Sunday, April 25, 2010

Review: Nana by Emile Zola

After I finished school, diploma clutched tightly in my hot little hand, I realized that degree notwithstanding, I had some holes in my education through which a careful driver could manuever a truck. Reading snob that I was at the time, I decided that I needed to remedy the situation and live up to my newly minted certification as well read. So I popped out to the local bookstore and snatched up some of the classics we never covered in school. Zola was one of those authors and Nana was the title of his that most appealed to me so home it followed me, whereupon it languished on my shelves unread for something approaching (exceeding?--I don't have record of the date I bought it and my records start in 2002) ten years. Was it because I thought it would be inaccesible? Was it because I shelve alphabetically and so it was at the bottom in a corner? Perhaps it was because subconsciously I knew that it wasn't going to be a very happy reading experience for me. If the last reason is true, sadly, it was prophetic. Before I pulled the book off the shelf and paid for it, I should have read the back cover copy and remembered how very desperately I loathed the Naturalist writers I had read. I could have saved myself a lot of reading anguish this past week.

Nana is the story of an actress who rises up from the gutters of Paris and takes the town by storm, collecting men and their money as she ascends. She is an avaricious creature, not only demanding money from her protectors but also prostituting herself whenever she cannot extort enough money from the seriously ridiculous rich men with whom she surrounds herself. But she doesn't start out quite so greedy. At the start of the story, she is just coming into her own and she is naive in the ways of manipulation. Through her clever maid's offices and the advice of certain hangers-on, she learns to exploit not only her sexuality but the strange magnetism she exudes over men. She is an Eve of the worst sort, shallow and selfish, unconcerned with the destruction of others.

Because this is a novel in the naturalist tradition, it uses very detailed realism and suggests that heredity and social origins determine a person's personality. This tips the reader off to the fact that Nana is not a heroine to strive to emulate. Rather she is a product of the lower classes and must needs be a lesser person as a result, most likely one who will come to a likely end no matter how high she manages to rise as a courtesan. As annoying as this prefiguring based on literary convention made reading, the novel was tiresome for more than just that. Zola takes fully half the novel to develop his character of Nana, drawing her as both stupid (she is a woman, after all) and cunning (ditto). He spends many pages throughout the novel in overly detailed descriptions of rooms, people, clothing, plays, etc. Despite his florid descriptions of the physical settings, Zola manages to make the male characters who flock to Nana like moths to a flame almost entirely interchangeable and indistinct. And so very few of the characters besides Nana achieve any sort of clarity in the mind of the reader. It's hard to read a novel where there is an unpleasant main character and few, if any, distractions from them.

Wasteful, bored, and dissolute characters abound in this ultimately pessimistic, doom-laden offering. It is a classic of French literature, and I suppose that I can be content with myself that another hole in the education has been plugged, but it was a dismal, dreary, and dull reading experience that I can't recommend. Others have offered accolades though so check out differing opinions on the novel before you dismiss it. But if you do choose to ignore my warnings and read it, don't blame me (unless you are an insomniac looking for a sleep aid). Not surprisingly, this will be my only experience with Zola.

I read Nana for the Classics Circuit's tour of Zola although I struggled so much that I missed my official tour date and am only squeaking this review in under the wire in order to be considered a participant at all.


  1. I don't like French books. Or maybe I don't like French books about women -- Three Musketeers and such go down just fine, but books about cheating women and such are bitter medicine.

  2. Um, let me just say, I understand!!! I am one of your sort, i.e., I did not enjoy the Zola book I read and I've been struggling to say something original on all the posts praising Zola. Simply because I didn't find a whole lot to praise myself.....

    but then again, I think I'll end up trying Germinal since most enjoyed that. Maybe we read the "wrong" ones?

  3. I don't think Zola liked women very much! I read The Ladies' Paradise, and it definitely wasn't very positive. I may be like Rebecca, and still give Germinal a try at some point since it seems different and most people praised it.

  4. I have only read one Zola (Germinal), but I absolutely loved it. Perhaps I just chanced on the most, "best" Zola, since I am seeing a that a lot of people are having negative responses to his work. I think I do need to give him another try to see if Germinal is just a stand-alone as a great work.

    I do think we all have styles of writing that we dislike. I have a hard time with some Victorian writers, like Dickens, because they are so long-winded and descriptive and I cannot stand that.

    You should definitely give Dumas a try! He packs a lot of action into his pieces and I think you would like them more!

  5. Your description makes me think of McTeague, another Naturalist novel to which I had a similar reaction when I had to read it in grad school.

  6. Ah ... naturalism. It takes me back to reading Thomas Hardy in high school, not to mention Lord of the Flies. I'd much prefer to read about the Nanas of the world finding glimmers of hope and rising above their circumstances.

  7. aw, too bad you didn't like it. I LOVED my Zola selection and can't wait to read all his works now.

  8. I've always felt guilty that I never got around or into Zola. Now I feel much better. Thanks.


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