I was rather amused to find that in the introduction to this cheap, badly printed paperback, Mr. D’Armand Lanoux, a writer who had received the Prix Goncourt, in very typical French fashion, rather than telling the reader what delights are in store for him or her, went about explaining everything that was wrong with this novel, and how this work was 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 included in the original master plan for the Rougon-Macquart series which Zola had given his publisher from the outset, but was inserted once it was completed. According to this plan, 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 (click for review), had been launched in 1871. Lanoux explains that Pot Bouille was written when Zola was into his 40s and generally unhappy with life, somewhat retired from society and raging and fulminating about everything, though by then a 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 (click for review) was 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 who’s 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, 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 Nana (click for review). Zola’s powers as a fabulous writer of fictional drama are undiminished here, and to me this novel read 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 day. 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.
* Taken from a quote from the novel, where a cook describes the employers in the building by saying « c’est cochon et compagnie » (“they’re like a pig and his companions”).