Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Pot Luck (Pot Bouille) by Emile Zola

I know I just posted about Germinal a few weeks ago, but seriously, it was so great, I got on the Zola bandwagon and I'm totally obsessed with his work at the moment.  Pot Luck (also known as Pot-Bouille) is the satirical story of the bourgeios residents of a Paris apartment building, and a scathing attack on the hypocrisy of bourgeois attitudes of the time.  The story begins as Octave Mouret (from the Rougon family), who has just arrived in Paris from the provinces, comes to the apartment building on the Rue de Choiseul, where he'll be renting a room.  A friend of his family, Monsieur Campardon, lives in the building and has also lined up a job for Octave at The Ladies' Paradise, the eponymous department store of the next book in the series.  Octave meets his new neighbors through their parties and salons, and the reader is introduced to several families and their domestic staff.  

Basically, this story is about the apartment's residents and how awful they are.  The Josserand family has two daughters, and Madame Josserand is constantly scheming to get them married off, and to get her rich brother to give her money for dowries.  Madame Compardon is some kind of invalid -- she never gets dressed and just lays around reading Dickens, while her husband is carrying on affairs right under her nose.  Most of the men in the building are either hitting on the servants or off with their mistresses.  The wives are always screaming at the servants, the servants scream at each other and gossip about their employers, and the main character, Octave, is trying to seduce various women in the building.  Meanwhile, everyone pretends to be very respectable.  It's sort of like a sordid French version of Upstairs, Downstairs.

I did have a hard time with this book at first. Seriously, these characters are all pretty awful people, with minor exceptions.  At one point I was thinking about giving it up completely, but at about 100 pages, it got really interesting -- even though I didn't like any of the characters, I was fascinated.  They were so dreadful I had to find out what happened.  Unlike many 19th century writers, Zola's books are pretty fast reads, so I was easily able to finish the book in a couple of days once I really got into it.

I've read a lot of books about characters who are real train wrecks, like Madame Bovary.  None of the people in Pot Luck are quite as self-destructive as that, but this does turn out to be an interesting and sometimes hilarious story.  My one complaint about Zola is that he tends to throw a lot of characters at the reader in the beginning, which is pretty confusing.  I had put the book down for several days and when I picked it up again I was having trouble keeping them straight.  I did consider re-reading the beginning so I could make a chart or a plan of all the people that lived in the building and how they were all connected.  

Overall, this is a very entertaining story and I ended up loving it.  I couldn't help wondering if Zola based these characters on real people.  There was one passage near the end that cracked me up.  I'm pretty sure that this resident of the building, who's barely mentioned in the story, is based on Zola himself:  

Monsieur Gourd [the concierge] told how they had had a visit from the police -- yes, the police! The second-floor tenant had written such a filthy novel they were going to imprison him.  

"Horrible stuff!" he went on in a tone of disgust.  "It's full of filth about the most respectable people.  They even say our landlord's described in it -- yes, Monsieur Duveyrier himself! What a nerve, eh? It's good for them that they keep themselves to themselves; we know now what they get up to, in spite of their stand-offishness.  You see, they can afford to keep their carriage, because their filth is worth its weight in gold!"

So, now I'm all into Zola, and I've decided to read the entire Rougon-Macquart series, or as many as I can find in decent translations.  Next up:  The Ladies' Paradise.  Is anyone else a big Zola fan?  Which of his books are not to be missed?  


  1. This is so funny, Karen. Your Germinal review inspired my post today, on The Fortune of the Rougons! It was amazing, and I heartily recommend it. I have heard the current translation is not great, but I still thoroughly enjoyed the book, and plan to read more!

  2. I've never heard of this series by Zola but it seems funny, and way more light that Gremial. I usually enjoy book with social satire, that's way I love Dickens so much.

  3. I loved The Ladies' Paradise and now it sounds like Pot-Luck needs to be added to my list, too. Am seriously wondering if I should just start reading the whole series in order!!

  4. Col -- that's so cool that we both posted on Zola today! I'm glad that it was still an enjoyable book. I've found older editions of Zola at the library sales, so I hope they're as good as the new translations.

    Eclectic reader -- it's definitely lighter than Germinal but Zola's making serious statements about the hypocrisy of the bourgeois and their morality. Not nearly as dire as reading about starving coal miners, however.

    JoAnn -- The Ladies' Paradise will be my next Zola. I've heard that the BBC is adapting it into a drama (set in England, not France) and will air sometime in 2013. I don't think you need to read the series in order though it seems these two are fairly close together.

  5. Lots of the books of his I've read did that same thing with the characters - throwing them all out at the beginning and letting you sort through them. But what I like about Zola is that he gives each one of those characters such personal attention that by the end of the book, you know every single one. Germinal and Nana were the exact same way. I'm glad this one turned out to be good.

  6. Amanda -- I was able to keep the characters in Germinal straight by the end but this one was harder for me. Probably because I stopped reading it for about a week. I also had trouble remembering which servants went with which apartment. I got the gist of it by the end, which is the important thing.

    How many Zolas have you read so far? I'm up to four, hope to read another one soon.

  7. I'm in the midst of reading Snowdrops by AD Miller, which is totally different from Zola, but similar in that most of the characters are reprehensible and savage and it is making me slightly depressed. I think I need to have at least one character who "does the right thing" in my reading!
    BTW, congrats on your new job! Working in public libraries is very challenging, yet rewarding. I hope you love it!

  8. I've only read The Kill by Zola and I have more of his books that I'd like to read (Nana, The Ladies' Paradise and The Belly of Paris) because I love the Second Empire that he writes about, but I've noticed that sometimes he uses a sexually corrupt woman as a symbol for what's wrong with France under Napoleon III (in The Kill a rich spoiled woman sleeps with her stepson) and I'm not really comfortable with that, since it's really the men who are causing all the problems! So that's why I haven't read more of him, but The Kill certainly presented a vivid and glamorous picture of the nouveau riche of Paris in the 19th century.