Friday, June 15, 2012

Nana by Emile Zola

Biting cultural criticism dressed up in naughty lingerie
Nana chronicles the rise of the title character from lowly street girl to a queen of the whores in Second Empire Paris. Part of the fun of reading this book is to imagine how shocked the audience of Zola’s time must have been when they first read this novel. Nana makes Madame Bovary look like Mother Teresa. A series of men from various levels of social status become involved with Nana, and the only way to satisfy their lustful obsession with her is to rid themselves of every drop of money and every shred of dignity. At one point Zola says it were as if the entire economy of France had passed between her legs. The book offers serious commentary on the decadence and decay of Parisian society in the late nineteenth century. At the same time, it’s a wonderful piece of pulp fiction. The events and characters are exaggerated in some parts to comedic effect, but under the satire lies a strong indictment of loose mores and shallow pleasures. Nana is a symbol of the political, cultural, and moral degradation of France. (Her contemporary American cultural equivalent might be . . . Paris Hilton, for example.) As a literary character, Nana has the paradoxical effect of being likeable even while we despise everything she stands for. This book is the ninth volume in the Rougon-Macquart series (Nana is the daughter of Gervaise Macquart of the book L’Assomoir), but it stands alone as a work of literature. Previous knowledge of Zola or his works is not necessary to enjoy this novel. This book is a worthwhile read for anyone who appreciates great literature.
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