Review: “Nana” by Emile Zola [1880]; translated from French by Douglas Parmee [1992]

Nana begins during the 1862 World Fair in Paris. The theatre world has been heavily awashed in hype about the latest actress, Nana, who is due to make her debut in the stage production ‘The Blonde Venus’ with Nana playing Venus herself. What follows is a rather delicious anti-climax.

She had barely reached the second line before the audience started exchanging glances. Was this a joke, one of Bordenave’s calculated risks? They’d never heard a worse-trained voice, nor one singing more out of tune … and she didn’t even know how to hold herself on the stage – she was flinging her arms about in front of herself and swaying in a way that seemed both graceless and inappropriate.  – p. 14.

However, all of Nana’s lack of talent is soon forgiven as Nana is shown to be good natured, charismatic and even laughs along with the audience. She finally wins all the male audience’s hearts when she appears nude in the finale.

What follows is the chasing of Nana by the many men who are in love with her. A beautiful, young woman, Nana is captivating and knows how to please and is certainly not at all prudish. And despite being constantly depicted as living precariously between poverty and wealth, Nana is never shown to care for money, flinging and spending wildly. While wearing dresses that costs thousands of francs, she is constantly always wondering where her money has gone and frequently borrows from her own maid, Zoe.

Nana is a difficult character to articulate. She is a prostitute and blatant fortune hunter, seeking fame and wealth but not quite stability. The idea of marriage disgusts her and she turns down all proposals, no matter how rich the man is. She is shown to be ruthless with her lovers – she spends away her lovers’ fortunes without hesitation or a second thought and, when the money runs out, she cuts them off and throws them out. But she is also not without heart. There is a certain endearment to her. She has a little son, who was borne out of wedlock, and spoils him whenever she has the money, whenever she has time and whenever she remembers his existence. What Nana lacks is empathy.

As the novel progresses, Nana’s hedonism grows so large and overbearing, it feels like there is a gaping black vortex surrounding her, sucking everything in indiscriminately. The centre of this is the ordering of a solid, gold bed with her naked portrait carved into the bedhead. At one point, she consumes all men who happen to fall by her way and sleeps with different men and women each night. Great fortunes, some spanning back centuries, are wilted after a few weeks with Nana and great men are brought down to their knees.

This was an interesting and intense read, largely due to the ambiguous nature of Nana. She wants nothing more than respect, to be a woman of high society but it is something she will never achieve. She is always on the brink of poverty even when surrounded by such splendor and living in a palace and, yet, Nana is never seemed to be worried about it. Things are so easily given to her and, again, easily taken away and this occurs to the extreme.

The chapters are long so it is not a book you can simply pick up and put down. I would have loved to read this in French though, because I suspect my translation may be slightly off. At times, it sounded far too British and modern. Nana also appears in a prior book, L’Assommoir, where her childhood, lived in poverty and under alcoholic parents, was depicted.

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8 comments

  1. From your review this sounds like a book that I’d love! Perhaps one for a holiday though as it sounds quite intense. Fab review.

  2. This sounds fascinating! I saw your comment on Reading Matters and came over to find the review (I missed it somehow in my Google Reader). After just reading Dangerous Liaisons I want to immerse myself in scandalous French literature; I’m intrigued by Nana and also have a couple of other Zola novels and Madame Bovary on my list. It’ll probably some months until I read them all, if any, but the intent and intrigue is there!

  3. Claire – thanks! I think I’ll have to give Dangerous Liaisons a go but perhaps in the future. It’s incredible how far apart French and English literature are even though they were written in the same era and only separated by a channel. Now I understand why French novels were frowned upon in English novels! I think I’ll give L’Assommoir a go too in the near future since I’m fascinated by Nana.

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