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.