Nana by Emile Zola

“This was the period of her life when Nana lit up Paris with redoubled splendour. She rose higher than ever on the horizon of vice, dominating the city with her insolent display of luxury, and that contempt of money that made her squander fortunes.”

Nana is the spectacular ninth novel in the 20-volume Rougon Macquart series, and it’s one of the novels frequently read as a stand-alone tale. The first half of the novel follows the spectacular rise and equally great fall of Nana in her stage career, and the second half of the novel focuses on Nana’s glittering career as a courtesan.

To place Nana in the family tree, she is the daughter of Gervaise and great-granddaughter of Adelaide Fouque. Gervaise was the protagonist of Zola’s powerhouse novel L’Assommoir, one of the masterpieces of the Rougon-Macquart series. Nana first appears in L’Assommoir, and even in childhood, the glimpses we see of little Nana are ominous. A mischievous and willful child, by the time Nana hits her teens, she becomes a prostitute as a way to gain the sort of finery she covets. But apart from that L’Assommoir establishes that there’s something not quite right with Nana. Corrupted by her early exposure to the excesses of the human vices in combination with her family history, the implication is that Nana will not come to a good end.

The novel Nana begins with a young, nubile and very beautiful Nana scheduled to appear onstage at the Theatre des Varieties, and a substantial portion of Paris’s affluent male population has turned out to see her premiere performance. The owner of the theatre, Bordenave is a “notorious exhibitor of women” who insists on calling his theatre a “brothel” and it certainly serves as a portal to prostitution for the actresses who perform there. Bordenave predicts that Nana will be a phenomenal success. While Nana may lack talent, the fact that she performs in a state of undress guarantees her triumph, and since the theatre acts as a hunting ground for wealthy men in search of mistresses, many rivals circle like wolves, hoping to secure her favours as they vie for her time and attention. One of the men, a banker named Steiner, is obsessed with Nana, and he’s ready to drop his patronage of another actress, Rose Mignon in order to secure Nana.

The book’s vibrant first chapter introduces most of the characters who appear throughout the novel and also sets the stage for the book’s morality system. It’s in this chapter we see how life works for the actresses whose presence in the theatre signals that they are for sale. A boisterous system exists for these women who sell themselves to the man who offers the biggest prize, but other men who are not so affluent as Steiner carve out niches for themselves in the amorous lives of the most sought-after actresses. There’s Mignon, for example, who pimps his wife, shuffling and entertaining his wife’s lovers while he simultaneously manages her stage career. And then there’s Daguenet who blew his fortune and now contents himself with the crumbs of attention thrown his way. In today’s lingo, pretty boy Daguenet would be called a ‘boy-toy,’ and that’s certainly his role in this novel. Favoured by some of the actresses in the novel, Daguenet whose pet name is ‘Mimi’ seems to act as an erotic antidote to the wealthy, elderly and frequently decrepit lovers of Paris’s most beautiful courtesans.

Prior to her debut at the Theatre des Varieties, Nana juggles two paying lovers she dismissively calls ‘The Dago’ and ‘The Skinflint’ while also adding Daguenet to her roster. Nana alternates the nights she spends with these men, but the mornings are “reserved” for Daguenet, and since the “Old Skinflint” must be home by 8 in the morning, Daguenet waits for him to leave and then slips into the still warm bed with Nana. Even the money from these two lovers cannot keep Nana satisfied, and when a money crunch occurs, she slips off for the occasional paid rendezvous. The first two chapters of the novel establish that Nana has no conventional internal morality system and that men are objects who exist only to satisfy her desire for material gain. There’s one marvelous scene in which Nana has men stashed over her entire house–and even finds one in the closet.

After her stage debut, Nana accepts the banker Steiner as her lover and allows him to buy her a house in the country. But in spite of the huge sums of money spent by Steiner to amuse his capricious mistress, Nana is never faithful, and exploits other men whenever she feels like it, or whenever she needs a little extra money. She falls for the actor, Fontan who quickly becomes her “vice.” Mistreated, beaten and shoved into the streets to earn money to keep Fontan fed and happy, Nana falls from the dizzying heights she once enjoyed and sinks to become a common street prostitute. There are so many savage ironies here: feted and adored by the wealthiest men in Paris who were willing to part with fortunes for a night with Nana, she hawks her wares on the streets and takes her pathetic earnings home to a man who abuses her.

