Nana

“She alone was left standing, amid the accumulated riches of her mansion, while a host of men lay stricken at her feet. Like those monsters of ancient times whose fearful domains were covered with skeletons, she rested her feet on human skulls and was surrounded by catastrophes…The fly that had come from the dungheap of the slums, carrying the ferment of social decay, had poisoned all these men simply by alighting on them. It was fitting and just. She had avenged the beggars and outcasts of her world. And while, as it were, her sex rose in a halo of glory and blazed down on her prostrate victims like a rising sun shining down on a field of carnage, she remained as unconscious of her actions as a splendid animal, ignorant of the havoc she had wreaked, and as good-natured as ever.”

― Emile Zola , Nana

Nana, 1877 (oil on canvas) by Manet, Edouard (1832-83)

Let’s see how long it has been…. It was September, 2018 when I started reading the twenty novel Rogon-Macquart cycle by Emile Zola. Last night, I finished Nana, the seventeenth in the recommended reading order (though it was only the ninth published).

Here’s what I’ve read so far:

Now there are only three to go. I’ll finish before September, so it will have been a four-year reading project – which seems nuts – but I have read a lot of other books too. I just keep coming back.

Nana is one of the best known of the series, and is one that I read first, years ago. No problem in repeating it, though, I remembered very little and the translation I read this time was superior and not as bowdlerized.

We first saw Nana in the amazing L’Assommoir – she was the laundress Gervaise’s beautiful, precocious, and trouble making daughter – who at the end of that novel was living on the streets and introduced to the life of a prostitute. Here she has continued down that path until she was the untalented but frighteningly sexy star of the theater – appearing practically naked in a production called La blonde Vénus, and creating a scandalous shockwave through Parisian society – one that nobody really recovers from.

Nana is a force of nature, a being of pure sexuality and no common sense that destroys everything and everyone that comes into contact with her.

With this subject matter it was going to be a racy book – but I was surprised at its frank sexuality. For example, I didn’t remember the plot thread of lesbianism that ran through the story from the first time I read it, years ago. This theme might have been edited out – or I might have simply missed it – probably a bit of both. There are a few scenes of raw sexuality – such as the passage where Nana spends time admiring her nude image in a full-length mirror while her lover waits in bed. Really heady stuff.

The book starts out slow – there are the numerous crowd scenes that Zola is known for – effectively written but a bit of a slog – so many French names – until you get to know the characters. An online character list was a big help. After a few chapters the pace picks up until, near the end, Nana is destroying another man in almost every other paragraph.

So, all in all, a rewarding read. I can see why it is near the top of the Zola canon – a little too flamboyant to be with the classics like L’Assommoir or Germinal – but still…

Now I’m excited… on to La Terre. Seventeen down – only three to go.

One response to “Nana

  1. Pingback: Godard’s Nana | Bill Chance

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