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Nana (1880)

por Émile Zola

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Séries: Les Rougon-Macquart (9)

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3,947683,127 (3.75)2 / 296
French realism's most beguiling femme fatale, Nana crawled from the gutter to ascend the heights of Parisian society, devouring men and squandering fortunes along the way. Her corruption reflects the degenerate state of the Second Empire and her story -- a classic of French literature -- is among the first modern novels.… (mais)
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 George Macy devotees: A tale of two Nanas8 não lido / 8GusLogan, Setembro 2023
 Author Theme Reads: Nana by Zola4 não lido / 4BALE, Maio 2013

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A turgid nightmare of style over substance.

"You know, that lot up there doesn't impress me anymore... You ought to see them when they take their wrappings off... Filth at the top, filth down below, there's nothing but filth and more filth..."

Regular readers of my reviews know I'm a diabolical fan of [a:Émile Zola|4750|Émile Zola|https://images.gr-assets.com/authors/1544927603p2/4750.jpg], and especially his 20-volume Rougon-Macquart series, of which Nana is the ninth. While the first eight are all - to my mind - wonderful works of fiction, this is an example of a book justly famous in its time, but unjustly classified as a highlight of 19th century French lit by modern readers.

Nana is, not importantly, a kind of sequel to [b:L'Assommoir|92967|L'Assommoir|Émile Zola|https://i.gr-assets.com/images/S/compressed.photo.goodreads.com/books/1309282204l/92967._SY75_.jpg|741363]. Set in 1867-70, the final years of France's Second Empire, Zola centres his novel on Anna 'Nana' Coupeau, daughter of the impoverished laundress from that previous volume. Having run away from home in her teens, Nana becomes a famous stage actress - despite an arguable level of talent - and then aims for the stars. More specifically, she wants money and comfort. And this means taking, grabbing, pilfering from anyone she can find. She's a disastrous user of her fellow man, a scourge on polite society, as selfish as they come. (Her poor prepubescent son, Louis, described by those who meet him as sad and old before his time, never gets a chance to live with her, and is an accessory at best.)

Nana caused Zola a bit of trouble as a character. When he began planning the series, the Second Empire had not yet fallen; he assumed it would take another 5-10 years. His plan was to let Nana's life rise and fall over a decade. Instead, the Empire crumbled before he had even published the first volume! As a result, not only has Nana aged a few years mysteriously since L'Assommoir but her entire dramatic life takes place over barely three years.

The novel, like all of the Rougon-Macquart volumes, stands in lovely contrast to those around it. Where Clorinde in [b:La Curée|816918|La Curée|Émile Zola|https://i.gr-assets.com/images/S/compressed.photo.goodreads.com/books/1356495973l/816918._SY75_.jpg|839934] lusted for power; Helene in [b:Une Page d'amour|1367035|Une Page d'amour|Émile Zola|https://i.gr-assets.com/images/S/compressed.photo.goodreads.com/books/1363093838l/1367035._SY75_.jpg|1776975] for peace and requited love; Lisa in [b:The Belly of Paris|92965|The Belly of Paris|Émile Zola|https://i.gr-assets.com/images/S/compressed.photo.goodreads.com/books/1388455590l/92965._SX50_.jpg|10242] for lawful society and a roof over her family's head; Nana is thoroughly selfish, but seeks not so much power as luxury. Where Une Page d'amour exulted in the quiet hideaway of the Grandjean home, Nana is a novel about people. Every chapter reverberates with characters - sometimes dozens! - inhabiting tight rooms and carefully-drawn spaces: among them, a day at the races, an absurd dinner party, extravagant scenes at the theatre - both in the stalls and, later, backstage, and a country picnic that sets hearts aflame. Most tellingly, where Zola used the narrative voice of the gossip in L'Assommoir or that of the close internal monologue in [b:The Sin of Abbe Mouret|34946979|The Sin of Abbe Mouret (Les Rougon-Macquart, #5)|Émile Zola|https://i.gr-assets.com/images/S/compressed.photo.goodreads.com/books/1493029826l/34946979._SY75_.jpg|941617], here there's no doubting that it's Monsieur Zola himself telling this tale. But more on that below.

"A duel over Nana? The whole of Paris would laugh at you, my dear count. Nobody fights over Nana, the idea's ridiculous."

Nana scrambles around Paris, working her way from sidewalk to street door to overpriced apartment to mansion and back again. Through secret lovers, less secret lovers, and even less secret lovers, her mad rise is chronicled through a series of social engagements and intimate moments where she's ever the charmer - until she's got exactly what she wants from you. And then... watch out.