But Nana, a remarkably resilient character, returns to Paris in triumph, and this time she takes Comte Muffat as her protector. He purchases a splendid house for her in the Avenue de Villiers and:

“Thereupon Nana became a woman of fashion, a beneficiary of male stupidity and lust, an aristocrat in the ranks of her calling. Her success was sudden and decisive, a swift rise to gallant fame, in the garish light of lunatic extravagance and the wasteful follies of beauty. She at once became queen among the most expensive of her kind. Her photographs were displayed in shop-windows, and her remarks were quoted in the papers. When she drove along the boulevards in her carriage, people would turn round and tell one another who she was, with all the emotion of a nation saluting its sovereign, while she lolled back in her flimsy dresses, smiling gaily under the rain of golden curls which fell around the blue of her made-up eyes and the red of her painted lips. And the remarkable thing was that that buxom young woman, who was so awkward on the stage, so comical when she tried to play the respectable woman, was able to play the enchantress in town without the slightest effort. She had the supple grace of a serpent, a studied yet seemingly involuntary carelessness of dress which was exquisitely elegant, the nervous distinction of a pedigree cat, an aristocratic refinement, proudly and rebelliously trampling Paris underfoot like an all-powerful mistress. She set the fashion, and great ladies imitated her.”

Count Muffat is one of Nana’s greatest victims (and she has quite a few)–a man whose suppressed sexuality discovers an outlet in his relationship with the glittering courtesan. Obsessed and enamoured of Nana–a woman who possesses no heart and no conscience, he is systematically stripped of his fortune as Nana embarks on spending binges and constant redecorating forays. Muffat, who is putty in her hands, turns a blind eye to her many other relationships. And it’s no wonder that Zola got himself in trouble with this novel as one of Nana’s lovers is a woman.

“However, in the midst of all this luxury, and surrounded by her courtiers, Nana was bored to tears. She had men for every minute of the night, and money all over the house, even among the brushes and combs in the drawers of her dressing-table. But all this had ceased to satisfy her; and she was conscious of a void in her existence, a gap which made her yawn. Her life dragged on without occupation, each day bringing back the same monotonous hours, The next day did not exist: she lived like a bird, sure of having enough to eat, and ready to perch on the first branch she came to. This certainty of being fed caused her to stretch out in languid ease all day, lulled to sleep in conventional idleness and submissions as if she were the prisoner of her own profession. Never going out except in her carriage, she began to lose the use of her legs. She reverted to her childish habits, kissing Bijou from morning to night and killing time with stupid pleasures, as she waited for some man or other whose caresses she would tolerate with weary indulgence. And in the midst of this self-abandonment she no longer thought of anything but her beauty, forever inspecting her body and washing and scenting herself all over, in the proud knowledge that she could strip naked at any moment and in front of anyone without having any cause to blush.”

Her callous and sometimes cruel treatment of men leads to deaths and suicides, ruin and deprivation for the men who come under her spell. But apart from a few brief glimpses of compassion, Nana sees men as commodities, mere wealth machines who are either flush or exhausted, And once a man’s money is exhausted, he is no longer has any use to her.

Nana’s opulent lifestyle at the Avenue de Villiers comprises one of the greatest parts of this masterpiece. Nana’s insatiable appetite for material wealth causes the ruin of several men, but there’s an amazing trickle down result in her household as all of the servants bleed the bloated system to fill their stomachs and pockets with whatever loot isn’t nailed down. There’s one great scene at dinner when Nana tells her lover, Satin: “I must say I had a lot more fun when I hadn’t a sou.” Events at the mansion on the Avenue de Villiers reach a crescendo, as Nana’s house becomes a pulsing factory of consumerism, a “glowing forge, where her continual desires burned fiercely and the slightest breath from her lips changed gold into fine ashes which the wind swept away every hour.” As Nana’s spending explodes out of control, the house almost becomes a living organism:

“Now the crack was growing; it was zigzagging through the house foreshadowing approaching collapse. Among the drunkards in the slums it is utter poverty, empty cupboards, the madness of drink emptying every purse, which finish off tainted families. Here a waltz tune was sounding the knell of an ancient family, in the sudden glare illuminating these accumulated riches, while Nana, an invisible presence, stretched her lithe limbs above the ball, to the vulgar lilt of the music, penetrating and corrupting this society with her ferment of her scent as if it hung in the warm air.”

