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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Thoughts: Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar, by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Here we are again! I found Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar a lot easier to read than The Son of Tarzan for various reasons, among which was that I didn’t spend the entire time rolling my eyes at how great the Wesley Crusher of Tarzan was. Another reason is that there was a black character who was… not described using weird backhanded descriptions???

Let’s dive in and find out more.

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Thoughts-ish: Tristan et Iseut, edited by Michel Zink

I’m not going to write a scholarly essay on this, sorry and you’re welcome. This is just closure for me, and letting myself brag a bit, because this was a really difficult read and I got through it!

(Musical accompaniment!)

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Thoughts: Me Before You, by Jojo Moyes

I’m only… eight years late?

Well, let’s get stuck in. Spoilers abound, probably.

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Thoughts: Son of Tarzan, by Edgar Rice Burroughs

“But Danni, why?” you ask, and I know, I know.

We got the Disney Tarzan remake at Sneak, so according to the law of the land I had to read the book. The most legit-looking copy of the book in the Wild West of the Kindle store when copyright-expired books are on the line was a collection of the first… I want to say five? six? Tarzan books, so that’s what I did.

“But Danni, why not just read the first one and have done with it?” you ask and yes, yes, I could, but I hate leaving things unfinished on my Kindle, taunting me with their percentages, so I’ve been reading them from time to time between other books. After finishing The Mirror and the Light I wanted something that wouldn’t stir up my feelings any more, and a Tarzan seemed just the ticket. Yes, I did this to myself. I will not be taking “don’t like don’t read” comments at this time, thank you.

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Thoughts: The Mirror and the Light, by Hilary Mantel

Oh man, this one is going to be disappointing in terms of analysis and detail.

What can I say? I’ve been waiting years for it, and it came. It was what I was hoping for. I only had to haul the gigantic paperback around for a couple of days before the serendipitous COVID-19 lockdown hit Germany and I was free to read it at home, at my leisure, on the balcony in the sun, or curled up in bed, or on a lonely bench on Frankenallee (yes, for crying out loud, I was socially distant).

I thought I’d leave it a few days after the initial ending, one of those book-endings like a small bereavement (well I mean), to see if any wise and intelligent thoughts occurred to me afterwards. Nope. Just want more of it, please.

I’m an awful reader. Let’s get that out of the way now. I can be good about most things, but when it comes to anything that hits a certain kind of ‘want’ button in my mind I am the absolute worst. I wanted more lore in Lord of the Rings. I want Matthew Shardlake to live forever and also solve crimes for that long. I’m one of those fans who doesn’t know or care what’s good for her. There’s a kind of relief when a series I love ends, because at least the creator can be trusted to do the right thing, if I can’t be trusted to want it. Talking about you, Bojack Horseman.

So yes, this is turning out to be a lot more about me than Thomas Cromwell. I saw a couple of comments while I was reading about how The Mirror and the Light could have used a bit heavier editing in the middle, but I neither noticed nor cared when I was plunged into Cromwell’s reminiscences, the more labyrinthine, lighter-touch, more careful schemes he was embroiled in. As he gets older, he gets more tangled up in the things he’s done before. The more he succeeds, the more he has to lose.

He gets less circumspect as well – he loses his temper, he says things he immediately knows he shouldn’t have said. He’s getting old and complacency is pushing in at him, and he’s losing his patience. It’s just such an amazing character study, this whole trilogy, showing not just a character or a personality in intricate, contradictory detail, but a personality in flux, changing constantly through the years.

I loved the relationships between all the characters, friends and enemies at the same time, how no one is ever fully on anyone’s side or fully off it, how the best laid plans of mice and men are constantly derailed by Henry, who proves that yes, the people in charge of us have always been this mad.

I loved how Cromwell’s impressions of people and events in his past – that we were personally involved in, in the previous books – change. He comes to fool himself with his own games with the truth, he looks more fondly on people he was engaged in life-or-death court struggles with, things change. He changes. Gregory, such a terrible son compared to the sharp and wasted Anne, comes into his own. Jane Seymour turns out not to be such a sheep of a woman after all.