By 1880, Zola was at last the most famous novelist in Paris. (Flaubert had just died, and Hugo wouldn't be far behind.) L'Assommoir had caused a literary scandal, and all of the previous novels had been reprinted to become bestsellers. So a shocking story about a woman who becomes the city's most famous tart (Zola's word!), told in often explicit detail, and with sledgehammer symbolism comparing her to the dying days of the Empire, was bound to excite the literati of the Third Republic. And perhaps this was part of the problem.

So, what are the problems, 140 years after publication? For starters, as I said above, style after substance. True, Zola is always prone to this - even as a card-carrying acolyte, I can't deny the languid nature of some of his literary flights of fancy in The Sin of Abbe Mouret or The Belly of Paris. And his dedication to naturalism (at the time, the most challenging school of literature - before modernism arose from the embers of WWI) inevitably means we have to shift from a 21st century view to his. Fair enough. But the novel is tough, like overcooked meat, for, dare I say it, at least the first 8 of its 14 chapters. When Nana hosts 32 characters for dinner, the mind boggles at how Zola can keep them all apart, but the reader also struggles to take away anything more than a broad painting of chaos. (The author wins historical points though, not intentionally, for his well-researched prose. As an actor, the theatre sequences appeal to me especially, detailing as they do the backstage procedures and audience attitudes of 1860s France.) Zola is deliberately creating an ever-spinning world around Nana, a world that is all performance, all show, all signalling and social gain. Yes. One website lists 117 characters who appear in Nana alone, the most out of any book in the series! Frankly, though, many of these large group scenes become turgid. And although the last few chapters somewhat redeem this by bringing everyone back for powerful symbolic closures, there are still just too many. (I say this as someone who foams at the mouth with delight when soap operas bring back Tertiary Character #751, so if I'm saying it, something is seriously wrong!)

Some of the problems with the novel, though, are more accidents of history. Of the first 9 books in the series, I believe Nana is the most "immediate", by which I mean responding to contemporary tastes - and these kind of things always date quicker than others. (Ironic, given that some of his early novels such as [b:The Fortune of the Rougons|956734|The Fortune of the Rougons|Émile Zola|https://i.gr-assets.com/images/S/compressed.photo.goodreads.com/books/1179795092l/956734._SY75_.jpg|303087] are sometimes written off as being merely "historical novels".) To be honest, this isn't helped by the Oxford edition translated by Douglas Parmée, which isn't up to the standard of the other Oxford translations. His footnotes especially seem arbitrary and not always as helpful as they could be. (This stems in part from the fact that Nana was translated in the early 1990s, before Oxford decided to release the whole series, and thus avoids linking the book to Zola's broader canon, as the more recent releases do.) This particularly comes out in the religious undertones. Count Muffat's relationship with his mysterious priest-cum-advisor is never really clarified - it would have been obvious to a contemporary audience, one assumes - and so his late personality change seems rather unprepared-for.

There's still plenty of vintage Zola in Nana. (I'm being deliberately harsh with my 2 star review as a rebuke to my critics.) The delectable social confrontations. The deeply messed-up relationship between Nana and Muffat. The author's penchant for noting the little moments that make up our lives, such as the young couple cavorting gaily in the room next to where a tragic moment occurs. The tertiary characters who delight in their one appearance. (The theatre dresser, Madame Jules, "was ageless with a parchment-like skin and the stony features of old maids who've never been young. She had dried up in the sweltering heat of theatre dressing-rooms, surrounded by the most celebrated breasts and thighs Paris had to offer. She wore an everlasting faded black dress, and on her sexless, flat bosom, in the place of her heart, a thicket of pins.") Zola also takes advantage of the fact that the novel was serialised to throw in some early meta-textual references, when Nana voices her own opinions on novels about tarts, and is herself satirised in newspapers, much as the character was in real life!

Most frustrating of all, however, is Zola's structure. I find it utterly perplexing. After 12 chapters of often scattered social drama, Zola gives us an utterly bewildering final 2 chapters that have some gorgeous symbolism but, rather unexpectedly, pack an entire year into 50 pages. Nana encounters about seven different lifestyle changes, every other character faces either ruin or ascent, and major confrontations between characters take place in half a paragraph. It rather feels like Chapter 13 could have been the entire novel, and contains much of the core drama in evaporated form! Having spent so much time building up his world, Zola lets entire swathes of the plot take place essentially offstage. If they'd had phones in 1868, I would have said Zola was phoning it in.

Now perhaps this is all fair enough. Nana is not a psychological drama along the lines of [b:The Conquest of Plassans|22913305|The Conquest of Plassans|Émile Zola|https://i.gr-assets.com/images/S/compressed.photo.goodreads.com/books/1407958483l/22913305._SY75_.jpg|803050]. I should try not to hold it to those standards. The book is a tale of boulevard society, an indictment of an era. But it frustrates me rather than entertains, and I don't think I can quite forgive it. (My pen is running hot because my mind expected much more.) Perhaps what I'm trying to say is that it's not even Zola's fault I don't like the novel. He did what I respect: created a tone of voice, and a narrative structure, to suit his lead character and his book's purpose. It's just one that doesn't resonate into the 21st century like so many of the others in the series do.

