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Pot Luck (1882)

by Émile Zola

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: Les Rougon-Macquart (10)

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
5231439,432 (3.82)102
This new translation of Zola's most acerbic social satire captures the directness and robustness of Zola's language and restores the omissions of earlier abridged versions.
  1. 20
    Life: A User's Manual by Georges Perec (thorold)
    thorold: Paris apartment buildings dissected
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» See also 102 mentions

English (9)  French (3)  Dutch (1)  All languages (13)
Showing 1-5 of 9 (next | show all)
On vit dans une société mais aussi (pour la plupart d'entre on) dans un immeuble. Et l'un peut être la métaphore de l'autre. Façade de respectabilité, cochonceté dans les combles et les arrière-cours. Le concept n'est pas très subtil, mais suffisamment robuste pour que Zola empile dessus une suite d'anecdote sordides et parfois amusantes, jusqu'à ce qu'il y ait assez de pages pour faire un roman, et hop. ( )
  Kuiperdolin | May 24, 2020 |
Zola takes the risky step of turning the full blast of his satire on the very people who buy his books, the rising urban middle class, the people who like to represent themselves as the guardians of propriety, moderation and good taste. And who aspire to the sort of haut-bourgeois lifestyle that they don't quite have the money, the leisure, or the education to sustain.

The author removes the front wall of a grand-but-shoddy Paris apartment building (rather as Perec did, a century later) and shows us all the unpleasant things that are going on inside it, with a lack of inhibition that makes other 19th century realists look like models of restraint and self-censorship. To add insult to injury, he also goes behind the green baize door and shows his readers that their servants know all about what their masters are up to (and all the other tenants in the building, because the builder's meanness in making all the kitchens face onto a hidden lightwell has given the servants a handy private way of gossiping from apartment to apartment).

Most of the scandals, of course, revolve around sex and/or money. Daughters are married off with fraudulent promises of financial settlements on both sides, siblings are cheated out of inheritances, husbands keep mistresses, wives take lovers, the double-standard is applied with impeccable hypocrisy, and the priest and the doctor try to clean up the mess. Zola goes a lot further than most 19th century novelists in showing us both men and women who are driven by purely sexual desire - the wish for love, affection, power or even money takes second place. And he violates some important taboos by showing us (just for example) a husband carrying on with his invalid wife's cousin in the family home, or a young man who spends his nights with the maids in their attic bedrooms, or a maid who is carrying on a passionate affair with the teenage daughter of the family.

At times, the story turns into a hilarious farce, there is just so much going on, and every character is connected to so many different stories. And Zola even inserts a version of himself into the story, as the one tenant in the house who manages to stay out of all the messiness but has attracted the attention of the police by publishing an "unsuitable" novel.

But he also makes sure we realise that there are actual lives of real people at stake, not just middle-class reputations, and he doesn't scruple to rub our noses into the consequences of all this unbridled sex. Half a chapter is devoted to a (very) graphic description of the experience of childbirth from the point of view of a frightened servant who has managed to keep her pregnancy a secret and now has to face delivery on her own, without any preparation. Probably the first time anyone did that in mainstream fiction. And we meet another lower-class unmarried mother, made homeless by a landlord concerned for the respectability of the house just before her baby is due, and later, when suspected of infanticide, sent to prison by the same man in his capacity as a magistrate. Tess of the D'Urbervilles, but with real blood. And other body fluids.

Nana may have been a pretty hard act to follow, but this book seems to manage all right... ( )
3 vote thorold | Sep 14, 2019 |
Zola est entré partout, chez les ouvriers et chez les bourgeois. Chez les premiers, selon lui, tout est visible. La misère comme le plaisir saute aux yeux. Chez les seconds tout est caché. Ils clament : « Nous sommes l'honneur, la morale, la famille. » Faux, répond Zola, vous êtes le mensonge de tout cela. Votre pot-bouille est la marmite où mijotent toutes les pourritures de la famille.
Octave Mouret, le futur patron qui révolutionnera le commerce en créant Au Bonheur des Dames, arrive de province et loue une chambre dans un immeuble de la rue de Choiseul. Beau et enjoué, il séduit une femme par étage, découvrant ainsi les secrets de chaque famille.
Ce dixième volume des Rougon-Macquart, retraçant la vie sous le Second Empire, c'est ici la bourgeoisie côté rue et côté cour, avec ses soucis de filles à marier, de rang à tenir ou à gagner, coûte que coûte. Les caricatures de Zola sont cruelles mais elles sont vraies.
  Haijavivi | Jun 12, 2019 |

Librairie Générale Française (1974),
Mass Market Paperback, 510 pages (French Edition)
Original publication date: 1882

I was rather amused to find that in the introduction to this cheap, badly printed paperback edition, Mr. D'Armand Lanoux, a writer who had received the Prix Goncourt, in what is an oh so very typical French fashion, rather than telling the reader what delights are in store for him or her, went about explaining everything that is wrong with this novel, and how this work is the 'dark' counterpoint to Zola's next novel in the Rougon-Macquart series, Au Bonheur des Dames (The Ladies' Paradise). It seems Pot Bouille was not originally included in the master plan for the Rougon-Macquart series which Zola had given his publisher from the outset, but was inserted once it had been completed. Originally, Au Bonheur des Dames was to be an optimistic novel. However, Zola was feeling anything but when came the time to write it, over a decade after the first novel of the series, The Fortune of the Rougons had been launched in 1871.