Ugh, just everything.  The humour, the characters, the detail, each scene a world I could have lived in. I thought I knew a decent amount about what the Tudors did but now I understand why and how and what it meant*. I understand why Anne of Cleves, why Katherine Howard.

Everything. The end. What can I say about the end? It was terrible and perfect. It made me feel part of something huge. It made me feel the best kind of small. I’m going to live half in this trilogy for a long time, I think.

*Yes of course I know that historical fiction, however meticulously researched, is not a substitute for historical non-fiction, but a complement to it.

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Thoughts: The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers

So, given all the Covid-19 that’s going around, it’s probably a good time to catch up on reading, yes? I have a bit of a (totally normal) cold right now, so I’m feeling particularly sympathetic to the quarantiners.

And happy coincidence, Becky Chambers’s The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is a good choice for comfort reading. It is just lovely. Spoilers will follow so if you haven’t read it yet, save it up for when you might need it and don’t read this.

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Thoughts: The French Lieutenant’s Woman, by John Fowles

I mean I’m going to open with this: if you want to read the thoughts of people much more interesting and intelligent than me, read the (wonderful) Guardian reading group’s posts on it, and the comments. My thoughts are not going to be this informed or thoughtful.

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Thoughts: Non-Stop, by Brian Aldiss

When I was a wee bairn, I was nosing around the stalls at my primary school’s summer fayre with a few pound my parents had given me to amuse myself and raise whatever funds those fayres were for (they were spelt that way, I don’t know why, I don’t make the rules), and I stopped at the secondhand books stall, because it is the best stall. One of the books waiting for new homes ticked a lot of my boxes – it was thick (good), sci fi (good) with an exciting front cover including weird flying snakes (awesome), so I duly parted with my money and took my new baby home.

That book was not Non-Stop. It was Helliconia Spring, also by Brian Aldiss, and it blew my little mind. I can’t remember how old I was when I read it, either old primary school or new secondary school (I had a string of relatives at that primary school after me so I frequented the summer fayres for years after I’d left) but I’d never read anything even vaguely like Helliconia Spring. For years I kept my eye out for the others in the trilogy, Helliconia Summer and Helliconia Winter, until I eventually gave up believing that our little North Eastern town would ever have something so weird and cool and old in it. When you grew up in Teesside in the 90s and early 00s, you sometimes just had to put these dreams on hold. Finishing old sci fi trilogies was something for other people, not for you. We had one indie bookshop (since closed when the owner retired) and a Waterstones had opened in Middlesbrough, which was dedicated to the new and/or popular (still there), a pair of small libraries (consolidated into one affordable monthly library now, though they did sometimes turn up absolute gold) and a host of charity shops (thriving). And yes, I could have asked our indie bookshop to order in the others, but I was young and didn’t know this was a thing.

Anyway, not long before I moved to Germany, I finally got my hands on the SF Masterworks edition of the Helliconia trilogy (a gift from a fabulous friend). I finally got to finish the story, and my mind was blown once again.

When Brian Aldiss died in 2017, I put Non-Stop on my TBR list. It was an arbitrary choice, because Brian Aldiss has written a hell of a lot of stories, and I didn’t know anything about any of them, so I chose his first novel because why not start at the beginning?

Probably spoilers ahead! If you want to read the book, I’d recommend just diving in not knowing much about it.

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Thoughts: The Power, by Naomi Alderman

I enjoyed this more than I thought I would! Not because I was thinking ugh I will hate this book, better read it, because I uh definitely never do that (let me kick Thomas Wolfe under this carpet here), but I guess when I heard the premise (women evolve an electrical organ they can use to stun/incapacitate/kill) and (forgive me) that Margaret Atwood had mentored the author* I had a certain image in my head.

Anyway let’s dive in. Spoiler warning.

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