Thursday, April 7, 2016

a gust of gutter sex - Émile Zola's Nana

After I have read an Émile Zola novel, I usually blabber about the patternings Zola constructs, objects or colors or events that are not symbols but are used to build meaning within the novel, often by linking scenes together.  Zola learned the technique from Gustave Flaubert.  These motifs can be hard to see the first time through a novel.  This time, with Nana (1880), I did not see anything of the sort.  Maybe it’s not there.  More likely I will have to wait until the next time I read the novel.

Without these patterns as an additional source of aesthetic interest, as a source of meaning, novels like Flaubert’s and Zola’s can seem – be – vulgar, and Nana is at times vulgar beyond belief, among the ugliest 19th century novels I have ever read.  The title character, the subject of the novel, is herself a great beauty, a Venus on earth, a kind of living embodiment of sex.

In his manifestos Zola invokes science, but he might as well be writing a series of novels based on the Seven Deadly Sins.  The Belly of Paris (1873) covers gluttony, Money (1891) does greed, and Nana is pure lust.  This scheme does not really work, since every Zola novel I have read is about greed, but there are times when Zola is essentially creating medieval emblems for satirical purposes.

The waltz being played by the orchestra was the vulgar little dance-tune from The Blonde Venus, and as its cheerful, saucy rhythm flowed into the house it seemed to send a warm thrill through the old walls, like a gust of gutter sex sweeping away a bygone age in the haughty Muffat residence and dispersing their past, a hundred years of honour and Christian belief which had been sleeping in the dark corners of its lofty ceilings.  (Ch. 12, 353)

Muffat is a count who is destroying his fortune, family and mind on his kept woman, Nana.  The first chapter of the novel depicts Nana’s stage debut as the title character of The Blonde Venus, now, 300 pages later, her theme song.  Nana is limited actress and a poor singer, but she is a Marilyn Monroe-like figure, literally stunning the theater audience when she appears nude:

Now there was no clapping, and no one thought of laughing.  The men had a strained, earnest look on their faces; their nostrils were taut, their mouths parched and burning.  It was as if the softest of breezes had passed through, full of secret menace.  This good-natured girl had suddenly become a disturbing woman offering frenzied sexuality and the arcane delights of lust.  Nana was still smiling, but it was the mocking smile of a man-eater.

“Jesus!” said Fauchery simply, turning to la Faloise.  (Ch. 1, 25)

The joke is that I already know that Fauchery is completely jaded, but even he is captured by Nana. La Faloise still has some idiotic innocence. Twelve chapters later, Nana devours both men.

That breeze, that gust – is that one of the motifs I failed to see?  I think it is.

I read Douglas Parmée’s 1992 translation, which was terrific.  Page numbers from the Oxford World’s Classic paperback.


  1. one might wonder what inner demons zola was dealing with... or, novel-wrinting as self-analysis...

  2. Zola was the most bourgeois writer in French history. He is possessed by the demon whose arcane name is Moralistic Scold.

  3. I suspect the gutter-quality says a lot about the social/cultural environment in which Zola was writing; perhaps that is the key. That, my friend, is simply a half-baked, off-the-cuff theory. I'll put it back in the oven at 375 degrees for another 15 minutes if needed.