have any supper the night before, felt angry at seeing them both looking so well and so respectable, with their great breasts thrust out before them; tightening his belt, he muttered bitterly:

‘Respectable people… What bastards!’

(The Belly of Paris, by Émile Zola, Oxford University Press, translated by Brian Nelson, 2007, p.275)

On Reading the Rougon-Macquart Series

Reading Zola

My first Zola book was the Penguin edition of Nana which I read in the early ’90s; I then read L’Assommoir. The subject matters of prostitution and alcohol abuse must have been what attracted me to the books but I’m intrigued as to where I first heard of Zola; it certainly wasn’t at school. I was reading a lot of Henry Miller at the time, and although he was a source of a lot of interesting books, I don’t think it was from reading him. Anyway, after reading these two books, I declared myself an Émile Zola fan and promptly read nothing else by him for about ten years until I read La Bête humaine.

I think I like a reasonable variety of novels and non-fiction but every now and then I fancy reading a good ol’ 19th Century novel laden with characters and plot developments to keep me interested. In 2011 I must have been in one of these moods when I picked up another Zola book, The Ladies’ Paradise, which really impressed me and it seemed to be quite different than the others that I’d read years before. I read a couple more, including a re-read of L’Assommoir and I think it was then that I started to seriously consider reading the whole series.

I’m still a bit surprised that I read the whole series as I’m usually put off by long series of novels, films or television programmes as I get the feeling that the best material is at the beginning and the later work is just substandard material that was probably rejected from the earlier work. But, this isn’t the case with Zola and the Rougon-Macquart series: it was conceived as a whole and it works as a whole.

The Rougon-Macquart Series

The full title of the series is The Rougon-Macquart: the Natural and Social History of a Family under the Second Empire. The Second Empire existed from 1852 to 1870 with Napoleon III (a.k.a. Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew) as Emperor. Zola originally planned the ten-novel cycle depicting life in the Second Empire in 1869; the series of course, subsequently grew to twenty novels and took Zola over twenty years to complete. The last novel in the series, Doctor Pascal was published in 1893.

Zola made claims that the Rougon-Macquart series was a scientific study into genealogy or heredity. It all seems a bit silly these days and people sometimes rubbish the series because the ‘scientific’ aspect was incorrect. I just ignored his claims and read the books as he still has a lot of interesting insights into human nature.

The Reading Order

Madame Vauquer has already covered the topic of the Reading Order, which I totally agree with, but I would just like to make a few points regarding the reading order:

  • Each novel is completely self-contained and can be read on its own with no knowledge of the other novels in the series.
  • Many people who decide to read the series either read it in publication order or some-sort of chronological order such as Zola’s recommended reading order.
  • If you are not sure if you want to read the whole series but just want to try Zola then it’s best to read a few of the ‘biggies’ first, e.g. Nana, Germinal, L’Assommoir, Pot Luck, La Bête Humaine. Of course, if you’re still interested after some of those then continue with the others.

The short version then, is that the reading order does not really matter that much and the potential reader should not get too obsessed with it. However, there are some extra points that I would like to make that may help people who are planning to read the series – these are for guidance only. I realise that, having set out three clear points above, that I’m now about to confuse the issue with loads of exceptions, so I’ll apologise, but continue anyway:

  • Whatever order you read them in, personally I wouldn’t read The Fortune of the Rougons first. It’s much better read after you’ve read some of the others and after you’ve got to know some of the characters. If you read it first it may just seem confusing. It was my eighth book of the series.
  • It’s probably best, however, to read The Fortune of the Rougons before reading His Excellency, Eugène Rougon, The Conquest of Plassans, The Kill and Abbé Mouret’s Sin.
  • It’s best to read Doctor Pascal last as it’s essentially an epilogue to the whole series.
  • The Debacle portrays the end of the Second Empire and the subsequent Paris Commune, so it’s best to read this near the end, preferably as the penultimate novel.
  • For those readers that like a bit of chronology: Nana appears as a child in L’Assommoir and as an adult in Nana; The Ladies’ Paradise should be read after Pot Luck as Octave Mouret is older in The Ladies’ Paradise; at the end of The Earth Jean Macquart leaves to join the army which leads into The Debacle. I read all of these the ‘wrong’ way round with no ill effects. The only one I got the ‘correct’ way round was with reading The Kill before Money.


