|Édouard Manet, Nana, 1877|
I recently finished Emil Zola's Nana, recommended by fellow blogger Macheath. To begin with, it's a first rate read, an extraordinary, gripping novel of decadence and decay in nineteenth century Paris.
Lets get the criticism out of the way though. Zola, I have since discovered, was criticized for not creating memorable characters, his novels being driven more by plot than vivid personalities. I agree with this view, but it is offset by his powerful ability to evoke atmosphere, social settings, crowds and the overriding role of situation and circumstance.
Zola's characters tend to be two-dimensional flotsam on the great river of life, but that is his intention, his view of how things really are. It certainly works for Nana.
The anti-heroine, Nana, is an actress and courtesan made good. A beauty from the gutter who fascinates and ruins high-society men without a qualm. Yet in many ways she is difficult to dislike, partly because she too is a creature of circumstance. She controls her lovers absolutely, yet is also moulded by their sexual needs. She seems to be what they most desire in a woman, but without their wealth, social standing and the prevailing decadence of the times she would be nothing - no more than a common prostitute.
One quote seems to express Zola's view on how rigorous moral standards may have to be if the lesson of his novel is to be learned.
Mme Hugon, though weary and absent-minded, had caught some phrases of the conversation, and she now intervened and summed up in her tolerant way by remarking to the Marquis de Chouard, who had just then bowed to her: "These ladies are too severe. Existence is so bitter for every one of us! Ought we not forgive others much, my friend, if we wish to merit forgiveness ourselves?"
For some seconds the marquis appeared embarrassed, for he was afraid of allusions. But the good lady wore so sad a smile that he recovered almost at once and remarked: "No, there is no forgiveness for certain faults. It is by reason of this kind of accommodating spirit that a society sinks into the abyss of ruin."
The novel ends with Nana's lovers either ruined or dead. Nana herself dies from smallpox which turns her into a suppurating mess of putrefaction lying all alone in a hotel bedroom.
The comparison with Zola's contemporaries is a stark one. Wilkie Collins could never have written or published anything so explicit or hammered home his moral lessons with such cool ferocity. Today of course we'd scarcely rate it as explicit, but oddly enough Zola's more restrained frankness works rather well. His novel brings home the creeping destructive horrors of decadence and moral decline and for me at any rate, the message sticks and sticks well.