There were two great cracks running right through the paneling on the ceiling, and in one corner the paint had peeled off and was showing the plaster. “You see, these kinds of houses are built for effect. The walls, though, aren’t very solid. The house was only built twelve years ago, and they’re already cracking. They build the frontage of very fine stone, with all sorts of sculpture, give the staircase three coats of varnish, and touch up the rooms with gilt and paint; that’s what impresses people and inspires respect. But it’s still solid enough! It’ll last as long as we will.”
Pot Luck or Pot Bouille is the 10th (in order of publication) of Émile Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle, although it works fine as a stand-alone novel. The narrative is fast paced with a large cast of characters. The action takes place in late 19th century Paris mainly in a newly constructed apartment building. This translated title is different from and not as fitting as some others-Restless House, and Piping Hot-are more appropriate.
The occupants are professional men and their families trying to keep up a veneer of respectability, though reality reveals the sordid opposite. The corruption centers on their amorous relationships either how to get one, how to get rid of one, how to make sure your daughter has a decent one and how to hide your adulterous affair from your spouse and the neighbors even though everyone already knows not only who you are seeing, but the schedule of your liaisons. Even the maids and cooks have improper relationships of their own, often within the building with a member of one of the “respectable families.”
Most of the book is told through the life of Octave Mouret who has come to Paris to seek his fortune and find love among the millions and is the newest resident of the apartment on the Rue de Choiseul. He’s assumed an easy go of it with the ladies, but is rebuffed more than once. When he finally marries it is with the idea that it is a business arrangement with the widow of the owner of the shop called, the Ladies’ Paradise, where he has been assisting. Throughout the book scandal after scandal has erupted throughout the Rue de Choiseul and shaken the building to its foundation, yet at the end, through attempted suicides, unwanted pregnancies, deaths, births and marriages the apartment building is still standing and will go on hiding the residents’ secrets within its crumbling walls until it presumably, literally and figuratively, can no longer stand.
I very much enjoyed this book, even though I didn’t find one likeable character or see compassion in anyone’s story. This is an expose of a society that flaunts honesty and decorum as shown through the conscious actions and awareness of a specific group of people. Every character acts on their most base, greedy and narcissistic impulse, even the ones who fain ignorance. Yet, they are all human beings living in a world that almost forces one to live corruptly not only to succeed, but to merely exist. And for that it is a page turner if only to see it to the end, wondering what will be learned, what will be overcome and will at least one person claw their way out?!
Thanks to Fanda and her yearly celebration of Émile Zola through her #zoladdiction reading challenge, I was encouraged to pick up a book I’ve had on my shelf for ages. Also, Brona of Brona’s Books wrote an insightful post on Zola that includes some detail about Zola’s purpose for the Rougon-Macquart cycle that I found very helpful.
If you are interested in joining in this year’s Zoladdiction or learning more about it, Fanda’s blog is full of Zola trivia, posts and biographical information.
The priest, utterly overcome, fell to his knees. It seemed as if God was passing over him…tortured by the terrible thought that perhaps he was a bad priest. Oh Lord! Had the hour come when the sores of this festering world would no longer be hidden by the mantle of religion? Was he no longer to help the hypocrisy of his flock, nor always be there, like some master of ceremonies, to regulate its vices and follies? Should he let it all collapse, even at the risk of burying the Church itself in the ruins? Yes, such was his command…and he felt consumed by utter impotence and disgust.
That’s good riddance, sir! We can breathe freely now because, upon my word, it was getting positively disgusting! It’s like a great weight off my back. In a respectable house like this, you see, sir, there shouldn’t any women, least of all working women.
It had always been his dream, ladies who would take him by the hand, and help him on in business. Their images kept returning and mingling in his mind with relentless insistence. He did not know which to choose, as he strove to keep his voice soft and his gestures seductive. Then, suddenly, exhausted, exasperated, he gave way to his brutal inner nature, to the ferocious disdain of women that lay behind his air of amorous devotion.
Title: Pot Luck
Author: Émile Zola
Publisher: Oxford World’s Classics
Device: Trade Paperback
Challenges: The Classics Club, Mount TBR, Back to the Classics, #zoladdiction22