The other main question that crops up if you’re reading them in English is ‘which translation to read?’ The answer is reasonably simple: if there is a modern (say post 1970) translation available then read it, especially if it’s a Penguin or Oxford University Press book (Brian Nelson rules!). If you have no alternative then you may have to fall back on older translations, the most common ones will be the Vizetelly translations. In fact, nearly all of the free digital versions and cheap (and sometimes not-so-cheap) printed versions are versions of the Vizetelly translations, which were originally published in the late Victorian period. The quality, however, varies wildly; some were heavily bowdlerised, especially those novels with a sexual content.

If you’re prepared to wait for all of the Rougon-Macquart novels to get a modern translation then you may have to wait a while. Though things are looking good as modern translations of Money and The Conquest of Plassans are due in 2014. This still leaves five novels that have not received a modern translation yet. Fortunately, when I was reading the series I discovered that many of the novels of the series were translated in the 1950s by various translators and published by Elek Books. Although these translations are now also dated themselves, they are, in my opinion, preferable to the Vizetelly versions. I managed to order some copies from my local library and I bought other copies at reasonable prices from eBay and other sites. Translation information, including Elek Book versions, can be found on the Translations page.

The other option is just to learn French and read them in the original.

Hopefully some of the information above will be of use to people who are thinking of reading any books in the series.

Exceptional Excerpts: The Kill by Émile Zola

The Kill was originally published as La Curée in 1872. It was the second volume in Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series of books. The whole novel revolves around Saccard’s (a.k.a. Aristide Rougon) lust for money and Maxime and Renée’s lust for each other – Maxime is Saccard’s son from his first wife and Renée is Saccard’s second wife.

This excerpt is from the first chapter. A banquet has been held at Saccard’s luxurious house and the guests are leaving. Maxime and Louise, his betrothed, have sneaked off to the hothouse which is filled with exotic plants; Renée has followed them at a distance and spies on them.

Endless love and voluptuous appetite pervaded this stifling nave in which settled the ardent sap of the tropics. Renée was wrapped in the powerful bridals of the earth that gave birth to these dark growths, these colossal stamina; and the acrid birth-throes of this hotbed, of this forest growth, of this mass of vegetation aglow with the entrails that nourished it, surrounded her with disturbing odours. At her feet was the steaming tank, its tepid water thickened by the sap from the floating roots, enveloping her shoulders with a mantle of heavy vapours, forming a mist that warmed her skin like the touch of a hand moist with desire. Overhead she could smell the palm trees, whose tall leaves shook down their aroma. And more than the stifling heat, more than the brilliant light, more than the great dazzling flowers, like faces laughing or grimacing between the leaves, it was the odours that overwhelmed her. An indescribable perfume, potent, exciting, composed of a thousand different perfumes, hung about her; human exudation, the breath of women, the scent of hair; and breezes sweet and swooningly faint were blended with breezes coarse and pestilential, laden with poison. But amid this strange music of odours, the dominant melody that constantly returned, stifling the sweetness of the vanilla and the orchids’ pungency, was the penetrating, sensual smell of flesh, the smell of lovemaking escaping in the early morning from the bedroom of newlyweds.

Renée is overcome by the odours in the hothouse, the night’s excess and from watching Maxime and Louise. The chapter ends with this paragraph:

The shrub that half concealed her was a malignant plant, a Madagascan tanghin tree with wide, box-like leaves with whitish stems, whose smallest veins distilled a venomous fluid. At a moment when Louise and Maxime laughed more loudly in the reflected yellow light of the sunset in the little boudoir, Renée, her mind wandering, her mouth dry and parched, took between her lips a sprig of the tanghin tree that was level with her mouth, and sank her teeth into one of its bitter leaves.

