Pot Luck by Emile Zola — the stench of hypocrisy

Cover of Pot Luck, by Emile Zola, an acerbic novel of hypocrisy and sexual misbehaviour in Paris

Adulterers, hypocrites, snobs. Emile Zola’s Pot Luckreveals the secret world of the middle-class inhabitants of a Parisienne apartment block, showing that the outward signs of prosperity and harmony disguise the morally bankrupt nature of their lives.

The occupants of the Rue de Choiseul regularly attend church and loudly condemn people whose behaviour fails to meet their own standards. But behind their polished mahogany doors and marble panels, they indulge in illicit sexual relations and seek out every opportunity to position themselves higher up the social scale.

Alphonse Duveyrier, son in law of the building’s landlord husband, lavishes money on his mistress, unaware she’s “entertaining” several other men. Campardon Monsieur Campardon moves his mistress into the apartment he shares with his wife. Madame Josserand parades her daughters at social events in the hope of procuring wealthy husbands, while another mother indulges in affairs and has a son who is clearly not her husband’s child.

Fortune Hunter arrives

Into this mix comes Octave Mouret, an ambitious and sexually rapacious young man who is looking to make his fortune. Though he has a good head for business, he latches onto his employer’s wife because he thinks a liaison with her will help smooth his progress through Parisian society. He’s ready to play the long game knowing Madame Hedouin to be a virtuous woman who will take a lot of persuasion. In the meantime he can make do with some of the younger female residents of the apartments.

First to fall for his “charms” is Marie Pichon, a young woman who who lives on the next floor with her husband and daughter. He woos her with the forbidden fruit of literature and the novels her parents denied her before marriage. The arrangement suits him well, she’s readily available, costs him nothing and the girl is so listless she demands nothing of him. His next conquest, Madame Josserand’s (now married) daughter Berthe proves more challenging, leading to a wonderful farcical scene in which the couple are interrupted by an enraged husband.

Hardly anyone we encounter in Pot Luck is very likeable or sympathetic. with one exception (the downtrodden Monsieur Josserand) they are people who claw their way towards status and wealth, squabble about inheritances and treat their servants abysmally. The only honest people in the whole building are in fact the servants. They know exactly what’s going on, sharing their opinions in raucous gossip and earthy language.

Stench Of Promiscuity

I love the way Zola uses physical spaces as metaphors in his novels. In Germinal he chose a coal mine and in L’Assommoir the space was a lowly bar. In Pot Luck the apartment is a metaphor for hypocrisy and squalid sexual behaviour.

On Octave’s first sight of the apartment building he is overawed by its grandeur, its gilt carvings, red carpet and ornately decorated staircase. But very quickly the real nature of the place makes itself known when the servants’s gossip rises up “as if a sewer had brimmed over”. Just to reinforce the point, the narrator later tells us that:

…from the dark bowels of of the narrow courtyard only the stench of drains came up, like the smell of the hidden filth of the various families, stirred up by the servants rancour. This was the sewer of the house, draining off the house’s shame’s while the masters lounged about in their slippers and the front staircase displayed all its solemn majesty amid the stuffy silence of the hot-air stove.

Early on I found the book a struggle because there were so many characters introduced whose relationships I couldn’t keep straight. But once that initial hurdle was navigated I became fascinated. His Madame Josserand as the rude, bullying mother is a terrific creation but I also loved her the rich, debauched Uncle Bachelard from whom she invites to dinner just to wheedle dowries for her daughters.

Covered in jewellery, and with a rose in his buttonhole, he sat in the middle of the table — the type of huge, rough boozing tradesman who had wallowed in all sorts of vice. There was a lurid brilliancy about the false teeth in his furrowed, dissolute face; is great red nose shone like a beacon beneath his snow-white, close-cropped pale, rheumy eyes.

Pot Luck shows Zola at his best: acerbic, direct, observant and vivid. It hasn’t notched Germinal or L’Assommoir off their positions as favourites from his Rougon-Macquet cycle but it’s nevertheless towards the top off the table. One I suspect will reward a re-read.

