NANA (1880) by Zola
NANA (1880)

by Zola

Plot: Nana is an actress, the eponymous heroine of The Blonde Venus. She is being ogled by the lecherati of the Second Empire because, as she croaks her feeble aria, she is entirely without clothes. From this opening climax, Nana's career as an actress/ prostitute rockets upward over Paris. She takes on a crowd of lovers (including a young girl) whom she treats with a mixture of insouciance and contempt. Nana becomes public property. She has a filly named after her, she goes to race meetings, she believes herself to be a goddess... Her fall is swift. After visiting her child, she contracts smallpox. Her girlfriends look after her but the men loiter outside gossiping about the forthcoming Franco-Prussian war.

Theme: ''The philosophical subject is this: a whole society racing after a piece of sex. A pack behind a bitch who is not in heat and who doesn't care a bit about the hounds pursuing her. The poem of male carnal appetite, the giant lever that moves the world...'' (Zola).

Style: The prose is inelegant, slogging away like a steam hammer until the reader is pulped into submission.

Chief strengths: The femme fatale is reinvigorated by Zola's fervid voyeurism: there is no escaping the fantasy as perfumed boudoirs and soiled basins are charged with electric eroticism.

Chief weakness: ''What will strike the English reader of Nana is the extraordinary absence of humour. M Zola disapproves greatly of wit... and he would disapprove of humour if he knew what it is'' (Henry James).

What they thought of it then: Apart from Flaubert, who thought Nana was original, most critics condemned it as salacious. The public took it's own line: the first edition of 55,000 sold out in a month

What we think of it now: Zola remains unfashionable. Modern critics prefer his elephantine symbolism to his passion for detail but both contribute to the novel's epic sensuality.