Lanoux explains that Pot Bouille was written when Zola was into his 40s and experiencing middle-age crisis, was generally unhappy with life, somewhat retired from society and raging and fulminating about everything, though he was by then a very successful author. With this novel, Zola was at the apogee of Naturalism: "Émile Zola's works had a frankness about sexuality along with a pervasive pessimism. Naturalistic works exposed the dark harshness of life, including poverty, racism, violence, prejudice, disease, corruption, prostitution, and filth. As a result, naturalistic writers were frequently criticized for focusing too much on human vice and misery." (Wikipedia). There is plenty of all that to be found here, and Zola's original readers were no doubt shocked by his approach. Zola spelled out his agenda for this novel in a personal note: "Talking about the bourgeoisie is to formulate the most violent accusation one can direct toward French society" [my translation]. According to Lanoux, Zola did this much too successfully indeed, and he leaves us as his final words that the bourgeoisie in Pot Bouille was no more representational of that hated social class than L'Assommoir was a faithful representation of the working classes of the faubourgs.

True enough, it's impossible to read this novel without getting a clear sense that Zola thought the middle-classes of business owners and their wives and children were nothing but hypocrites of the worst kind, touting the virtues of religion and fidelity while living completely depraved lives in private; keeping lovers on the side, even installing their mistresses in comfortable secondary households, and all the while harshly speaking and acting against anyone whose immoral activities were revealed, especially those of the lower classes.

This novel is about the inhabitants of a posh Parisian building, with a grandiose staircase with false marble walls (Zola points out this detail very neatly), where a wealthy shopkeeper and his married children live in different apartments. On one of the upper levels, lives Madame Josserand and her two unmarried daughters, Berthe and Hortense, whom she's been dragging around Paris from one sitting room to another, desperate to find them husbands. Her alcoholic and rich business owner brother has promised to provide a handsome dowry for the girls, but has never actually given them the money, and the Josserands are struggling, barely being able to afford to feed themselves and their undernourished maid Adèle, never mind having a decent dowry to offer potential husbands, so the prospects are few. But Madame Josserand is willing to make any sacrifice to keep up appearances, and she doesn't miss an occasion to berate her overworked husband, who, because of his too honest temperament, has never managed to advance much in his career, and is now forced to bring home piecemeal work at night to pay for the women's luxurious necessities. Into this building, Octave Mouret arrives from the provinces. He has great plans and intends to take Paris by storm. He's an attractive young man and intends to arrive to his ends by becoming the lover of the woman who is likeliest to advance his cause, though there is a bit of trial and error involved before he finds the right one, and a major scandal erupts in the process. What follows is a wonderful upstairs/downstairs spectacle (only in this case, the maids all live on the topmost level of the building in minuscule hovels) with the bourgeois apartment dwellers misbehaving in the most conspicuous ways, while the servants berate and abuse them behind their backs, with daily meetings at the windows of the inner courtyard, where all the master's dirty laundry and plenty of personal insults fly from one floor to the next.

The 'realities' exposed here are sordid enough, but to me it seemed like a logical progression from the world or prostitution and high-class mistresses described in his previous novel, Nana. Zola's powers as a fabulous writer of fictional drama are undiminished here, and this novel reads as a great entertainment. In Madame Josserand, he creates a truly villainous woman, vociferously berating her husband at every turn in her rage about her lack of material comforts; in fact, she continues berating him until he is literally on his death-bed. I found myself thinking about Jane Austen's novels, since Madame Josserand's avowed main concern is to see her daughters well married, which is of course one of the main themes in Austen's stories, though in her defence, there were little to no other options for well-bred girls in Jane Austen's time. Zola makes it clear here that this transaction among the bourgeoisie differed little from outright prostitution, and as I read, I felt like I was possibly getting an insight into what Jane Austen's personal notes might have been (had it been possible for her to keep any), on how her characters truly acted, had she allowed herself, or indeed been able, to give all the details of how crassly humanity can behave in its quest for the comforts of home sweet home. ( )
2 vote Smiler69 | Apr 23, 2014 |
Interesting study of middle class life in 19th century Paris but the men were too obsessed with who they would sleep with next. Nice background on the development of apartment buildings as a new way of living for the bourgeoise. ( )
1 vote sushitori | Aug 1, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 9 (next | show all)
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» Add other authors (14 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Zola, ÉmileAuthorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Nelson, BrianTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Nelson, BrianIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Pinkerton, PercyTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Wilson, AngusIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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