Nana is an incredible creation, a goddess whose power springs from her sexuality. Her inexhaustible sexuality feds her unquenchable desire for money. There is only one point in the novel when Nana concedes her true power to a man, and that is when she begins the unfortunate, ultimately abusive liaison with actor Fontan. Like a hydra with many heads, Nana is capable of servicing an inexhaustible supply of men, and Zola frankly describes her languid sexuality and complete absence of moral values. Ultimately, however, the novel displays the decadence of the upper classes who are so readily yoked by Nana’s harness–even to the point of completely impoverishing their own families and allowing her to lead them, mesmerized, to their doom.

As with other novels in the Rougon-Macquart series, Zola again shows his genius in the creation of several splendid scenes: Mignon and Fauchery fighting back stage, the dinner party that takes place at Nana’s home which is gate-crashed by all and sundry and the Grand Prix races. At the racetrack a horse named Nana captures everyone’s imagination, and this is possibly the best scene in this wonderful novel.

Above all this splendour and passion reigns Nana, glittering and throbbing with passion–for money–not for men. The pinnacle of Nana’s moral bankruptcy is revealed when she learns that one of her many lovers killed himself in a spectacular fashion. She comments that he should just have told her was penniless and then she could have got rid of him. Entirely missing the point, she thinks it’s “ridiculous” that any blame should rest on her shoulders. It’s not so much that she is oblivious to others’ destruction as much as that’s beside the point. After bleeding her lovers dry, she simply spits out the hollow husks once she’s taken everything they have: “The growing needs of her life of luxury sharpened her appetite, and she would clean a man out with one snap of her teeth.”

Nana observes former courtesans who’ve morphed into successful respectability and also those crushed who now scavenge the gutters of Paris for a crust. Nana has ample opportunities to gather a fortune, but she lacks self-restraint and seems uninterested in anything else except surrounding herself with opulence. Carrying this to its ultimate absurdity, it seems inevitable that Nana, who burns so brightly, will enact her own destruction through the destruction of everyone around her. One of the greatest literary characters ever created, Nana is both a symbol and a result of her decadent times, a great destroyer of those who seek to exploit her, a monstrous mistress as she takes revenge on the upper classes through her savage insatiable appetite for luxury.



Filed under Rougon-Macquart, Zola

15 responses to “Nana by Emile Zola

  1. Jonathan

    I think you’ve summed the book up perfectly – ‘Nana’ is a true classic. If anyone wants to know where they should start when approaching Zola then they can’t go wrong with this one. In fact it was my first Zola book when I first read it about 20 years ago and I’m glad to say that it’s just as great as I remember it. In fact, I probably appreciate it more second time around as I’ve read more of the R-M series since then. I love the fact that there are so many supporting characters…and not one of them is particularly pleasant..and certainly not Nana…superb!

  2. Have you read L’Assommoir? The glimpses of little Nana are fantastic. Makes me want to read the lot all over again.

    • Jonathan

      Yes, L’Assommoir, which is just as good as Nana, was my second Zola book and then for some reason I didn’t read any more for about ten years. As I’m getting near the end of the R-M series (not in order) I think I’m looking for ways to delay finishing it by re-reading the few that I’ve previously read. For the record I’ve got ‘Pot Luck’ & ‘Doctor Pascal’ to go and a re-read of ‘La Bete Humaine’.

      Have you considered reading the ‘Three Cities’? I’m undecided but I am intrigued by them.

  3. I loved Pot Luck. Ladies Paradise (which is, I suppose a sequel of sorts) felt much more modern in comparison.

    Yes I have the Three Cities here actually and will be reading them at some point. Can’t really pass them up considering how much I enjoyed the RM cycle.

  4. John Harrison

    There is a French TV series of Nana, made in the early 80’s I think, which is tremendously faithful to the book. It is available on DVD and is also on Youtube in its entirety – just search for ‘Nana episode 1 partie 2’. It is in French though, with no subtitles.

  5. John Harrison

    I meant to comment on the Three Cities, which I read last year. ‘Lourdes’ is very good, very Zola, very cynical. ‘Rome’ is VERY long and not an awful lot happens; it is one of the few Zola books where I wondered, having got to the end, whether it was worth the effort of reading. ‘Paris’ has it’s moments, although I struggled with the plausibility of the plot and some of the characterisation.

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