Monday, July 2, 2012

Pot-Bouille by Emile Zola

An underappreciated masterpiece
This lesser-known novel is one of Emile Zola’s greatest works. It has been translated into English under various titles, among them Pot Luck, Piping Hot!, and Restless House. It is the tenth book in Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series, though that’s not vitally important because they all stand alone as individual works of literature. 

Pot-Bouille gives us a revealing window into the secret lives and discrete liaisons of the inhabitants of a middle-class apartment building in Paris during France’s Second Empire. Within that “middle class” there are many levels of status, and each character in the book attempts to find some way of clawing and scratching his or her way up to a higher step on the societal pyramid. Among the ensemble cast of characters is Octave Mouret, son of Francois Mouret and Marthe Rougon from Zola’s earlier work The Conquest of Plassans. Upon moving into the building, Octave soon begins seeking an affair with an older, wealthier woman who will provide him with a foot-in-the-door of Parisian society. Elsewhere in the building, a mother pimps her daughters at dinner parties, trying to secure a match that will improve the family’s bleak financial future. Meanwhile, siblings of a well-to-do family squabble over the leavings of their dead father. Men squander their wealth on mistresses. Illicit affairs take place from the basement to the attic, all covered by a veneer of respectability. Away from the street-side facade of righteousness, however, the servants in the courtyard know the real goings-on and offer commentary like a sort of Greek chorus. 

This is what Zola does best. He creates a setting, populates it with a cast of diverse characters, engages them in an intricate series of events, and puts the reader right in the middle of it. This book is a real treat for any reader of classic literature, even if you’re not familiar with Zola or the Rougon-Macquart series. Fans of Zola’s other works will find it on a par with his great masterpieces Germinal and La Terre.
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