Pot Luck by Emile Zola: Footnotes

Pot Luck was published in 1882, under the French title of Pot Bouille. In the introduction to my Oxford World Classics edition, the translator Brian Nelson says the title is “virtually untranslatable”, with no term in English able to precisely convey Zola’s idea of a melting pot of sexual promiscuity while also incorporating the notion of a swill of edit household waste. Other translations have used Restless House or Piping Hot.

In publication order it is the tenth book in Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series but in recommended reading order it is number seven.

Octave Mouret features in another novel in this cycle: in The Ladies Paradise he has risen from the lowly position of salesman to become the owner of a large and luxurious department store.

This is seventh book I’ve read in the Rougon-Macquart series. Details of other books I’ve read in this cycle are listed here together with links to reviews.

BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

17 thoughts on “Pot Luck by Emile Zola — the stench of hypocrisy

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  • August 3, 2021 at 9:37 am
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    I’m reading Zola in chronological order and just finished book 5 in April for Zoladdiction. At this rate I’ll be reading Pot Luck in 2026! If I ever get around to rereading them, I plan to do them in Zola’s preferred order.

    Reply
    • August 5, 2021 at 9:07 pm
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      I don’t think I’ll be very far behind you in completing all of them either. I read some out of sequence and then started at the beginning but couldn’t resist Pot Luck (even though I’m not supposed to read it yet) just because it had a Paris setting

      Reply
  • August 3, 2021 at 7:27 am
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    I really, really need to read Zola. Which of his books do you suggest I start with?

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    • August 5, 2021 at 9:08 pm
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      Oh boy, what a tough question to answer. LOL. My first experience was Germinal which was outstanding but maybe a gentler introduction is L’Assommoir

      Reply
  • August 2, 2021 at 8:49 am
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    I love Zola but haven’t read this one. Sounds brilliant. Great review – thanks.

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    • August 2, 2021 at 5:58 pm
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      I thought it a bit slow to get going – a lot of character establishing initially. But then it picks up considerably

      Reply
  • August 1, 2021 at 7:23 pm
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    Yay, a Zola I could fancy reading! Thanks for bringing this to our (well, my) attention—I don’t mind a relatively large cast list as I usually keep a notebook to hand, and the social mores sound fascinating.

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    • August 2, 2021 at 5:59 pm
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      I’ve never got into the habit of keeping notes – would be useful at times though. After getting lost, I went back to the start and did make a list of who was who

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    • August 2, 2021 at 5:59 pm
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      It’s often mentioned in articles about his books but maybe not as much as the big tiles like Nana, Germinal ….

      Reply
  • August 1, 2021 at 1:19 am
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    I loved reading your thoughts about this, and thanks for the link to our collaborative blog!

    Reply
    • August 1, 2021 at 11:15 am
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      how does this one compare to the other novels in. your view – I know you’ve read them all.

      Reply
  • July 31, 2021 at 10:51 pm
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    This one sounds really, really good! I haven’t yet read anything by Zola (I’m very ill read in the French classics, I’m afraid), a writer I’m been intending to get around to for ages now. I do have a copy of The Fortune of the Rougons (Oxford edition, with that wonderful cover taken from the Baizille painting). Chances of reading it this year are slim, but there’s always 2022!
    Thanks for the note/link about reading order, which has confirmed that Fortune is the first in the Rougon-Macquart series! Entry into these complex fictional universes can be incredibly difficult and your note about reading order, along with the link, is very helpful.

    Reply
    • August 1, 2021 at 11:17 am
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      I read three of them before I even realised there was a suggested order for reading them so I went back to number one but have yet to read number 2. It’s a good idea to begin with the first because then you understand how the two branches of the family are created but its not the most exciting of the books. So you want to start with something more meaty like L’Assommoir and then go back to number 1

      Reply

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