Emile Zola

Reading Notes: Nana

There always seems to be a lull in my reading habits during this time of the year. Although every year I tell myself I’ll get into the more meatier and chunkier books during the yearly break, when December/January rolls around, I always remember why I never do: the extreme summer heat kind of puts one off Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Foucault. They don’t exactly make for light summer reading.

At the moment, I’m reading Nana by Emile Zola and it’s a strange sort of book. For starters, the chapters are very long so it’s not the type of book that you can pick up and put down. It’s not a plot driven or pacey novel since it’s more of a slow examination of ninetenth-century Parisian society, of hedonism and debauchery, of sex and social double-standards. It’s a really fascinating read.

I’m not particularly well-read in French literature and classics. I got through half of Madame Bovary a few years ago before I got distracted and haven’t yet returned to it. But I did remember the stark differences between the French classic and English classics. Reading Nana has reminded me of the differences, or perhaps it might be the books I pick. The French classics are so much more about the sex and frivolous lifestyle and the characters are much more liberated in certain senses. For example, Nana is an unmarried young woman/high-class prostitute/actress and has a young toddler son who is sometimes in Nana’s care. And yet nobody bats an eyelid when they find out and Nana happily claims him as her own. Of course, this may be so since she is essentially a prostitute but the fact doesn’t deter the men. In Victorian fiction, the illegitimate child would have been disowned, hidden away and hoped that it would never be discovered.

The edition I am reading is OUP and I suspect that the translation is slightly off. Expressions seem too English. I’m not quite sure if the French said ‘old chap’. I’m also unsure if the the text has been modernised. Did the French say ‘comfy’ in the nineteenth-century?