Monday, April 11, 2016

Paris would never experience such fun again - Zola and Nana have some fun

Typically, I pick out bits of books I think are particularly good.  I did not do that with Nana; in fact I chose some passages that I thought had something quite bad mixed in with whatever was good, although I did not highlight their badness.  By bad, I mean that the narrator has started hammering, as when he shows Nana surveying her extraordinary new furnished mansion:

It was like a sudden extension of her own personality, her need for power and pleasure, her urge to possess everything in order to destroy everything.  Never before had she felt so deeply the immense force of her sexuality.  Looking slowly around, she said with an earnest, philosophical air:

‘Ah well, it’s really jolly sensible to get what you can while you’re young!’  (Ch. 10, 304-5)

I love “philosophical,” but those first couple of lines are awfully blunt.  Does Zola think I have been skimming his novel?  Then a couple of lines later, he ends the chapter with something a lot better:

To save time, she took hold of her thick blonde hair in both hands and shook it over the silver wash-basin; a shower of long pins fell out, tinkling like bells on the shining metal.

Nana is a novel in bad taste, possibly about taste at times.  “… and now and again she’d even open a book, because she prided herself on her literary taste” (Ch. 10, 287) – now that is just mockery of poor Nana, and the last we hear of her reading.  More to the point is her custom-made bed,

… utterly unique, a throne or altar where all Paris would come to worship her in her naked, equally unique, beauty.  It would be made entirely of embossed gold and silver, like some gigantic jewel, golden roses hanging on a silver trellis; along the bed-head a band of laughing Cupids would be leaning forward, surrounded by flowers and peering at the voluptuous delights concealed in the shade of the curtains.  (Ch. 13, 369)

Perhaps one of the heads can be Nana’s own.  The head, Nana thinks, why not the entire body?  “She could see herself as a silver statuette symbolizing steamy nights of love…”  (Ch. 13, 375)

And one of the many climaxes of this bizarre penultimate chapter is a tableau of a nude Nana posing “with the divine arrogance of her awe-inspiring idol” on her monstrosity of a bed, on one side the statue of herself, on the other a Marquis, a “senile old man,” “a death’s head at this feast celebrating Nana’s all-conquering flesh”  (Ch. 13, 401).

Nana is an outstanding character, but this late chapter is from the point when her celebrity has become so astounding that she loses much of her humanness.  The novel works perfectly as a satire of celebrity.  All too relevant.

At the beginning of the novel, just before my first glimpse of Nana appears on stage:

The public hadn’t been able to wallow in such stupid impudence for ages.  They felt refreshed.  (Ch. 1, 19)

And then a few pages from the end: “Paris would never experience such fun again” (Ch. 14, 422).

Those two quotations give a good sense of what comes between them.


  1. There's a lot to like/dislike here, Tom, but I was most tickled by the translator's "jolly sensible" in that first quote. That sounds exactly like the Parisian French I struggle to read in the original these days. Too funny!

  2. Parmée’s translation has a lot of personality and energy.

  3. Does the fact that "A Rebours" no longer sits on your shelf mean that you'll be writing about it soon? I hoped to finish it before you did, but I fear its tedium has me caught in a morass...

  4. Yes, I might even start writing about it today, continuing the French interior decorating theme.

    Which part is especially swampy? The chapter on French Catholic literature? Pure quicksand.