Monday, 21 May 2012


Édouard ManetNana, 1877
From Wikipedia

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.


Macheath said...

A masterful summing-up!

For me, one particularly ingenious plot device is the journalist, whose articles provide the initial plot catalyst and allow Zola to comment indirectly on Nana's career and corrupting influence.

For more Parisian decadence, try 'La Curee' - I think it translates as 'The Kill' - but I also recommend a quick detour back to the first novels of the series to see the origins of the inherited traits manifested by Zola's characters.

I'm happpy you found it a good read!

Anonymous said...

I like Zola and de Maupassant for their vigour and humanity, you can practically smell the sex, sweat, scent, flowers, snobbery and slop buckets. Nana reminds me of my aunt's comment 'that girl is sitting on her fortune' - took me a while to discover what she meant, a child earwigging on adults.

Before my reading light goes out forever I must try Proust one more time, I have given up three times now

A K Haart said...

Mac - thanks, I'll try 'La Curee' and see if I can read the novels in the right order.

Roger - giving up on Proust isn't necessarily a bad idea. I'm pleased to have read him, but only just. It's very marginal.