( The Kill, by Émile Zola, Oxford University Press, translated by Brian Nelson, 2004, p39-40)

Exceptional Excerpts: The Belly of Paris, by Émile Zola

The Belly of Paris  was originally published in 1873 as Le Ventre de Paris; it was the third novel in the Rougon-Macquart series of novels and is centred around the busy Les Halles market in the centre of Paris.

This excerpt comes from a point about three quarters the way through the novel and takes place in Madame Lecoeur’s cheese storeroom. Also present is Mlle Saget and La Sarriette. Mlle Saget has found out some information about the main character, Florent. Although the reader of the novel already knows from the opening pages what this secret is I won’t reveal it here as I want to concentrate largely on the descriptive and lyrical prose of this section. It is, in total, about five pages long and begins with a page long description of all the cheeses in the storeroom, the women continue gossiping as the smells of all the cheeses in the enclosed room becomes overwhelming.

I would have liked to just quote the whole section but that might have been a bit excessive. Instead I’ve picked out some of the more descriptive text and left out most of the dialogue and gossiping, this is because the dialogue makes more sense as part of the plot, whereas the descriptive text more easily stands alone. I’ve indicated where I’ve skipped some text with an ellipsis in square brackets. I believe that this section was known as ‘The Cheese Symphony’ for reasons that will soon be clear.

All around them the cheeses were stinking. On the two shelves at the back of the stall were huge blocks of butter: Brittany butter overflowing its baskets; Normandy butter wrapped in cloth, looking like models of bellies on to which a sculptor had thrown some wet rags; other blocks, already cut into and looking like high rocks full of valleys and crevices. […] But for the most part the cheeses stood in piles on the table. There, next to the one-pound packs of butter, a gigantic cantal was spread on leaves of white beet, as though split by blows from an axe; then came a golden Cheshire cheese, a gruyère like a wheel fallen from some barbarian chariot, some Dutch cheeses suggesting decapitated heads smeared in dried blood and as hard as skulls – which has earned them the name of ‘death’s heads’. A parmesan added its aromatic tang to the thick, dull smell of the others. […] Then came the strong-smelling cheeses: the mont-d’ors, pale yellow, with a mild sugary smell; the troyes, very thick and bruised at the edges, much stronger, smelling like a damp cellar; the camemberts, suggesting high game; the neufchâtels, the limbourgs, the marolles, the pont-l’évèques, each adding its own shrill note in a phrase that was harsh to the point of nausea; […]
A silence fell at the mention of Gavard. They all looked at each other cautiously. As they were all rather short of breath by this time, it was the camembert they could smell. This cheese, with its gamy odour, had overpowered the milder smells of the marolles and the limbourg; its power was remarkable. Every now and then, however, a slight whiff, a flute-like note, came from the parmesan, while the bries came into play with their soft, musty smell, the gentle sound, so to speak, of a damp tambourine. The livarot launched into an overwhelming reprise, and the géromé kept up the symphony with a sustained note.

( The Belly of Paris, by Émile Zola, Oxford University Press, translated by Brian Nelson, 2007, p210-216)

The Fortune of the Rougons, by Emile Zola, translated by Brian Nelson

The Fortune of the RougonsAfter I read Germinal a couple of years ago (see my review), Émile Zola became one of those authors that I really wanted to read more of, but it was not until I saw the BBC series based on The Ladies’ Paradise and read the novel (see my review) that I decided to begin a long-term project to read them all. I’ve enjoyed reading this one, The Fortune of the Rougons, which puts the whole sequence into perspective.

With Les Rougon-Macquart, Zola apparently set out to emulate Balzac’s La Comedie Humaine but his 20-volume cycle differs in two significant ways: it consists of novels rather than short stories and novellas, and it focusses on a single family rather than a whole society. Zola believed in the fatalistic effects of heredity and environment, and so the novels trace three branches of the Rougon-Macquart family: the aspirational Rougons, always on the hunt for wealth and position; the Mourets, who are bourgeois tradesmen and provincials; and the low-born Macquarts who are industrial workers. (Or worse).

