Monday, May 25, 2015

Emile Zola - 'Nana'

I believe Nana was my introduction to Zola roughly two decades ago, but I just read the Douglas Parmee translation (pictured). I'd initially read Nana all those years ago because Ayn Rand repeatedly referenced Zola in her book The Romantic Manifesto. I sampled a lot of authors based on references Rand made in that book. It was clear she reviled Zola on every level, meanwhile she had heavy criticisms to make of Tolstoy's philosophy while praising Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, and Henryk Sienkiewicz. I ended up reading and enjoying all of them.

My interest in reading Zola arose from how Rand appeared to consider him and Naturalism as the antithesis of Romanticism (and everything decent in the world). Whenever she needed a polar opposite of an "exalted sense of life" or the "larger than life" hero, Zola - or a reference to him - seemed to pop up. For example:
"The choice of subject declares what aspects of existence the artist regards as important - as worthy of being re-created and contemplated. He may choose to present heroic figures, as exponents of man's nature - or he may choose statistical composites of the average, the undistinguished, the mediocre - or he may choose crawling specimens of depravity. He may present the triumph of heroes, in fact or in spirit (Victor Hugo), or their struggle (Michelangelo), or their defeat (Shakespeare). He may present the folks next door: next door to palaces (Tolstoy), or to drugstores (Sinclair Lewis), or to kitchens (Vermeer), or to sewers (Zola)..."
One certainly cannot argue with Rand's analysis; Zola's novels are not about palaces or heroic triumph. At bottom, her rejection of Zola is an intellectual version of the reaction many readers likely have: "Yuck!" Rand saw no valid purpose for an author to focus on this kind of subject matter.

Nana is definitely one of Zola's 'yuckier' books in the Cycle. In fact, I'm astonished he was able to publish it in 1880 at all (especially Chapter 13) without ending up in jail for lewdness or some such crime. Unlike many 'shocking' books from the period that have lost their edge over time, the frankness of Nana would shock a good number of people even today. In fact, by doing nothing more than updating the carriages, gas lights, and other 19th Century accouterments, Nana would be just as relevant today - as social satire if nothing else.

For example, it is easy to see Nana as a Anna Nicole Smith or some other similar 'non-celebrity' of recent years. Beyond the anagram of their first names, there are an amazing number of similarities between the two women:
  • A girl of questionable background making a fortune off wealthy (and foolish) men
  • Massive celebrity despite minimal - or no - talent
  • Considerable 'star power' activated by others 
  • An entourage that includes a: sickly son who dies young, lesbian, and little lap-dog
  • Smith's agent/boyfriend could be Fauchery or Labordette (or perhaps even Fontan)
Of course, one could draw parallels between Nana and any infamous/famous female personality of the present, because Nana is ultimately about a directionless bimbo whose crass sexuality casually conquers and destroy everything she touches. I'm sure a weighty academic paper could be written pairing a literary analysis of Nana and today's reality-TV-based popular culture.

But I digress. Taking a more literary view of things, a parallel Zola purposefully drew within the confines of his Cycle was between Nana and Renee Saccard, the second wife of Aristide Rougon Saccard in The Kill. Both women are kept in opulence by men who need them. Both amuse themselves by driving carriages around the Bois de Boulogne. I can't recall Zola mentioning that locale or past-time in any other book in the Cycle. The Bois may have simply been where wealthy female socialites with nothing better to do went in the afternoon, but I find it hard to believe he placed these two characters in the same milieu without intending that we would pick up the parallel. The parallels between the two characters go much deeper, too. Both women are what Zola would consider sexually deviant. Renee has an adulterous affair with her stepson, while Nana is a high-priced and promiscuous prostitute who engages in sadism, bisexuality, and masochism. Both also have affairs with young, effeminate men (Renee with Maxime, Nana with Georges). These parallels cannot all be coincidence.

However, it is the one key difference between the characters than makes the parallels worth noting. Renee - and her fortune - are consumed by her husband Saccard without any particular concern by her lover, Maxime. In fact, the two seem to take a 'bro's before ho's' attitude about Renee's adultery after it becomes known. Nana, in contrast, is victimized by none of her wealthy admirers. In fact, it is she destroys them financially, socially, and/or psychologically. Two even die as a result of her. She "gobbles them up" as Zola phrases it.

Edouard Manet Nana 1877
Her public image is the title character of the musical play that makes her famous: the blond Venus. More accurate is the image of the 'golden fly' that her on-again off-again journalist friend Fauchery creates, describing her as:
"...a tart, the offspring of four or five generations of alcoholics, her blood tainted by a long heredity of deep poverty and drink, which in her case had taken the form of unhinging the nervous balance of her sexuality...a tall and lovely girl with a magnificently sensual body, like a plant flourishing on a dung-heap, she was avenging the poor, underprivileged wretches from whom she'd sprung...She would carry this pollution upwards to contaminate the aristocracy. She was turning into a force of nature and, without any intention on her part, a ferment of destruction; between her plump white thighs, Paris was being corrupted and thrown into chaos..."
The gold of the fly described is not the color of precious metal, but the color of dung. She rises from the squalor of the lower classes, covered in corruption and despoiling everything she touches.

