Top critical review
A melting pot of moral laxity
3 September 2010
Warning: this review contains spoilers.
The translator tells us that the French title 'Pot-Bouille' is virtually untranslatable. He has opted for the English 'Pot Luck', but 'Melting Pot' would serve just as well.
The novel centres on the lives of the inhabitants, masters and servants, of an apartment building in late 19th century Paris. The masters living lives of genteel poverty, with no moral values; greedy and grasping, condoning sexual laxity, tolerating the presence of live-in lovers. Some of them are blighted by illness, real or imagined - migraines or debilitation - which I assume the author intends us to think are probably caused by venereal infections.
As so often with Zola, his characters do not hold conversations: they rant and rail. Madame Josserand's dialogue is inevitably followed by 'she shrieked' or 'she shouted'; rarely, 'she said'.
Parallel to the lives of the masters are the doings of their servants who are observed in two ways; individually, in their respective employers' households and, collectively, as they exchange badinage and insults across the communal courtyard, at maximum decibel level, of course.
There are moments of comedy, which I don't usually associate with Zola. During a wedding service, the congregation and priest are distracted by a disturbance in a side chapel where Théophile accuses Octave of impropriety with his wife. The scene where Auguste looks for a second for a duel is also amusing.
Towards the end of the novel a powerful episode occurs where Zola describes a woman giving birth alone in her room. This is harrowing stuff, extremely well done. It gives the reader such a jolt as it is totally out of step with the tone of the rest of the novel and what has gone before.
This is a energetic, lively, raucous, entertaining novel. Not top rank Zola, nothing special, but a good read nonetheless.