The Fortune of the Rougons charts the lives of the first generation. (There’s a helpful family tree at Wikipedia). Adélaïde Fouque (Aunt Dide) – who is a bit loopy, has three children: Pierre Rougon, the legitimate son of her long deceased labourer husband, and Antoine and Ursule who are the children of her liaison with the smuggler Macquart. By the end of the novel Pierre and his ambitious wife Felicité Puech have with a mixture of good luck and cunning overcome their disadvantages and achieved their destiny as influential leaders in the town. Ursule (who marries Mouret) and the drunken layabout Antoine have been swindled out of their inheritance, and are relegated to their respective paths in life.

Eugène Delacroix - Liberty Leading the People (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

Eugène Delacroix – Liberty Leading the People
(Source: Wikipedia Commons)

The novel begins with the naïve idealism of a young couple who have enlisted in the doomed insurgency that led to the December 1851 coup d’état that created the French Second Empire under Napoleon III. (Fortunately, the reader does not need to know much about the interminable revolutions of this period, but if you are keen, you can start at Wikipedia, or try A Traveller’s History of Paris by Robert Cole which has the only explanation I’ve ever enjoyed reading.) Ursule’s son Silvère Mouret and Miette have been sweet on each other since childhood, and they are out canoodling around the periphery of the town when they are swept up into the insurgency. The rude comments of some of the militia reveal that both have grubby forebears, particularly Miette whose father, a poacher, was executed for killing a gendarme. This unpleasantness doesn’t, however, deter Miette from joining the compatriots: in a scene reminiscent of Delacroix’s Liberty Guiding the People she takes up the role of flag bearer so that she can be with Silvère, and off they go. While Zola’s sympathies are obviously with the rebels and against the cynical government in Paris, I wondered whether this allusion was meant to suggest that as things turned out politically in this period, Liberty herself was alas, as naïve as Miette was.

In the next chapter Zola then abruptly abandons these two to tell the story of the Rougons, launching into Adélaïde’s imprudent marriage to Rougon. Adelaide was the daughter of a market gardener, and could have made an advantageous marriage even in Plassans where the options are limited, but no, she fancied Rougon who was a labourer on her father’s land. After his death she formed an eccentric liaison with the alcoholic Macquart and bore him the two children, Antoine and Ursule, before he disappeared and died as well. Pierre resents having to share his inheritance with these two and cunningly arranges affairs so that he doesn’t have to (which isn’t hard because by now Adelaide is well-and-truly unhinged).

Antoine never lets Pierre forget the swindle, much to Pierre and Felicité’s embarrassment. For with money behind him Pierre makes an aspirational marriage and they soon set about ingratiating themselves with their ‘betters’, a tactic which isn’t helped by the drunken Antoine casting accusations at them whenever he gets the opportunity. In this way Zola reinforces the town’s doubts about the legitimacy of Pierre and Felicité’s position throughout the novel, culminating in the closing paragraph with overt symbolism to show that they have blood on their hands, thus making a veiled critique of the legitimacy of Napoleon III’s crown.

As to the next generation, Pierre’s three children are a disappointment. They are educated, thanks to Felicité’s ambition, but without any capital behind them, they get nowhere. Only their middle child, the doctor Pascal turns out to have any integrity, the others are stupid and lazy. It’s just luck that Eugene turns out to have some useful insider information that facilitates Pierre’s elevation to hero and saviour of the town. (He’s awarded the Legion of Honour, no less!)

Zola’s theory was that refinement came through the female line and certainly Felicité is the brains behind Pierre’s triumph. Their shenanigans are portrayed with great comic irony by Zola, setting Pierre up as a small-time Napoleon in a mock-epic drama – with Felicité as his Josephine. As to Silvère and Miette, well, I’m not going to give out spoilers – but some readers may need a hankie…

According to Zola’s recommended reading order (which isn’t the same as the publication order) I’m supposed to read Son Excellence Eugène Rougon next … but I need some advice about which translation to get because Brian Nelson hasn’t done that one.