To start: it's extremely rare to find a female character of this kind in period literature that is not a victim. Nana is never depicted as a good girl tragically making her way in a world set against her (e.g., Tess of the d'Urbervilles, Nancy from Great Expectations). She is a morally bankrupt, acquisitive conqueror, who controls everyone around her by means of her sexuality. Zola makes this clear in graphic language throughout the novel, but also in his scene setting. At the horse race in Chapter 11, the Empress is present but it is Nana who rules the scene. At a formal ball thrown by the Muffats, she exerts influence over everyone without being present. The guests even 'dance to her tune' at one point when a song from "The Blond Venus" is played.

The Varietes theatre, where much action in Nana takes place
Despite the power of the titular character, Nana is not a feminist novel nor the titillating history of a man-eating bitch. Zola does describe Nana as a man-eater, but he always makes it clear her course of destruction is unintended. She has no thought of hurting people any more than she has a concern about them once they are hurt. In fact, Zola's tone as a narrator drips with contempt for Nana. He constantly calls out her stupidity, lack of taste, non-existent talent, and social ineptitude, all while insisting that she is a "good sort of girl". Cruel and destructive, shallow and self-centered, Zola nevertheless doesn't give Nana the psychological depth to be a villain.

As another brick in the wall of the Rougon-Macquart Cycle depicting a family in Second Empire France, Nana was first brought forward by Zola in L'Assommoir. There Zola gives an ample view of the dung pile from which Nana rises. By the end of the book, she is a promiscuous teenage girl well on her way to being the young woman we meet in Nana. In a bit of foreshadowing, Nana unknowingly causes her father to have a tragic accident that leads to the disintegration and destruction of her entire family. Even here, Nana is as deadly as Typhoid Mary and as unaware of what she does.

In terms of the heredity that Zola seeks to explore, Nana possesses several of the Rougon-Macquart traits which, mixed in her, provide yet another permutation of the disease of the family. Her love of luxury matches that of Pierre and Felicite Rougon, Antoine Macquart, or Aristide Saccard. She has an insatiable desire for material possessions, but she draws no particular pleasure from them. As soon as she acquires one thing, she loses interest in it and wants something else. One could also say that Nana has her mother and grandmother's work ethic as she labors for what she wants, albeit not in a way usually credited as honest work.

During the middle portion of the book, Nana even comes close to following in the footsteps of her mother, grandmother, and great grandmother in supporting a deadbeat and/or abusive husband/lover. She sells herself on the street to make money to support the rogue actor Fontan, who beats her. However, this doesn't last long. Nana eventually upends this cycle of women supporting worthless men. For most of the novel, the men support Nana without getting much more than abuse in return. I'm curious whether Zola realized this role-reversal had occurred in his novel. Part of me believes that, in his zeal to portray Nana's corruption, he didn't realize he had Nana acting against her heredity!

More broadly, Nana also continues a pattern to be found in several of the novels about Gervaise's children: foreshadowing of the fall of the Empire. As in La Bete Humaine and Germinal, the novel ends with omens of disaster. In this case, the wake of a prostitute is juxtaposed with the declaration of war against the Prussia, a war that will hasten the end of the Empire. As a novel, Nana is showing us the corruption of the aristocracy of the late Empire: the fecklessness of monied aristocrats such as la Faloise and Vandeuvres, the recklessness of financier Steiner, the Muffat's veneer of respectability, and the cynical grasping of the Mignon's. Even the thrills of the horse race in chapter 11 sit atop a deep undercurrent of fraud and graft.

Part of this foreshadowing is that, unlike many of the novels in the Cycle, Nana follows an upward arc. This is similar to Germinal, only more pronounced. In Germinal, Etienne ends up better off than he was at the start; a joyous conclusion given the usual fates of Zola's main characters. Nana's success is total. The comet of her celebrity is astounding and lifts her so high that she leaves the confines of Paris (and the novel). While her physical end is hideous, one can hardly see her story as tragic (at least as far as she herself is concerned). For the aristocracy she pollutes, she is a disaster.

Another pattern from the Cycle brought to the fore in Nana is the near inability for the Rougon-Macquart family to propagate itself in the final generation. Aristide gives birth to the effete Maxime and the violent Victor. Sidonie Rougon has an illegitimate child who dies young in The Dream. In Abbe Mouret's Transgression, there are the dead-ends of Desiree Mouret and Serge's stillborn child. Claude Lantier's son is deformed and dies young in The Masterpiece. Similarly, Nana's illegitimate, mentally backwards, and sickly son Louis dies young. She also has a miscarriage. The poisons of the family heredity seem to be burning out its ability to continue the line, much as the corruption of the Empire itself brings about its demise.

Nana is an incredible read, a story where a vast cast of characters is given over the the documenting of decay, a society of privilege and aristocracy rotting from the inside out. Douglas Parmee's translation is wonderfully readable, and I have to admit I chuckled wondering what was going through his mind while translating something like Chapter 13 ("For this, I studied French and became a translator?"). This is one of the very best novels in the Cycle, a great place to get a feel for Zola as a writer, and one of the novels in the Cycle that has definite relevance today. Highly recommended.

But wear boots while reading it.

No comments: