Nana by Émile Zola
“If you ask me what I came to do in this world, I, an artist, will answer you: I am here to live out loud.” ― Émile Zola
Emile Zola died on the night of September 28-29, 1902. His Nana gave literature a famous femme fatale (and gave Zola international censure). It tells the story of a music hall actress-prostitute who prospers by learning to be as rapacious as the rest of society. The men line up to throw their fortunes or their lives at her feet; she accepts all manner of payment, and gives little in return:
“Me marry you! Lovely! If such an idea had been tormenting me, I should have found a husband long ago! And he’d have been a man worth twenty of you my pippin! I’ve had heaps of proposals…. It’s a chorus they all sing. I can’t be nice but they forthwith begin yelling, ‘Will you marry me? Will you marry me?’… D’you think I’m built that way? Just look at me a bit! Why I shouldn’t be Nana any longer if I fastened a man on behind! And, besides, it’s too foul.”
In Nana we have a fictional character who was inspired by a real life, an operetta singer, who becomes the heroine of a steamy romance and along with other demimondaines as the Second Empire is about to expire. I enjoyed the realistic presentation of the light opera scenes with Zola's detail description of the performance of La blonde Vénus, a fictional operetta modeled after Offenbach's La belle Hélène, in which Nana is cast as the lead. Nana unfortunately leads a life not atypical for paramours (see La Traviata) and yet, the realistic portrayal of Parisian society raises this novel above the typical story. In this installment of the series known as "Les Rougon-Macquart" Zola again achieves artistic brilliance with his naturalistic portrayal of real life. I read this book as part of a "Literary Cityscapes" class at the University of Chicago. The focus of the class was on novels in which Paris was an important factor, becoming a character as in Nana.
At the right, Édouard Manet's 1882 well-known painting "A Bar at the
Folies-Bergère" depicts a bar-girl, one of the demimondaines, standing before a mirror.
Nana by Emile Zola. Penguin Classics, 1973 (1880)