Book Review: ‘Nana’ by Emile Zola

“All of a sudden, in the good-natured child, the woman stood revealed, a disturbing woman with all the impulsive madness of her sex, opening the gates of the unknown world of desire. Nana was still smiling, but with the deadly smile of a man-eater.”

Emile Zola, Nana

Nana Coupeau was eighteen at the beginning of the story and also a star in the opera La Blonde Venus in which she amused her audience. This first chapter of the book tells us how Nana was rising from nobody to somebody. Even before the show started, the Paris society had been brimming with with excitement and curiosity: who is Nana? how did she get the leading role? Is she talented? Can she sing? To this question, Bordenave the theatre manager replied:

‘Does a woman need to be able to sing or act? Ah my lad, you’re too stupid. Nana’s got something else, for Christ’s sake. Something that makes everything else so superfluous’

In this chapter, we also meet all the characters that later will get tangled in the drama with Nana in the centre. Nana started as a streetwalker and by the end of chapter one, she was slowly rising to a high-end prostitute. Men visited her in her house where she lived with her loyal maid and each of them trying their best to secure an appointment. However, Nana is pictured by Zola as a woman who had two sides. She was hungry for power and to rise out of poverty, she stole men from their women (and mistresses), she mistreated men who were crazy in love with her, and she was always asking for the best: house, gowns, furniture, and later in the book she became a fashionable lady whose style was copied by the Parisien.

“The passion for defiling things was inborn in her. It was not enough for her to destroy them, she had to soil them too.”

On the other side, Nana was a woman who had so much love to give. She fought hard for her little son, she truly loved some men she was with (they were varied in wealth, profession, age, and social class), she’s very generous with her money, she wanted to play the role as a good wife and at some point, she gave up all the luxury she had to live this other life. She was also a woman who was damaged, abused and used by men.

Through Nana (and his other books), Zola, a naturalist, wants to show the ugly, sordid, unpleasant side of human. Naturalists often use the image of a human trapped in a cage which reduced them to bestiality. In Nana, her situation and profession – born poor, forced to be a prostitute on the street, and her ‘responsibility’ as a high-end prostitute – later turned her into a monster.

“She alone was left standing, amid the accumulated riches of her mansion, while a host of men lay stricken at her feet. Like those monsters of ancient times whose fearful domains were covered with skeletons, she rested her feet on human skulls and was surrounded by catastrophes…The fly that had come from the dung heap of the slums, carrying the ferment of social decay, had poisoned all these men simply by alighting on them. It was fitting and just. She had avenged the beggars and outcasts of her world. And while, as it were, her sex rose in a halo of glory and blazed down on her prostate victims like a rising sun shining down on a field of carnage, she remained as unconscious of her actions as a splendid animal, ignorant of the havoc she had wreaked, and as good-natured as ever.”

There were so many scenes that shocked me – abuse that she received and abuse that she performed on others. This book also offers me to look into Paris society in the 1880s and the theatre life which was written in such great detail. Zola, as a journalist, was familiar with the theatrical world that inspired Nana. In the preface written by the translator Douglas Parmeé in Oxford World’s Classics edition, he said that in writing the character Nana, Zola wanted to show the mythical femme fatale, the woman who can do things with just her sexuality, but he also showed that Nana the man-eater was the victim of society, male society to be exact.

Other major themes in the story aside from gender roles in society, is also sexuality and religion. In one of the so many jaw-dropping scenes, Nana was being trashed repeatedly and the abuser took pleasure in it, thinking that Nana looked even lovelier. But Zola does not limit masochism to the male sex only, there were even so much more scenes when Nana was enjoying the pleasure of abusing her lovers. She slapped, tied, and degraded her lovers, and these men came back running to her.

In religion as the theme, Zola showed a dilemma encountered by Count Muffat who was known in the society as a religious respectable man. At first, he pretended that he despised Nana but later he too, fell into her trap. He was obsessed with Nana as much as he was with his religion.

“The more grievous the sin, the greater the repentance, God was bidding His time.”

If you expect a happy ending from Zola’s books, you might not get it (I haven’t read all – but all three that I have do not have any glimpse of happiness), but his portrayal of human nature is a masterpiece. Nana, in particular, is full of characters that have two sides of characters – an immoral and an honest woman, a pious and a sinner, an uptight woman and a daring lover, a loyal husband and his wife’s pimp. Safe to say, it is never boring.

This edition of Nana is published by Oxford World’s Classics, 2009. ISBN-13: 978-0199538690

This edition is no longer available on Oxford University Press website, instead there’s a second edition (with a different cover and a different translator, here). If you want to have this edition you can still find it on eBay and Amazon.

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