Commentary by Lisa Hill, 18/11/11 and cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers

Author: Émile Zola
Title: The Fortune of the Rougons
Translated by Brian Nelson
Publisher: Oxford World Classics, Oxford University Press, 2012
ISBN: 9780199560998
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Fishpond $13.64


Fishpond:The Fortune of the Rougons (Oxford World’s Classics)
Book Depository: The Fortunes of the Rougons (Oxford World Classics)

The Ladies’ Paradise, by Emile Zola, translated by Brian Nelson

The Ladies' ParadiseI loved this book! I have a mountain of other things to read but after seeing the BBC series created out of Émile Zola’s The Ladies’ Paradise I couldn’t resist bringing it home from the library. However, I also stumbled across Julian Barnes Levels of Life that day – and it was so beautiful and wise that I read and reviewed that first, and then I found myself with only a day to read all 480 pages of The Ladies’ Paradise and no, I couldn’t renew it because it’s in high demand at the library.

By the time I had read the brilliant introduction by Brian Nelson and the first chapter I knew I had to finish the story without waiting for a copy by snail mail, so I resurrected the hated Kindle to buy a copy from You-Know-Who. And because I had fallen in love with Zola I succumbed to buying a Collected Works edition. How different could it be, I thought?

Quite different. Not just ignorant proof-reading errors like shoot instead of chute and a disconcerting he instead of she in a crucial piece of dialogue, and the translation by Ernest Alfred Vizetelly (1853–1922) has a quaint way with words like jades and fanfaronade. There are also shades of meaning which matter, when a young woman’s rival is stout instead of buxom. But more importantly The Complete Works of Émile Zola lacks Brian Nelson’s introduction, which places this novel in a context which is still very relevant today. So, take my advice, if you are going to read anything by Zola – don’t do as I did, but do as I mean to do from now onwards: make sure you get hold of the five Oxford World’s Classics titles which have been translated by Brian Nelson, professor of French Studies at Monash University, Melbourne and editor of the Australian Journal of French Studies.

Zola is famous for his series about the Rougon-Macquart family, which he used to express his pseudo-scientific belief that ‘human behaviour is determined by heredity and environment’ (p. vii). He wrote 20 novels and a short story about this family using the descendants of the three children of an insane woman called Tante Dide to show that they were fated to live out their warped heredity. The offspring of the legitimate child prosper, while the fortunes of the illegitimate strand vary. The Macquarts are unbalanced and prone to violence as I saw in Germinal (see my review) while the Mouret family are ‘successful bourgeois adventurers‘ (p. viii). According to Nelson, The Ladies’ Paradise was a shift in outlook for Zola, who in the character of Octave Mouret focusses on a self-made man capitalising on opportunity in the new Paris. (Quite different to his story of the prostitute Nana, which I have in a nice old Folio Society edition on my TBR).

But these biographical details aside, what captivated me about Brian Nelson’s introduction was the way he analysed the book as an exploration of the new 19th century consumerism and commodity culture. Everything he had to say resonated with what I have heard and read about cataclysmic change in contemporary retailing since the arrival of online stores. A friend of ours is an economist, and he predicts that within 20 years shops as we know them will be gone. There will be large warehouses servicing online sales, and there will be display stores offering specialist expertise where – for a fee – we will go to investigate the range of whitegoods or whatever before we buy online. Shopping centres will offer only services that you can’t buy online, like hairdressing, dry-cleaning, cafes and restaurants. This bodes well for strip shopping centres because that is mostly what they do now anyway, and they will make the transition more easily than department stores and mega malls which are already complaining about losing sales to online merchants. If our friend is right, it’s an interesting future, eh?

Zola’s novel captures Paris in its transition from a city of small artisan shops to the rise of the mega department stores. When the story opens, orphans Denise Baudu and her two younger brothers have come to the city from the countryside, as so many hopefuls did. Opportunity lies in the big city as Second Empire capitalism takes hold, and Denise needs to support her dependants (then aged five and twelve). Her hopes of work with her uncle Baudu falter as she sees his customers abandon him for the brilliant new department store across the road. The Ladies’ Paradise is a new phenomenon which is determined to ruin him, and its marketing strategy is the seduction and conquest of female customers …

As 19th century industrialists produced more and more goods at prices ever cheaper, commodity culture emerged. Octave Mouret, with his dream of creating an entire world in miniature to entice his female customers knows how the commercial principle of supply works:

