Nana by Zola

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Nana by Zola

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tammikuu 2, 2013, 4:22 pm

Again, I've already this.

Who is Nana? Is she a daughter of the working class Parisian slums who rose to fame and fortune by selling her body and using her wiles? Is she a woman who exploited and was exploited by men? Is she a woman who sought happiness and never really knew how to find it? Is she a symbol of the excesses of greed and financial and sexual exhibitionism of the Second Empire? In fact, she is all of these.

I was interested in reading Nana after meeting her as the willful and wayward daughter of Gervaise and Coupeau in L'Assommoir -- and because it may well be Zola's most read novel. Shocking in its sexual frankness at the time it was written, much of it is still shocking today, not in the lack of the kind of graphic descriptions we now regularly read, but in the overtness and ubiquity of the search for and payment for sex.

At the beginning of the novel, Nana is appearing on the stage of a somewhat down-at-the-heels theater that is presenting an operetta loosely based on the amorous intrigues of the Greek gods. Despite her lack of singing or acting talent, she is an immediate success because her extremely shapely body is displayed leaving very little to the imagination and because she has a real but undefinable presence. Soon, men of means and noble status are chasing her and eager to pay her bills. As the novel progresses, the reader follows the ups and downs of Nana's career as a kept woman, her search for love, her search for money, and her search for fame. Her many lovers are introduced, as are the women in the theatrical and kept woman circuits, and even some "respectable" women.

Zola is at the peak of his abilities in this novel, not only vividly depicting the world of the theater and the varied characters, but also creating such completely believable set pieces as an aristocratic party, a party of the theater/demimonde set, high society horse races, life in country houses, and a lesbian bar/restaurant. His descriptions of the finances and decor of Nana's various homes, including an incredibly ostentatious bed that is made for her, her obsessions with various lovers, and the intrigues she's involved in all are compelling. There is much more to this book too, as it examines the theater, street prostitution, the influence of the Catholic church, and the corruptibility of even the "respectable" woman. Yet . . . Zola can pile it on so thick that some of it just doesn't seem believable. And that's why I think he wrote it partly as a metaphor for the decadence and corruption of the Second Empire, an empire that, as the novel ends, is on its way to falling after defeat in the looming Franco-Prussian war.

Finally, from the perspective of the 21st century and feminism, it is easy to look at the lives of kept women such as Nana as artifacts of the past. And yet, men of power and money still seek out attractive and showy woman, still spend their money to demonstrate how much they have, still buy and furnish huge homes, and so on. Plus ça change . . .

tammikuu 8, 2013, 3:10 pm

Here is my review of Nana:

This magnificent novel is the story of the rise, fall, and rise again of Nana (child of Gervais of L'Assommoir) from streetwalker to queen of Parisian society in the late 1860's.

It opens with Nana's stage debut in a risque theatrical production. Many of Paris's high society womanizers and rogues are there, as well as many of Paris's reigning courtesans. All are breathlessly awaiting their first experience of Nana; however, when she eventually appears they are at first underwhelmed. Then:

"looking as though she herself were saying with a wink of her eye that she didn't possess a ha'porth of talent, but it didn't matter, she had something better than that,"

Nana wows them all. I pictured Marilyn Monroe singing Happy Birthday Mr. President.

Thereafter, we follow Nana as she acquires and ruins men of all social status and rank. She has "an ever keen appetite for squandering money, a natural disdain for the man who paid, a perpetual caprice for devouring, a pride in the ruin of her lovers." We see Nana at the theater, entertaining at orgy-like dinners, at her country estate, at the races. Through her we see the decadence and corruption of French society of this era.

Zola has skillfully created a well-rounded character in Nana, not just a cardboard symbol of immorality. Despite her penchant for destroying men, we are still sympathetic to her. Although she can be vain and selfish, she is also generous, sometimes to a fault, and she is accepting of others. Although she is calculating and cunning, she is also innocent and naive in many ways. Perhaps these are the things that make her so irresistible.

For the most part Zola stays away from moralizing. He rarely interjects himself into the novel, and lets us be a fly on the wall observing Nana's life. Not surprisingly, the novel was widely condemned when it was initially published, for example:

"Much ability is displayed in this offensive work of engineering skill, and people are asked to pardon the foul sights and odors because of the consummate art with which they are presented. But intellectual power and literary workmanship are neither to be admired, nor commended of themselves. They are to be judged by their fruits and are no more justified in producing that which is repulsive or unwholesome than a manufactory whose sole purpose is to create and disseminate bad smells and noxious vapors. Such unsavory establishment might do its work with a wonderful display of skill and most potent results, but the health authorities of society would have ample occasion for taking measures against its obnoxious business, while those who encouraged the introduction of its products into their households would be guilty of inconceivable folly, besides exhibiting a morbid liking for filthy exhalations."

For me, this is one of the must-reads of the Rougon Macquart series

maaliskuu 3, 2013, 6:14 pm

I just finished Nana (my first Zola novel!) and I have mixed feelings about it. Here is my review, keeping in mind that I don't do formal reviews, more just react to books on my challenge thread:

First off, this was an old copy I picked up for about $0.50 at a book sale, so the translation is old and terrible. "Feeding" instead of "eating", as in "When do we feed?". Ugh. And slang that got translated into some old-fashioned slang that I don't understand. It's terrible. For the rest, I'll pay the buck or two for the kindle version of the most recent translation. I can't take this.

Now on to the story. And there are spoilers, so if this is a problem for you, skip the rest. This is one of those Bad Woman stories - Nana is an actress and a courtesan, and is kept by a series of men. She goes up the social ladder (men-wise), and also has some lesbian partners, and spends dumpsters full of money. What I found interesting about Zola's treatment of this really, really, really common storyline is that while the Victorian moralists would have had Nana fall spectacularly from grace all by her lonesome, and Daniel Defoe would have had her triumph and prosper (I was hoping this would be a more Moll Flanders-type story), Zola has EVERYONE associated with Nana either die, go bankrupt, go to jail, die again, die more differently, go bankrupt more differently, lose their job/theater/horse stable, etc. Its just a bloodbath towards the end.

For the first 2/3 of the story, it was interesting enough and I didn't mind Nana - I inevitably root for the fallen woman in these stories - by the end of the book she's just this total evil heartless machine that eats all the men and women in her path and destroys them. It got boring.

End of review. After reading the reviews above, I think I agree with Rebecca that Zola lays it on pretty thick here, and maybe that is why I had such a hard time getting through the last 100 pages.

toukokuu 14, 2013, 4:35 pm

I finished Nana today. Zola renders a fascinating moral image of Parisian society during the Second Empire. Reading it was like studying a painting with all its details. Some of the details felt tedious. Yet, they were important to Zola's naturalist writing philosophy. A brilliant novel!