Sunday, July 15, 2012

Emile Zola - 'Pot-Bouille'

This is the seventh novel of the Rougon-Macquart cycle (based on the order in which Zola suggested reading them). I'll start with an interesting note about the title of this book. When I saw that some of these books kept their titles in French and some not, I admit I assumed it was some sort of pretense by the translator. However, I see things differently after reading this book. The Oxford World's Classics edition I read is a new translation, with Pot-Bouille translated as Pot Luck. Another translation has the title Piping Hot. So there is no agreement on an English translation of the title.

In fact, neither English title mentioned above really works. From what I read in the introduction, Pot-Bouille as a title has connotations that render it untranslatable into English. Pot Luck gets at part of it; the idea of a melting pot. However, it doesn't get at the negative associations Zola was after. Hence, the French title Pot-Bouille is probably the best title.

The negative associations Zola aims at are tied up in his description of the courtyard of the apartment building on the Rue de Choiseul in Paris, a 'decent dwelling' in which all of the various characters reside. It's a bit like a high-end condo building from today. The front of the dwelling, its hallways and doors, present an imposing facade of quiet of middle class respectability. However, inside the various units the petty ambitions, grasping greed, empty lusts, and hypocrisy of the characters boil over. The servants in each unit work in filthy kitchens, which all face to an inner courtyard. This courtyard is the image that lies closest to the title. It's a filthy hole into which the servants pour their trash and refuse and from which they shout scathing gossip about their masters, sharing all the filth of what goes on and pouring that into the hole as well. It's like a sewer into which the moral and literal excrement of the characters flow. Pot Luck? Doesn't really fit the bill.

In any case, this is the first of two novels about Octave Mouret (the other is The Ladies Paradise, although Octave also makes a tiny cameo at the very end of The Masterpiece, as well). Octave is the handsome, womanizing eldest son of Francois and Marthe Mouret (from The Conquest of Plassans). He arrives in Paris, renting a room in this dwelling. At first impressed by the respectable facade of bourgeois life, he is soon privy to virtually all the conniving, adultery, and social climbing that teems like roaches in the building. This book is an acid expose of middle class sensibilities and aspirations.

The focus on the middle class leads me to see more of Zola's potential structure in the 20 novel cycle. Zola largely explores the lives of the wealthy when he write of the Rougon family. He explores the working and lower class through the Macquart family, and the middle class seems his target with the Mourets (who merge the Rougon and Macquart bloodlines). So instead of focusing on an aspect of society, such a finance and banking in Money or art in The Masterpiece, Zola is really commenting on a whole class in this novel. For the middle class, love and all finer feelings are trampled in a competitive stampede of backstabbing and one-upsmanship aimed at gaining higher social standing. On the other hand, those who have achieved their middle class stature also try to reclaim the joy of life they threw aside in the pursuit (this is mainly the driving force of all the adultery, in which few of the characters ever enjoy any real pleasure).

Zola's broadest observation on the middle class comes towards the end when Doctor Juillerat and Father Mauduit visit complacent shop owner Madame Hedouin and Octave, her shopkeeper. Juillerat and Mauduit represent the social institutions of medicine and religion (that is science and morality). After leaving the ever satisfied Hedouin, the following exchange takes place:
Juillerat: Bad sort of patient, that, eh?
Mauduit: Who?
Juillerat: Madame Hedouin. She doesn't care a damn for either of us. No religion wanted there, nor medicine either. There's not much to be got out of folk like that, who are always well!

This brings to the fore something Zola has built throughout the novel and makes even more explicit in these last few scenes. Medicine - or the rational/scientific mind - offers no censure to the behavior of the middle class slugs inhabiting Pot-Bouille, while religion indulgently casts a blind eye. Medicine and religion are businesses that make their way in the world only if people are not moral and happy, so medicine simply rationally attends to its needs while religion is best off not trying to hard to correct people's foibles. This bleak picture of religion, reflects Zola's generally black view of the impact it has on society. The overall assessment is that there is no moral compass provided by society for these middle class social climbers.

Even the gossiping and venomous 'court of public opinion' that could condemn immorality takes no real stand. Berthe's adultery should bring the judgement of everyone in the apartments upon her, but life is quickly back to normal and the attitude - as expressed by the cuckolded husband's sister - is 'far better not to rake up things that everyone had forgotten'. Morality is all for show and - as Zola also suggests through some of the political conversations of his characters - the interest of the middle class in an ethical complacency is to maintain their 'image' as a means of social control. Unperturbed moral pretenses help justify their higher social position and keep the poor masses in their place.

In the end, Zola portrays middle class society as a stagnant pool of immorality polished to look bright and shiny. As a lowly servant comments at the very end of the novel when asked if she would get a position elsewhere: "...this hole or that hole it doesn't matter. They're all pretty much alike. If you've been in one of 'em you've been in 'em all. They're just pig-sties." The characters here are virtually all unsympathetic, with Octave functioning as a 'guide' for us simply because he is the most successful in his opportunism. Zola does not pull his punches at all.

I enjoyed reading Pot-Bouille, and it's plot certainly is titillating enough to keep the novel moving as a series of events.  However, it's not up to some of the best novels in the cycle.  Conceptually Zola completely succeeds in saying what he needs this novel to say within his overarching theme, but as a novel on its own it lacked a trajectory in plot one might desire. Of course, the lack of plot trajectory reflects and serves Zola's desire to depict middle class society as a hypocritical wasteland of pretenders and moral degeneracy. Certainly the book was more shocking in its time, but there are definitely scenes that make even the modern reader cringe...but not cringe enough to stop reading. And maybe that's part of the point!

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