Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Thursday, April 22, 2010

"Nana" by Emile Zola

Nana by Emile Zola (1880, translated by George Holden, 471 pages)

This is my post for the Classics Circuit Paris in the Spring-Zola Tour.   I thank the organizers of this event for their efforts and welcome all to my blog.   I have chosen to focus on the corrupting and pervasive influence of prostitution in French society and  the effect of this on the life of French women of the period.

Nana by Emile Zola (1840 to 1904) is an intimate look at the effects of the pervasive prostitution of women in French society in the late 19th century.   The story begins in Paris at the Theater des Varietes as a performance of Venus is about to begin.   The audience is largely affluent men.   The central and really the only attraction of the show is seeing our central character, Nana, portraying Venus.   She is naked while doing this.   Zola describes her body in a very detailed and erotic fashion the way one might describe merchandise for sale.   When a fashionable gentleman in attendance at the show complements the owner on the quality of his theater the owner tells him this is not a theater it is a brothel.

Zola did a lot of research on the Brothels and nightclubs of Paris before he wrote Nana.  ( He was, according to George Holden in his introduction to Nana, not familiar with such places personally.  He visited a number of these places from the most expensive to the cheapest and took copious notes.)   The opening chapter of Nana is relayed in a wonderfully visual and sensuous fashion.   You really feel like you are in the audience.   The description given of Nana's body is near shocking in its power.   You are made to feel like you are a customer contemplating how much you would pay for her.  You then look over the girls of lesser quality trying to decide what you can afford.   One of the themes of the work is the reduction of women to their physical qualities and the corrupting influence of this.

There are many characters in Nana,  from Nana herself, to a lesser quality prostitute Satin, to the men who patronize Nana down to a large cast of upper class men fascinated by Nana.   There is no one really to like or admire in Nana.   Nana is not a "prostitute with a heart of gold".    Nana is a woman from the underside of Paris who through a combination of luck, good looks, sharp  management and a willingness to do anything for money has risen to the top of her profession.   Zola is a writer who likes to strip away false pretensions.   That is why the theater owner insists he is in fact a brothel owner.   The theater goers are not patrons of the art they are patrons of a brothel.   Some of the men are quite accepting of the fact that they are paying customers of Nana and the other women and see it as liberating them from having to care about  women..   Others among the men fall in love with Nana and become obsessed with having her only for themselves.   In the process they spend huge sums on her but she still has many customers.   She squanders all the money she makes on consumer goods.   If there is any love at all in this story Nana may feel a bit of love for a younger girl from the streets, Satin.  Zola gives us a very good idea what it would be like to be Nana.   There is a very high price to pay for the admiration and love of the men who know her.  Nana in fact becomes quite well known in society through her relationships with very wealthy men.   Nana never really loses the mentality of paid on the spot prostitute but she does act as if she is Mistress of wealthy men.  We feel also the excitement in her life.   We feel  the fear in her when she one day sees  an ancient seeming woman in the gutter only to realize she is the Nana of twenty years ago.   Nana's power will go when her looks go and in truth she is no better looking than a huge number of other French girls and the public could lose interest in her in the blink of an eye

As Zola makes clear  the services of Nana are paid for by the labor not of her patrons but by the vast underclasses of Paris who labor employed in factories and farms owned by her patrons.   Hundreds of women, men and children labor in horrible factories just so the owner of the factory can spend a few minutes with Nana.    Nana in turn throws the money away on completely idiotic purchases and has complete contempt for her customers (I decline to call them patrons).   Here is how the narrator describes Nana toward the end of her working days:

Like those monsters of ancient times, whose fearful dominions were covered with skeleton, she rested her feet on human skulls and was surrounded by catastrophes....She had finished her labor of ruin and death.   The fly that had come from the dung heap 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 the world.
Nana is narrated in a very clear fashion and kept my interest throughout.  I would read another Zola for sure, but not real soon as from reading posts on his other books from Classic Circuit participants all of his works may be similar.   There are other themes in the book, of course, but everything comes back to paying someone to do something for  you in the world of Paris as depicted by Zola.

This is part of the Classics Circuit Paris in the Spring-Zola tour.   The rest of the tour stops can be found at the link.   On May 5 I will be posting on Georges by Alexander Dumas for the Dumas Classics Circuit.


Lucy said...

This sounds heavy..such a dark period for France at the time. Great review! I'll link it to my French Oh-La-La Challenge:)

Suko said...

Intriguing review, Mel. I am not familiar with the works of Emile Zola but this is a good introduction.

Rebecca Reid said...

I really don't think Zola is for me! This does not appeal to me at all...

Hannah Stoneham said...

Fascinating - thank you for posting. Part of the road to our supermarket here in modern day France is lined with prostitutes day and night! But I don't think that is particuarly reflective of the modern society - as Ms Lucy points out this period was dark indeed for France. Great review thanks indeed for sharing


TheBlackSheep said...

Thanks for the review. I've never read any Zola, but I think I'll try this one. It sounds fascinating, depressing, but fascinating.

Carol Fleserieu-Miller said...

Zola must be a master of what I'm learning is called "French naturalism." I'm working on a blog for his book, "Lourdes," (see on April 25th on Classics Tour), and it has the same stark, shocking realism. You just feel so sorry for these people.

Cat said...

I read Nana too for the CC and I think your review is fantastic. I wish I could express myself as well. I found it hard to decide on a focus as there are so many different themes that were interesting.

JoAnn said...

Another great review, Mel! I've read two Zola novels now, and will definitely be reading more...either Nana or Germinal next.

Mel u said...

Ms Lucy-thanks as always for your comments

Suko-Zola is a harsh writer who shines a bright light in dark corners-

The Black Sheep-I agree with your assessment

Carol Fleserieu-Miller-I will for sure read your post on Lourdes

Cat-your review od Nana was very well done and elegantly expressed

Joann-I will be happy to read your thoughts on Zola

Rebecca Reid-Nana does depict a dark world whose residents have few positive qualities

Hannah Stoneman-thanks so much for your comments

Amanda said...

I keep saying it, but I have to read more Zola! So glad I have this one on my shelf!

o said...

I wasn't sure which Zola to read next, but now I know it's going to be Nana :)

Mel u said...

o-I will look forward to your comments and I really need to read more Zola soon

stenote said...

Interesting blog post, it reminds me of Lourdes the book discussing one of the controversial writings by Emile Zola about the conflict of faith and naturalism that took stage in the famous pilgrimage place Lourdes, France. I tried to write a blog about it, hope you like it too: