Cherchez la femme

Emile Zola

NanaBy page 122 Gaga is ensconced at a dinner party.

That’s not Lady Gaga, the 21st century’s answer to Madonna, but rather a secondary character in Emile Zola‘s Nanahis 1880 novel of ParisSecond Empire demi-monde. I’m not above a cheap trick, although discovering that Ms. Germonatta‘s schooling exposed her to French naturalism was unexpected.

Filling educational gaps is what we do around here so when an abandoned copy of Nana presented itself for sale for a quay, I spent the 25 cents and dove in. My interests have always lay on this side of the Atlantic, so I am embarrassingly weak on European literature (and to a lesser extent history) before the 20th century. So I missed the whole naturalism thing although I remember classmates running about, Germinal clutched in their vise-like grips. (Substitute iPhone for Germinal to make the image more contemporary.)

Nana, the character, is a courtesan. Her singular talent lies in doffing her kit and presenting her Rubenesque charms to admirers in both public and private settings. In both cases, the unveiling is a commercial endeavor whether she is featured on-stage as an actress or is acting as a kept woman. Nana has but one way to make a living and she is ruthless in exploiting it.

Emile Zola 1840-1902

Emile Zola

I found it hard in reading Nana not to find my wind wandering to neo-Marxist/feminist explanations of prostitution and female empowerment. That’s probably by design. I know no more about French naturalism or Zola than what I’ve read on Wikipedia, but even with no background it’s fairly clear that Nana is more a symbol than a character. That seems to be in keeping with Zola’s overall plan to explain the world by illustrating how behaviors are rooted in origins. The behaviorist in me recognizes the approach even while as a reader I see the  risk of art turning into propaganda.

That last bit is, perhaps, a bit strong. Absent additional information I can’t really say if Zola has a program to espouse. But he certainly seems to have a belief system and it’s as mixed up as anything else from the Victorian era. Intentional or not, ironic or sincere, this reader, at least, got a strong whiff of disapproval. And what I think Zola disapproves of, as so many Victorians seemingly did, was modernity.

There is a plot here and it verges on the melodramatic. It’s saved from that unkind characterization only by the apocalyptic climax beyond which the novel ends a bit too neatly. We meet Nana as she makes her stage debut, shocking haute Paris by appearing as Venus. There’s more than one antiquarian Venus floating around Paris and none of them are clothed so when I say Nana appeared as Venus take me literally.

Almost needless to say, Nana is a smash, probably because of the sensationalism. At the outset I wondered to myself if Nana was going to serve as the archetype for the hooker with a heart of gold. But that’s an American construction and Zola is French. The men–at least the men of the better classes–all keep company outside their marriages and Nana and her colleagues are happy to oblige in return for the emoluments needed to live above their station.

One shouldn’t get too sentimental about Nana or her plight. When cash is tight she avails herself of a friendly madam always willing to offer her, ahem, work. She has more men through her bedroom than Penn Station has commuters. She even walks the street.

And for Nana, cash is always tight because Nana is a good representative of the class she came from–locked into her way of life because she’s no idea how to behave in a way that would enable her to escape it. Nana, remember, is a symbol. So even when she sees one of her own who has managed to transform herself into a member of the gentry, Nana can’t pull it off herself.  Consequently, when the apocalypse hits it’s a bit, as the French say, de trop.

"Camille Pissarro 002" by Camille Pissarro - The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH.. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons -

“Avenue de l’Opéra” Painted by Camille Pissarro
The Paris we think of today was the work of Baron Hausmann during the Second Empire and serves as the stage for Nana.
Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons –

That’s when things get truly silly. The Count Muffat is Nana’s whale, the member of the aristocracy who makes both her reputation and her living situation possible. But no one man can satisfy the needs of the emerging hordes. In an orgy of excess Nana consumes fortune after fortune, earning every sou, franc and louis by peddling her flesh, all the while denigrating Muffat and other representatives of the better classes.  I wondered just when Muffat would rebel at Nana’s behavior or at least seem to notice and it’s rather far along when he is finally repulsed by the sweat of the multitudes that perfumes her bedchamber.

There’s an awful lot of silly stuff that goes on to underscore just what’s happening. But essentially the old ways are beginning to give way to the those of the horde. Muffat’s wife sets about spending whatever parts of the family fortune that haven’t been sold off to spoil Nana and it’s simply a more refined version of the same excess. In contemporary terms it’s the mash-up of Us magazine with Town & Country.  (Is the latter even published anymore?)

There are some unfortunate moments attributable, I think, to the era in which Nana was written. The character of Steiner, in particular, is the stock Victorian Jew rendered, as usual, as a banker. He is essentially the same character, and serves the same purpose, as Edith Wharton‘s Simon Rosedale. (Wharton published her novel 25 years after Nana, so you can see how such nonsense persisted before WWII.) The dancing in the streets at the spectre of war, while no doubt real, also rings false after the carnage of the last 100 years. One could even argue that Hitchcock found himself indebted to Nana for one  of his more  famous cinematic images.

So, Nana. Morality play or cautionary tale. Most likely, a bit of both.




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