Finally, then, there's the symbolism, dripping like melting lard. Late in the novel, the narrative voice begins to moralise. "Nana was turning this whole society putrid to the rhythm of her vulgar tune". Rather like movie Scarlett O'Hara (book Scarlett seems to actually be a heroine), Zola makes it clear that her presence symbolises the dark, greedy ways of an entire class. And, what's worse, we know that it's not even her class to begin with! Nana as interloper is villainess enough; Nana choosing to interlope into the gaudy lower aristocracy is even worse. At first, I was repulsed by the author's own repulsion. It seemed needlessly didactic and more than a little sexist. (Zola biographers have examined his rather complex relationship to sex and lust.) But, as 1869 gives way to 1870, it becomes clear that Nana is the ultimate symbol - thus far into the series, anyhow - of Zola's real target: the amoral, mercilessly capitalist Second Empire. Say what one will about the novel, but the final chapter is a gem. Again, though, as the author contrasts darkly comic social customs, the surprising fate of his main character, and the Emperor's fateful decision to go to war against the Prussians, one feels that more footnotes could have been provided than Mr. Parmée apparently felt necessary.

All in all, you need to read this if you're doing the Rougon-Macquart If you're not, ignore the hype. It's an unfortunate combination of literary experts promoting the book because they understand it, casual readers assuming it's good because they don't fully understand it, and the lack - until the last couple of decades - of good translations of many of Zola's better novels. Ironically, given the subject of the book, sometimes fame is all it takes.

"On to Berlin! On to Berlin! On to Berlin!" ( )
  therebelprince | Apr 21, 2024 |
Nana is my least favourite of the Rougon Macquart novels - although I appreciate what Zola was trying to do.

I read the 1992 Douglas Parmee translation for Oxford World's Classics, and I was intrigued to see that there is a new translation - by Helen Constantine - out this year, also by Oxford. (They have now completed the entire series in modern translations, beginning with The Masterpiece in 1993 and ending with Doctor Pascal in 2020.)

I have ordered Constantine's translation and shall read again, in the hope of finding the joy which other readers have discovered herein.
  therebelprince | Apr 21, 2024 |
De mooie Nana verdient haar geld als prostituee en zangeres in Parijs. Ze kan niet zingen en ook niet toneelspelen, maar elke voorstelling van haar in een klein, obscuur theater is altijd uitverkocht. De macht die ze over mannen heeft, weet ze genadeloos uit te buiten. Deze femme fatale heeft klanten tot in de hoogste kringen, en ieder van hen die op haar verliefd wordt, is verloren. Ze haat de hogere kringen, maar wil er tegelijkertijd bij horen om zich te wreken op het milieu waarin ze jarenlang heeft moeten verkeren.
  aitastaes | Sep 1, 2023 |
Fiction, France
  shelfman | Jun 21, 2023 |
Nana is Zola’s take on an opportunistic young woman who uses her beauty and sex to manipulate men for money. She dabbles at acting to become the toast of the town. She’s quite calculating and cold-blooded about it. In its day Nana was likely considered quite racy. However, in these jaded, modern times it appears unremarkable—a relic of another time that is not particularly compelling. ( )
  varielle | Mar 22, 2023 |
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Nome do autorPapelTipo de autorObra?Estado
Zola, Émileautor principaltodas as ediçõesconfirmado
Boyd, ErnestIntroduçãoautor secundárioalgumas ediçõesconfirmado
Krüger, GerhardTradutorautor secundárioalgumas ediçõesconfirmado
Martí i Pol, MiquelTradutorautor secundárioalgumas ediçõesconfirmado
Mitterand, HenriEditorautor secundárioalgumas ediçõesconfirmado
Parmée, DouglasIntroduçãoautor secundárioalgumas ediçõesconfirmado
Parmée, DouglasTradutorautor secundárioalgumas ediçõesconfirmado
Plarr, VictorTradutorautor secundárioalgumas ediçõesconfirmado
Pugh, LeightonNarradorautor secundárioalgumas ediçõesconfirmado
Schwencke, J.J.Tradutorautor secundárioalgumas ediçõesconfirmado
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French realism's most beguiling femme fatale, Nana crawled from the gutter to ascend the heights of Parisian society, devouring men and squandering fortunes along the way. Her corruption reflects the degenerate state of the Second Empire and her story -- a classic of French literature -- is among the first modern novels.

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