Who wrote this book and when?
Emile Zola is the author. It’s part of a much larger work by Zola, 20 volumes actually, which track the lives of a French extended family through the Second Empire. “Nana” is the ninth in the series and came out in 1880.
Has there been a film version?
The notable film director Jean Renoir made this story into a movie in 1926.
Who are the important characters?
Nana – a spunky prostitute and man-eater
Count Muffat – a married man hopelessly in love with Nana
Georges Hugon – a very young man in love with Nana
Steiner – a banker who wastes much of his money on Nana
Vandeuvres – a man who raises horses and who falls in love with Nana
Fauchery – a journalist who…you guessed it, falls in love with Nana
Fontan – an ugly actor
Louiset – Nana’s son
Satin – Nana’s closest friend and lesbian lover
Zoe – Nana’s faithful maid
What’s it about?
It is the story of the rise of Nana, a French prostitute during the late 1800’s. She debuts to the French aristocracy when she stars as Venus in a play presented in a tawdry theater. Although her acting skills and voice are terrible, she appears naked and a young man named Georges Hugon helps her capture the crowd and from then on, she is one of the most desireable women in Paris. She then grows to enamor and ruin nearly all of the rich men who are unfortunate enough to come across her path. She is a man-eater in the truest sense of the word, luxuriating in her body and in self love, she has affairs with both men and women. Her ability so waste money is astounding and she is a marvelous representation of Paris society directly before the fall of the Second Empire.
Why is this book a classic?
It’s best known for being the greatest example of Zola’s talent at expressing crowd scenes. In this novel, he is able to describe theaters, parties, midnight rondevues with miniscule detail and sweeping depictions tied neatly together.
Why did this book make your list?
I love the movie “The Life of Emile Zola” (and highly recommend it, obviously) and this was the novel they focused on the most in that film. Nearly all of Zola’s works caused a major scandal or uproar in the French government and upper society because of their brutal honesty about the realities of life, people’s personalities, and the government.
Do you recommend I read this book?
Yes, but only if you’ve read another Zola book which is shorter. I think you’ll need to be familiar with his style before diving into this book.
Has it won any awards?
No, it has not.
“One would have said that in front of the fireplace there was a communion of souls as in a church, the discreet, faint canticle of a little chapel.” – p61
“Wasn’t it a fact that, from the moment when two women found themselves together with their lovers, their first idea was to do each other out of them? It was a fixed rule of life, that.” – p 90
“What did remain, outside her periods of anger, was an ever-awake appetite for expenditure, a natural contempt for the man who paid, a constant caprice for squandering and wasting money; and she took pride in the ruin of her lovers.” – p 252
“It was the last wild release of a colossal gathering, one hundred thousand spectators with a fixed idea, burning with the same intensity for a gamble, following those animals whose gallop swept away millions. People pushed and crushed each other with closed fists and gaping mouths, everybody for himself, everybody whipping on his chosen horse with voice and gesture. And the roar of all that crowd of people, the cry of a wild beast which reappeared under the frock-coats, became more and more distinct: ‘There they are! … There they are! … There they are!'” – p 305
This is supposed to be Zola’s most “symbolically complex novel” according to wikipedia. And I agree, the comparisons you can draw between Nana and the French aristocracy of this time are marvelous.
Zola is an author who can entrance you one moment and then slip in a line about the death of a major character which zings the support out from under you the next. He is descriptive and brutally honest about the ugliness of reality. He has no sympathy for his characters, sparing them nothing. He is equally willing to bless and to murder. And he is magnetic in his ability to storytell. All of his stories have some sort of political, social, philosophical, or historical statement to make through either outright declaration or the use of symbolism but you don’t even mind reading through pages of horrific characters (not due to the writing but to the character of the characters) because the story is so wonderfully told. And he has the magical talent of combining just enough light to the dark side of life so that you don’t feel sinful reading about it.