Thoughts: Nana, by Emile Zola

Well, don’t I feel fancy?

I do. I feel incredibly fancy. Not as fancy as Nana in her splendour, but still. We try.

At this point I think I can say that I just really like Zola. Many spoilers below. Read the book though, it’s brilliant.

This book was absolutely not on my list, but we were in a secondhand bookshop in Manchester and it was there, and I like Zola and need to practise my French reading, so I picked it up.

I sank into it. I don’t know what it is about him that takes you right into the room where everything’s happening, but something does. So many gorgeous little details and images; gaslight reflected in champagne glasses, the filthy rooms of filthy girls, the theatre backstage where the ginger tomcat sleeps, the horse races, the kitchen where Madame Maloir and Madame Lerat play bezique while they wait for Nana to… earn enough money to pay for custody of her son. The beautiful and disgusting things all are utterly compelling through Zola’s eyes.

The back of the book promised me a courtesan who ruins all who desire her, and an acid portrait of decadence which would be shaken up by war, but for about 85% of the book I was still waiting for the ruining, and there was no mention of war at all. The men all lined up to ruin themselves like dominoes though, and the war came blowing in at the last few pages. I keep trying to think of the plot, as in, what happens, and though a lot of things happen, it’s hard to summarise them. Narratives unfurl enticingly at Nana’s feet and she ignores them all.

The book opens with her star turn at the theatre, where our principal cast are watching her (or costarring), in which she plays Venus, and I use “play” in the loosest sense, because Nana is the worst actress and singer the world has ever seen – but she is pure raw sensuality displayed in the third act, practically naked before the audience. I wondered if she was going to work her way up to infamy, like some kind of sexual Florence Foster Jenkins… but no. She reprises her part for most of the rest of the season, and then loses interest. (I also enjoyed the male characters wondering where indeed they had seen her before…)

Then there is a dinner party, and I wondered if we were going to get a comedy of manners, as lowly-born Nana rakes in her little fortune and enters Society, but also no, she’s far too shameless and frankly the company she tends to keep is not that far above her.

The book, and the three years it covers, continue much in this vein – Nana finds something new and shiny; a stable, if not necessarily respectable, life is dangled in front of her, and she sniffs at it for a while before turning away in disdain, in favour of a terrible choice.

As for her ruining the menfolk (and poor old Satin), I feel like it must be said that the menfolk are not kept in any doubt as to who and what Nana is. She is, as said before, the world’s worst actress. When she goes too far she’ll turn around, all laughter and caresses, but how many times is a grown-ass man (I believe this is what the youth of today call them) going to fall for this? Infinity times, if Zola is to be believed.

Actually though the one man I did want to be ruined* was the only one clever enough to stay away from her.

Now look. Nana is an awful person, incredibly toxic even among the terrible people who keep company with her, but any one of those men could have walked away at any point, or indeed just not done the things she demanded of them. They could have not given her huge sums of money, and they could have not stolen from their workplaces to give ostentatious, fragile gifts to the woman who has so many things she doesn’t even know the help is robbing her, and they really, really could have not engaged in some really uncomfortable (to me if not them) puppy/pony play dressed up in their chamberlain’s uniforms.

There’s a point where Nana, in one of her pity parties (every bit as lavish as her actual parties) claims that actually she is a good person, because these men would have murdered people if she had told them to, and she had not told them to. And Nana is terrible, but lads, I have to say she is right on the money with this one. The things they do without her asking. Fixing horse races, stabbing themselves all over her expensive carpet, going to military prison, bankrupting themselves, desecrating everything they love because it might please her for an hour or ten minutes. It is crazy. I love it. I mean she is not manipulative at all. She’s often grumpy and short with them, and nevertheless they will tear out their beating hearts and throw them at her.

Every single character in this book is a proper r/relationships certified Red Flag (TM). Georges the horny schoolboy who has to keep escaping from his mother’s house to visit Nana, the Comte and his extravagant Catholic misery, Vandeuvres and his compulsive gambling, Rose Mignon and her ménage à… several. The boundary-trampling which goes on! Nana says she will host people at her house in the country (provided by a lover) on X day, sneaks out a couple of days early to have some time for herself, and WHOOPS here’s Georges the infant child sneaking through the window to play house and persuade her to, well, we can all guess, can’t we, despite the age gap that is too much even for Nana. She arranges to see the Comte on one day at one time, but WHOOPS he’s barging into her bedroom and catching her and his father-in-law at it, and having a huge crisis he could have avoided had he just come when he was meant to. These men cannot follow the simplest instructions.

I found it interesting how squeamish the men were, as well. Both when Nana and Satin were discussing their harrowing childhoods as the prostitute daughters of alcoholics and laundrywomen, and at the end when Nana is actually dead (from smallpox! Unexpected!), milling around outside the hotel while the women, with whom she had definitely not got on well, go in there and do the vigilling and well, who really knows how many diamonds she was wearing. There was a bit of dialogue in that scene, when the women are expecting one of the men to come in, but actually it’s just Lucy Stewart, and she just gives this totally scornful “they’re all outside smoking cigars” that I loved, and I don’t know why. I could hear it. I was thinking it!

For most of the book Nana is surprisingly fleshed out – I’d been expecting a sort of cipher, a human metaphor, based on the blurb, but she’s a very strongly-charactered person. We see her in incredible detail, so intimate it’s almost ugly. There is this bit near the end though, where Zola pulls away as she’s coming into her own and she becomes utterly monstrous. My French is not perfect by a long shot, but goddamn, what a bit of writing.

Yeah, so, it was good. I liked it. Zola is still an author who gets leapfrogged to the top of the TBR whenever I come across him.

*Fontan of course.

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