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)