When I read The Ladies Paradise a couple of months ago, the word that kept coming into my mind as I read was luscious. The word that kept coming into my mind as I read Pot Luck was cynicism, closely followed by hypocrisy. Pot Luck tells the story of Octave Mouret in the years before he transforms the Ladies Paradise into the most extravagant department store in Paris. It’s the story of the families who live in the new apartment building on the Rue de Choiseul where Octave lives when he first arrives in Paris. He works at the Ladies Paradise in a very junior role but he already has his eye on the main chance as he plans his campaign to make Mme Hedouin, his employer’s wife, his mistress. He knows this will need to be a long, subtle campaign as Madame is a very virtuous woman. In the meantime, he looks for a compliant mistress among the other tenants of his building & soon begins an affair with Marie Pichon, a young woman who lives with her husband & daughter on the next floor. Their affair is convenient for Octave as Marie costs him nothing & she’s so listless that she makes no demands.
The friend who found him the room is M Campardon. He lives with his invalid wife, Rose, & hypocritically tells Octave about the very strict moral standards expected of the tenants while having an affair himself with Gasparine, Octave’s cousin who also works at the Ladies Paradise. Rose’s illness is unspecified but it allows her to escape her husband’s attentions & spend hours every day making herself beautiful.
Mme Josserand lives with her henpecked husband & her two daughters, Berthe & Hortense, who she is determined to marry off. The girls have trailed around their limited social circle for several years without success but their mother is brutal in her efforts to marry them well. Berthe & Hortense spend their time cynically refurbishing their dresses & following their mother’s script in an effort to catch a husband. Berthe eventually manages to get herself in a compromising position with Auguste Vabre in a window seat at a party & he is forced to marry her. Hortense continues to hope that the man she has loved for years will finally leave his mistress & marry her. Their uncle Bachelard, a disgusting old roue with terrible manners, is expected to come up with dowries for them both but he hasn’t been pinned down yet so their mother lies about their prospects to any eligible young men.
Auguste’s brother, Theophile, has married Valerie, a hysterical young woman who seemed placid & sweet before their marriage & changed completely once the wedding was over. At his brother’s wedding to Berthe, Theophile accuses Valerie of having an affair with Octave after finding a compromising letter. It’s not true but the scene in the church as everyone’s attention, even the bride’s & the priests’s is drawn to the drama in the back of the church is very funny,
Berthe, having caught sight of the letter, was eagerly awaiting an exchange of blows, & paid no attention, as she kept glancing at the two men from under her veil. There was an embarrassing silence. At last, becoming aware that they were waiting for her, she hastily replied, ‘I do! I do!’ in an indifferent tone of voice. The priest, surprised, looked in the same direction, & guessed that something unusual was taking place in one of the side aisles; he, in his turn, became quite distracted. The story by this time had spread throughout the congregation; everybody knew about it. The ladies, pale & grave, never took their eyes off Octave. The men smiled in a discreetly rakish way. And as Mme Josserand, by slight shoulder-shrugs, sought to reassure Mme Duveyrier, Valerie alone seemed to take any interest in the ceremony, for which she was all eyes, as if overwhelmed by emotion.
You can imagine that a marriage begun in this way is not destined to be happy. Auguste & Theophile’s sister, Clothilde, is married to a judge, M Duvreyier. They all live in their parents’ apartment building, waiting for their father to die so they can inherit his fortune. When old M Vabre is dying, his children wait like vultures, accusing each other of influencing the old man or of altering his will.
There was a deep silence, broken only by the death rattle. Berthe & Auguste stood at the foot of the bed; Valerie & Theophile, having come in last, had been obliged to remain at a distance, near the table; Clothilde sat at the head of the bed, with her husband behind her, while close up to the edge of the mattresses she had pushed her son Gustave, whom the old man adored. They now all looked at each other without uttering a word. But their shining eyes & tight lips spoke of hidden thoughts, & of all the anxiety & rancour which filled the minds of these would-be inheritors as they sat there, pale-faced & heavy-eyed. The two young couples were particularly furious at the sight of the schoolboy close to the bed for, obviously, the Duveyriers were counting on Gustave’s presence to influence his grandfather in their favour if he regained consciousness.
Until they discover that there is no will, & the recriminations begin. Deception & adultery consume all the tenants & the servants keep up a trenchant commentary on their employers & their affairs. The servants are exploited by their masters for sex & their mistresses keep them overworked & underfed. The scenes of the servants discussing their employer’s affairs in the filthy courtyard behind the glittering facade of the building are brutally vulgar. One of the servants, Adele, finds herself pregnant & gives birth alone, in the middle of the night, in one of the most harrowing yet naturalistic scenes of childbirth I’ve ever read.
Zola mercilessly exposes the lies & hypocrisies of his characters. If I felt sympathy for anyone in the book, it was for the miserable M Josserand, an honourable man deeply ashamed of his wife’s machinations, & his daughters, pushed by their obnoxious mother into selling themselves into marriage. The rest of the characters have few redeeming features. Our “hero” Octave is a cold seducer & it’s easy to see how he becomes the impresario of the Ladies Paradise. Always out for the main chance, he’s only stopped short momentarily when he falls in love with one of his mistresses. Even then, his love soon turns to irritation & disgust.
This is a cynical satire on middle-class mores in 19th century Paris. There are no happy marriages here because they are all based on lies & deception from the beginning. There is no love or respect between parents & children. Pot Luck is a page turning read & I can only admire Zola’s genius but I’m glad I don’t know any of these people in real life.