Sunday, April 13, 2014

Nana by Emile Zola

 A redhead dominates Second Empire Parisian society 

Nana, a vivacious teenager, becomes the talentless “star” of a Parisian musical. Soon every man clamors to possess her, including the immensely rich Count Muffat, who suffers spiritual agonies over his sinful lust, the cute teenager Georges, and an army of rich men. Nana supplements her theatrical paycheck with quick cash from assignations, but is also eager to accept apartments, clothing, jewels and income streams from any man who desire intimate access on a more consistent basis. Her heart, however, belongs to her little son Louis. And perhaps Satin, her blue eyed prostitute friend. Nana goes from rags to riches to rags back to incomparable riches again, only to die ignominiously of smallpox as the French Army marches off to disaster in the Franco Prussian war. In the end, every man who lusted after her is financially and morally destroyed.

This novel is very cinematic. Great set pieces – the opening scene of the play with a naked Nana as Venus, the lesbian café, the horse race scene. Perhaps the movies have replaced these old fashioned novels. I don’t mind long books that make me feel like I’m going on a spiritual journey but this one made me feel as if I watching a long expensively produced miniseries. That is, a bit repetitive and dull. Nana is a beautiful promiscuous vivacious dolt, a somewhat heavy handed symbol of the corruption of France. I’m not sure if I felt any deep sympathy or interest in how she would end up. She navigates a world defined by male privilege and reading this book definitely made me appreciate feminism more.  

Like Moll Flanders, by the end of the book, Zaza is entirely motivated by money. In the final chapter, the lines of men and women tramping through Nana's bedroom became comical and cartoonish. I did like the final scene where Nana dies, a biting critique of France as the screaming crowd marches into the utter humiliation of the entirely staged Franco Prussian war. The author’s contempt for French society (high and low) came through loud and clear.

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