The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Zola's Nana

For some reason, I bought about a dozen Emile Zola novels this summer while trolling used bookstores in NY State. I'd just never read the guy, and figured that I probably should. A few weeks ago I wrote about GERMINAL, which I really liked--the mine scenes are quite claustrophobic. About two weeks ago I read another of his big hits, NANA, about a "courtesan" (prostitute) in 1870s Paris. It's a rise and fall and rise and fall story, really; the book opens with Nana's debut in a racy stage show--Zola is great with the set pieces, and his description of the theater backstage is fantastic--and her use of that celebrity to hook up with wealthy men. She has a fall, which is inevitable, but rises again, which is unexpected, and then dies of smallpox, which is very nineteen-century.

I'm a little troubled by the politics of the novel, and found it strange. Zola seems to endorse the idea, put forth by a newspaper-reporter character in the novel, that Nana is the embodiment of a lower-class “disease” or parasitism that hooks onto aristocratic Parisians and drains them of vitality. Huh? The aristocracy create the conditions for their own demise, he seems to be saying, by creating a society of pure leisure, and then when a well-evolved woman from below comes along there are no defenses against her.

Seems like a strange argument to make, almost as if he feels that the lower classes are somehow carriers of, well not evil but of attenuation and corruption. Of course, this might just be Nana herself; she comes from the family (the Macquart) that Zola chronicles in his novels and who have some kind of a bad-seed gene in them.



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