Friday, July 8, 2011

Pot Luck-y For Me!

French authors. How do we feel about them? I have read four: Annie Ernaux, Dumas père and fils, Victor Hugo and Flaubert. That's it. That is not so many for an entire non-third world country. Why haven't I read more? Access I think. The average bookstore (independent and chain) does not stock many classic French authors. There will always be some if not all of Proust and a copy of Madame Bovary. I cannot tell you how many times I have been asked for a copy of  Madame Ovary or Madame Burgundy over the years. More often than not there will be a père Dumas or two, sometimes you see Zola's Nana or Germinal or perhaps Balzac's Pere Goriot or Cousin Bette and…..and then there were none. Contemporary French authors I know even less about so as far as I can tell I don't see any of them in U.S. bookstores.
I do want to read more French authors but where to begin? Voila! I will read Emile Zola. Why Zola? When I was a kid I saw the movie The Life of Emil Zola starring Paul Muni and I was fascinated. So I guess you could say that Zola has been on my TBR list for a couple decades. It's about time right?

Okay. I'm ready to go but now which Zola? He wrote many, many novels. However only a fraction of his novels are available in English and in the U.S. I chose Pot Luck. I chose it for two reasons. I love, love and heart that Manet painting on the cover. Look at all those gorgeous blacks! Beautiful. And. The tile. Pot Luck. It made me laugh. It's as close to buying a cookbook for myself as I am ever likely to come.

In France Pot Luck is entitled Pot-Bouille. (Side note: Pierre Boulle is the author of the novel The Planet of the Apes which is a movie (original version) that I adore. Coincidence that Pot-Bouille looks like Pierre Boulle? I think not.) The introduction to the Oxford University Press edition of Pot Luck that I read by Brian Nelson, who is also the translator, explains the translation to the title Pot Luck far better than I could so I won't go into that here other than to tell you that the introduction is well worth reading.

Pot Luck is the tenth novel in Zola's twenty novel series Rougon-Macquart. It was first published as a serialized novel in 1882. Some other novels published in 1882 include:

Wilkie Collins- After Dark

Henry James- The Portrait of a Lady

George Bernard Shaw- Cashel Byron's Profession

Robert Louis Stevenson- The New Arabian Nights

Anthony Trollope- The Fixed Period

Mark Twain- The Prince and the Pauper

Jules Verne- Godfrey Morgan

Pot Luck is the examination of the residents of an apartment house in Paris. The tenants on the Rue de Choiseul lead exemplary lives. The husbands adore their wives, the wives are nurturing caretakers, the bachelors are earnest gentlemen, the daughters are virtuously awaiting husbands and the servants are faithful and discreet and then you go inside. Facade is everything in Pot Luck.

Our tour guide to this Parisian enclave is Octave Mouret. Octave is young, ambitious, charming and just up from the country, but he is no hayseed. His preoccupations are moving ahead at the Ladies Paradise department store where he is employed and finding a mistress. The long term plan is to seduce the glamorous wife of his employer Mme Hedouin but in the meantime he makes his presence known among the women in his building.

The other tenants are an amazing collection of characters. Every man, woman and servant is a completely believable creation. Each has a public face that meets all the proprieties of the middle class and private vices that are perfectly fine as long as no one ever finds out about them. Secret villainous behavior abounds in Pot Luck. It's a sorry place to be weak or needy. The ambitions of mothers with marriageable daughters, of respectable men with their bits on the side and servants half starved, overworked and at the mercy of their employers pack every page. It's a fascinating novel that lays bare the hypocrisy of a society.

Pot Luck was an exciting, eye opening read. I loved this novel. It is so different from other novels I have read from the same period. There is a very contemporary feel to it. Maybe it's all the sex? I have tons of classic novels that reference the inappropriateness of reading French novels and now I know why! Zola has completely captured my imagination with his examination of bourgeois Paris and this only my first step into a twenty book series. Lucky me!

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