He bombards his customers with advertising which panders to their dreams, and he offers ‘free entry’ with no obligation to buy so that shopping becomes a leisure activity (displacing the churches as a respectable place for ladies to congregate outside the home). His fixed prices make buying quick, impersonal and guilt-free, and ‘easy returns’ mean that anything unsatisfactory can be quickly replaced by ‘another object of desire’. The layout of his store forces customers to walk past displays of merchandise they had no intention of buying in order to create a desire they didn’t know they had. (Ikea is the worst culprit to do this in the modern world, once in, you can’t get out without walking through the whole shop). Most disastrous of all to his pitifully inadequate rivals struggling to survive the onslaught, his building is full of warmth and light and spectacle. It is the place to be.

All this is fascinating stuff, especially for those of us who have succumbed to the Galerie Lafayette in Paris, and the story of Denise’s painful journey to maturity is riveting to read. There are significant differences between the novel and the series, especially in the characterisation of minor characters like Madame Aurélie and Madame Desforges, but the stronger, more dynamic Denise of the series is an improvement on the Denise of the novel. As Guy Savage at His Futile Preoccupations has noted, in Zola’s book Denise’s implied sainthood makes her a problematic heroine. Indeed, Zola’s characterisation of women in general reminded me very much of Balzac: regardless of their class, they are either heartless females who bestow sexual favours for gain or they are impossibly good women who seek, sometimes vainly, to restrain the impulses of men. For Denise, torn between her admiration for a man who represents a bright future and her concern for the exploitation of her fellow-workers and the ruin of the local traders, love is a complication that she struggles to manage. She is both bewildered by and attracted to Mouret and his magnificent store, and while she feels intense pity for the tragedy of her uncle’s demise, she feels disdain for the irrational refusal to adapt that characterises both his and Bourras’s response to generous offers from Mouret.

What is also notable in the novel is Zola’s use of imagery to sustain the notion of store as seducer. Mouret’s female customers correspond to the customer types that contemporary marketers will recognise, and The Ladies’ Paradise exploits them all:

  • Madame Marty, the unselective buyer who consumes everything and anything and spends more than she can afford;
  • Madame Guibal, who can only afford to window-shop but likes to feast her eyes on the merchandise and helps to bolster the compelling crowds;
  • Madame de Boves, who is short of money too, but resents what she can’t buy. She buys only for her daughter’s ‘glory box.
  • Madame Bourdelais, who is careful, practical and only buys up the bargains. She thinks she is besting Mouret, unaware that he needs her to buy unsold stock to sustain his strategy of always offering something new; and
  • Madame Henriette Desforges who buys only gloves, hosiery and coarse linen because she likes to be exclusive (but quietly buys her material there and has it made up by her dressmaker).

Mouret’s sales are extravaganzas. He decks out the store with all kinds of discreet sexual allusions, reaching the pinnacle with the grand opening of the final façade on the new boulevard. Everything is bridal white, with images in the ladies’ underwear department of clothing strewn on the floor and the sweet innocence of childhood in Denise’s department. The irony is that the designer of this imagery does not yet know his own mind and may yet lose the one he loves.

It’s a terrific book that stands the test of time better than many books of its period.

Review contributed by Lisa Hill December 2013, and cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers.

Author: Emile Zola
Title: The Ladies’ Paradise
Translated from the French Au Bonheur des Dames and with an introduction by Brian Nelson
Publisher: Oxford World Classics, 2012
ISBN: 9780199675968 (BBC series tie-in edition)

Other covers

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Fishpond: The Ladies’ Paradise (Oxford World’s Classics, BBC series tie-in edition)
Book Depository: The Ladies’ Paradise (Oxford World’s Classics, BBC series tie-in edition)

Or free:

PS I have now ordered all the available translations by Brian Nelson, click the covers for more information.
The Belly of Paris (Oxford World's Classics) Pot Luck (Pot-Bouille) (Oxford World's Classics) The Fortune of the Rougons (Oxford World's Classics) The Kill (Oxford World's Classics)