Sunday, December 27, 2015

Pot-Bouille


When I follow my tag "zola," I find that L'assomoir seems to be the only Zola novel I've reviewed (and boy did I review with some sort of bullshit "stream of consciousness" style. How embarrassing). Slowly, I've been accumulating the new translations put out by Oxford World's Classics (pictured above) and it's high time that I return to the Rougon-Macquart cycle that Zola is so well known for.

Brian Nelson's translation of the title is Pot Luck, which is fairly clever, but not quite as clever as the original French, Pot-Bouille (which I have chosen to retain as title for the review). Pot-Bouille recalls both the pot luck/goulash kind of mélange and the boiling point of a pot on the stove. Zola is punning on the different classes assembled under the roof of the apartment building he's focused on for this novel and the heat of their tempers, their lust, their desires. Pot Luck just doesn't quite manage to hit that multiplicity of meaning as the original title does. It's not fair to the translator, of course, as French is a richer language than English.

Pot-Bouille concentrates on a single apartment block using Octave Mouret (a descendant of characters from a previous Rougon-Macquart novel) as ostensibly the protagonist. He is the audience surrogate, at least in the beginning; we and Octave are introduced to the various families and relations that live in the building at the same time; presumably Octave finds it as bewildering as I did on first glance. There's the Josserands, headed up by a matriarch obsessed with marrying off her two daughters to suitable matches; there's the Pichons, so intent on their bourgeois gentility that they have subsumed all passion and desire; there's the Duveyriers, of whom the husband bristles at the prison of bourgeois respectability. There are other families, but like other Zola constructs, the individual characters matter less than the labyrinthine structures of class, heredity, economics, and society that they are slowly ground through and by.

Apparently, a common complaint of Zola, that which arrests him from rising to the great heights of Dickens, is that his characters are flat. They do not leap off the page, they do not linger in memories like the Artful Dodger or Miss Havisham. I believe this is another symptom of the persistence of relatability in realism, which I've written on before. In this case, I might have softened my rigidity a little bit. I can appreciate the criticism that Zola's characters are flat (they almost objectively flat), but this does not and cannot detract from the experience for me. Believable or relatable characters do not make or break a narrative for me. Zola's thesis over these 20 novels is about how great forces shape families and people; these great forces need to be believable and cogent in order for the novels to stand. Zola is a master of understanding and working through this social determinants. It's almost hard to believe that he was publishing one of these a year (sometimes two a year).

Pot-Bouille succeeds when considering the hypocrisy that pretty much defines the bourgeoisie. The family of the Josserands provides the most fruitful avenue of satire and excoriation. A tangent, if you will. Just before starting this novel, I had attempted to read Sense and Sensibility by the esteemed Jane Austen; I found it intolerable. Well, perhaps "intolerable" is a bit too strong, but I can't quite place my finger on the exact word. Austen's style left me cold. My experiences with eighteenth century haven't been productive. It's almost like the form of the novel hadn't quite coalesced yet, so they're shaggier, messier, awkward, like a toddler with a giant head, wobbling around, teetering. Specific to Austen, I found myself unable to care about the characters in way, their situation, or what Austen had to say about her society. The novel is myopically focused on marriage, with the Dashwood sisters being our protagonists, the people we should be rooting for. But I found them boring. Not necessarily flat, but simply boring. I found their desires and wishes parochial and small. Even worse, one of the supporting cast complained of being bored, but wouldn't get a job, even when one was suggested or offered. How the fuck am I supposed to care about these fickle frivolous creatures who have made their fortune from the intrinsically unequal quasi-feudal system?

Edward Said wrote an essay on Jane Austen, looking at Mansfield Park. In it, he introduces, or at least, complicates methodology already formulated in previous efforts. It's not simply enough to consider historical context such as Austen's tiny world, but one must consider the global context, how Empire insidiously creeps into every facet of life, including literature. Said points out that the entire plot of Mansfield Park wouldn't be possible without the invisible faceless labour that provides the family with their estate. He argues that such erasure is a sign of the Empire's monolithic strength, obliterating and wilfully forgetting that which erected it. Perhaps this is why I couldn't really muster any affect for those that populate Sense and Sensibility. I can't forget that I'm essentially reading about the oppressors, that I'm supposed to be invested in their shitty nonsense problems.

The Josserands—and Zola—were a much needed corrective to the bullshit peddled by Austen and her imitators. Instead of putting these bourgeois hypocrites and their facile problems on a pedestal, Zola brings them down into the filth, the mire, the muck of reality. The Josserands are the targets of a vicious rebuke; they're the synecdoche of bourgeois mendacity and falseness. Madame Josserand's obnoxious maneuvering, her strenuous efforts to marry off her two daughters (similarly to the two Dashwood sisters) to anybody that will coldly and rationally benefit the family—preferably in cold hard cash—are all offered for spiteful reproach. It feels like Zola let this family construct their fortress made of horseshit, only for the writer's sharp pen to pierce its walls, letting it all pour down.

This metaphor is aptly chosen, as Zola doesn't skimp out on the details of the servants and maids in the house. The servants have little of the bourgeois hypocrisy that characterizes their masters; they let all the garbage, piss, shit, offal, and filth simmer and coagulate in the little park beside the building. No, it's not a subtle metaphor (respectable building unsuccessfully hides literal shit) but Zola's commitment to the idea pulls it out of eye-rolling obviousness into the realm of effective symbol. Zola maintains this strict loyalty to depicting all parts of human life, including defecation and sex.

The latter features prominently in Pot-Bouille; often, the novel feels like a 1960s sex romp comedy, with various characters jumping in and out of each others' beds while hilariously having close calls with the husbands on the stairs. I'm sure some readers would find this tedious, especially since it's not particularly funny, but I found it, again, effective in terms of Zola's thesis. He couldn't demonstrate the hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie without their contradictory and deplorable attitudes surrounding sex, marriage, and chastity. Octave Mouret, our protagonist, spends most of the book trying to scheme his way into various women's petticoats, but he's not always successful. In fact, his two triumphs come not from pure lust but from cold hard calculation, a sure sign of Zola's writerly aims. He sleeps with one wife because she's essentially an easy target, an outlet for when his other schemes do not pull through. His other conquest, if you will, comes from a shrewd business partnership; marriage and sex come naturally after their interests coincide.

As per my last review of Zola, I find myself utterly in love with the construction of the novel, its position as both hyper realistic and paradoxically completely artificial. The reader can feel Zola's fingerprints all over every incident. Everything is so utterly determined, yet also natural at the same time. Some readers might baulk at such artifice, but I found the careful balance between the two quite compelling. Zola's machinations of symbol are rarely subtle, making his works quite approachable, but his thesis itself is complex enough to sustain any intellectual exercise.

I really need to read more of these novels; they're fucking fantastic.

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