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One of the founders of literary naturalism, Émile Zola thought of his novels as a form of scientific research into the effects of heredity and environment. He created characters, gave them richly detailed histories, and placed them in carefully observed, precisely described environments, and his readers watch as they wriggle and thrash toward their inevitable destinies.
In Nana, the characters are a prostitute, who rises from the streets to become what Zola calls a “high-class cocotte,” and the menand womenwhom she loves, betrays, and destroys. Among the novel’s many ironies is the mutual envy felt by Nana and those around her. She yearns for their material possessions, while they admire her apparent independence and sexual self-confidence. And despite the chaos Nana causes, Zola imagines her as being essentially “good-natured,” a stupid, vain but beautiful creature who can’t help drawing people into her web.
Not surprisingly, Nana’s portrait of a decadent world in which a prostitute amasses great wealth and power provoked protests from “polite society,” and it became one of Zola’s most controversial works. Today it is regarded as his masterpiece.
Luc Sante is the author of Low Life, Evidence, and The Factory of Facts and coeditor, with Melissa Holbrook Pierson, of O.K. You Mugs: Writers on Movie Actors.
Read an Excerpt
From Luc Sante’s Introduction to Nana
Zola’s star has risen and fallen since his death. In the first half of the twentieth century he was one of the most widely read authors in the world, his name virtually synonymous with the struggle for social progress. He was translated into all languages and was a staple, especially, in the Soviet Union. His role in the Dreyfus affair doubly assured his stature—because of it he was even the subject of a Hollywood film, The Life of Émile Zola (1937), with Paul Muni in the part. But the 1930s were probably the peak of his posthumous career. After World War II, especially, his work acquired a reputation as turgid, well-meaning gruel. The New Left more or less consigned him to the dustbin of history, and litterateurs everywhere decided he was clumsy, laborious, didactic. It is true that even in his lifetime and among his supporters he was never considered a particularly subtle author, and his most fervent disciples would have found it hard to make a case for him as a prose stylist—a fatal deficiency in France, where style reigns supreme, where his older colleague Flaubert, the model of the stylist, sometimes hesitated for weeks over a choice of words.
Nana, however, shows how wrongheaded all such approaches were in regard to Zola, and effects a demonstration of his unparalleled strengths. Zola may not have parsed ambiguities or dealt in fugitive emotions—he did not work close up, with a single-hair brush, but on a large scale, with a palette knife (perhaps, actually, like his old friend Cézanne, he could be said to have worked with a brush in one hand and a knife in the other). The analogy to painting is not idly chosen, and it is not simply because of his close connection to the Impressionists, although in many ways he resembles less the starkly graphic Manet or the dreamily approximative Monet or even the dramatically essentialist Cézanne than he does Gustave Caillebotte, the Impressionist most devoted to depicting the flotsam and jetsam of urban life, which he framed as radically as with a camera lens. For that matter, while it has become a terrible cliché to say of a writer of the past that had he lived in our time, he would surely have become a filmmaker, with Zola it might actually be true.
Zola is at his best when staging crowd scenes and major conflicts. This is no small feat, especially when you consider how often great writers have avoided such things—in how many classic war novels, for example, the principal action is set offstage or viewed through a narrow and subjective focus. And while most nineteenth-century novels begin and end with a major set piece—one to introduce the characters and set them in motion against the backdrop, the other to tie up loose ends and release us and the characters from our mutual contract—each of Nana’s chapters is a set piece. The chapters pass in succession, like so many acts of a tragedy: the theater, the dinner, the country house, the horse race. The chapters immediately call up a visual analogy: They are wide-screen affairs, like movies shot in Cinerama or like the panoramic photographs Zola himself took around 1900. Although in truth there are plenty of closeups and flurries of montaged action, we are given the illusion that the camera, as it were, takes in the whole scene, all at once and unmovingly, while characters pass across its unblinking aperture. Zola excels at directing his characters’ points of view, listening to them talk while they take in the setting and the peripheral action surrounding them, and then following their gaze to some other characters some distance away. Upon being introduced by the commentary of the first set of characters, these become in their turn the focus of the author’s attention for a while before passing the baton to yet more people in some other corner of the setting. This provides for a powerful spatial illusion.
Zola’s method appears to all but eliminate the omniscient narrator—he is present at all times, of course, but Zola is so clever at inserting exposition into casual dialogue that it feels as though we are witnessing eeverything for ourselves without mediation. The direct authorial commentary, meanwhile, discreetly dissolves into the scene setting, since almost all of it is parenthetical, the most significant observations being either delivered by the characters in the course of apparently banal chitchat or else built into the fabric of the plot. The final chapter, for example, tells us everything we need to know about Zola’s attitude toward the Franco-Prussian War, but it does so incidentally, in hubbub rising up from the street while our attention is focused on Nana’s plight as she lies in bed in her hotel room. Like a great documentary painter (anyone from Bruegel to Courbet to Seurat) or filmmaker (perhaps Jean Renoir, who was the son of the Impressionist painter Auguste, an acquaintance of Zola’s, and who made a spectacular silent adaptation of Nana in 1926), Zola unfolds for his audience the entire social fabric of his setting, in lavish detail, and conveys exactly what he thinks about it all while pretending to be no more than passively subjected to it, as if it were weather, and keeping his eye on a few central figures, as if their actions were not crucially interwoven with and wholly dependent upon their background.
The story of Nana is simplicity itself—thanks largely to the movies, it has become a thumping cliché in the intervening century and a quarter, although it wasn’t yet one at the time. It is, classically, the story of the poor girl who uses her body to advance through society, nearly to the very top, before being finally betrayed by her fate, or her genes, or her hubris, or her lack of education, so that she falls back down, metaphorically or otherwise, to the muck of her origins. Meanwhile men of all shapes, sizes, ages, and stations have become besotted with her, all of them at some cost, whether to their money or their marriages or their dignity or their lives. Besides the obvious titillation factor, the story is so potent and durable because, like all the most mythopoetic stories (consider Don Quixote or Moby-Dick, for instance), its plot and its central metaphor are one and the same. Nana herself is a perfectly rounded, three-dimensional character, whose strength and generosity are as apparent by the end as her vanity and cruelty and selfishness, but she is also a metaphorical linchpin, the embodiment of the vapid decadence and dull hypocrisy of the Second Empire, whose fall she enacts in boudoir scale.