Friday, April 8, 2016

the queen of first-class tarts - Nana triumphs

Zola builds Nana out of big set pieces, chapter-long scenes with lots of movement and characters.  A theatrical performance, then the next day at Nana’s apartment, a jump to another house, then back to Nana’s for a chaotic, drunken dinner party.  “Then the blond young man bearing the name of one of the great French families, desperate to find something funny to do and unable to think of anything better, took his bottle of champagne and emptied it into the piano” (Ch., 4, 105).  That kind of party.

Four chapters, four scenes; 100 pages; a quarter of the novel.  Exhausting.  Finally, Zola skips a month to another 35 page theater scene, in which the plot finally begins, a third of the way into the book, as Nana captures the upright, religious, and immensely wealthy Count de Muffat by getting him into her dressing room while she’s changing.  The Count, and also the heir to the English throne, the future King Edward VII; he’s there, too.  With Nana, Zola goes big.

The theater chapters are enormous fun, and would be worth reading even if the rest of the book were junk.  The other great scene is Chapter 11, when all of the characters go to the races.  Nana is at this point a celebrity:

So Nana became the toast of Paris, the queen of first-class tarts, battening on the stupidity and beastliness of males.  In the smart world of amorous intrigue, a world of reckless extravagance and brazen exploitation of beauty, her rise to fame was meteoric; and she immediately joined the ranks of the most expensive…  She represented the aristocracy of vice…  (Ch. 10, 274)

Gustave Flaubert has a long racetrack scene in Sentimental Education (1869) that is one of the highlights of the novel.  Eça de Queirós put a long, stunning racetrack chapter in The Maias (1888), a clear, and successful, attempt to outdo Flaubert.  I had not known that Nana contained Zola’s challenge to Flaubert, quite different than Eça’s.  A horse named after Nana is in the race; Nana herself is turned into a horse (her hair is “allowed to stream down her back like an enormous red horse-tail,” 307).  The horse is a longshot, but the author can do what he wants, and he wants a triumph for Nana.  He wants an apotheosis:

Nana was till listening to her name reverberating over the plain.  It was her subjects applauding her while she dominated them all, standing bolt upright in the sunlight, in her blue-and-white dress, the colour of the sky, with her hair glowing like a sun-queen.  (Ch. 11, 337)

She becomes the female Louis XIV, the embodiment of France.  What a scene.

Nana is allowed one more chapter as a human character – she and Muffat are pretty much the only characters in the novel with any depth – before she becomes some kind of ravaging goddess of sex, destroying men and families, until eventually she destroys France, somehow, symbolically, at the hands of the invading Prussians.  Venus has become Shiva.  The last few lines are clear enough about that, although they are too grisly to quote, except for

… her hair, her lovely hair, still flamed like a glorious golden stream of sunlight.  (Ch. 14, 425)


  1. i've never read zola; but, to tell the truth, this description helps me realize why not. it's sort of like fireworks, lots of bangs(no pun intended) and lights, but the end result is sort of hohum. is it me, am i just missing something...? i never thought about my literary taste in this way; maybe i'm too old and it's difficult to find new, interesting tomes... or maybe i'm tired... quien sabe, as tonto said to mr. ranger...

    1. Mudpuddle,

      It was Hannah Arendt who subtitled her book on Eichmann's trial in Jerusalem, "The Banality of Evil." It appears as though Zola got it right, but the banality is in Nana's and the other characters' actions and not in Zola's depiction.

      Zola may be classified as a "realist" or a "naturalist" writer--not really got straight on the differences here--but he's really a romantic at heart, for evil always comes to a bad end, or so it appears to me.

  2. Yes, lots of fireworks, lots of explosions, each big scene with its own fireworks and explosions. The novel ends with the conquest of France by the Prussians, which does not strike me as ho hum, but all too exciting, to the point of being a little ridiculous. A lot of weight to put on poor Nana.

    Luckily Zola's "Naturalism," the idea that what he is doing has something to do with science, is completely abandoned in Nana. The look back at Nana's family life, the characters in L'Assommoir, is poignant and not presented as "evidence" beyond Nana's psychology.

    Zola is 100% a romantic at heart. When evil does not come to a bad end in a Zola novel, it is just as much for romantic, moralistic reasons.

  3. tx, fred and tom; that clarifies a bit. maybe i'll give it a try...

  4. Enjoyed your review!
    The only 'scientific elememt I could find was Zola's
    desire to observe Nana's 'animal sensualitiy'.
    ( pg 56) A wave of lust flowed from her, as from an animal in heat.

  5. The chapter with the horse race was by far the best chapter of Nana, for me -- it's the only Zola novel I've truly disliked, and that was the only chapter I enjoyed. Of course I didn't pick up on any of the metaphors, but then, I'm hardly an academic reader. I need to give Zola another try, I've been ignoring him far too long.

  6. "When evil does not come to a bad end in a Zola novel, it is just as much for romantic, moralistic reasons." Yes. It's often struck me that various schools and proponents of naturalism don't so much abandon the moralistic as moralize in a different way. Is it even possible to maintain the barest causal unity of plot—even say the plot of gestural logic in a Kafka short story—without some kind of moralizing?

    Anyway, lovely notes as always, amateur reader.

  7. Nana inherits her mother's sensuality, including her sensitivity to colors and scents. It's a nice link back to L'Assommoir.

    My view of the "science" of Naturalism is the same as Zola's, at least as reported by Goncourt: "charlatanism."

    "Academic"! Very funny, Karen. The only chapter I actively dislike was Ch. 13, the one where Nana has fully becoming a deity or symbol. The narrator is at his most bizarre. I think I'll write one more post on that chapter.

    "moralize in a different way" - yes, I am finally figuring that out about Oscar Wilde, too. I had mistaken him quite badly, taking him at his word.

  8. The whole Naturalism and Realism labels (or any other labels) tend to be arbitrary, after-the-fact categories that can lead readers to make judgments based on labels' criteria. Sometimes a good (or bad) novel is simply a good (or bad) novel; perhaps labels ought to be avoided. Even as I say that, I know that I am guilty of trying to fit authors' works into labelled categories; that is a danger of reading too much theory, criticism, and history rather than simply reading. Of course, what the hell do I know?

  9. Right, I need the labels once I get interested in literary history. Whatever helps organize the chaos.