Now and then the time seems right to revisit some of the old classics if for no other reason than to observe the lifestyles of previous eras and compare these to our own.
Nana, written by Emile Zola in 1880 provides a rare insight of Paris theatre life at a time when decadence, bigamy, licentiousness, immoral and scandalous behaviour appeared to be the norm rather than the exception. As Zola portrays the story, this ribald era coincided with a sense of political disillusionment towards Napoleon III as he steered France towards war with Prussia. Living for the here and now and placing no hope or reliance upon the future underpins the beliefs, attitudes and behaviour of those who appear in Nana.
This novel was written when Zola was at the height of his powers. By the late 19th Century he was deemed to be the most prominent French novelist of the era and had become extremely wealthy from the success of his collection of twenty novels known as Les Rougon-Macquart. Nana nowforms the ninth novel of this collection and such was the reputation of Zola when Nana was published, that the first edition of 55,000 copies sold out in one day; a feat many contemporary writers would struggle to match.
Nana represents a radical departure in style for Zola who for many years led the Naturalist Movement in France which claimed that social conditions, hereditary and environmental factors were the primary shaping forces of human nature; views quite similar to the evolutionary theories expressed by Charles Darwin in the same period. The Naturalist Movement attempted to depict everyday reality in storytelling and Zola’s works were also used to inspire operas.
Nana evolves around symbolism and not naturalism, however many critics agree that this work is far more authentic than many contemporary novels in reflecting the state of the world. The symbols used by Zola are those that represent the many facets of the lead character, Nana who at age fifteen stunned the arts community of Paris in her debut stage performance at the Theatre des Varietes in the lead role of a blonde Venus. Within days, Nana rose from a streetwalker with no acting experience to become the toast of Paris society. Her blonde tresses, superb figure and vibrant personality ensured a steady flow of ardent admirers. Nana became a high class coquette who used her attributes to attract, exploit and destroy every man who came into her life.
Fame and fortune simply served to fan Nana’s insatiable desire to conquer. With a morality of her own, Nana manipulates those besotted by her and those she needs to extend her influence. As the backdrop, the theatre world of late 19th Century Paris provides the colour, the characters and the eccentricities found within the Bohemian arts community and behind the facades of high society. In this sphere, Nana pursues her power and influence until finally she succumbs to illness as the crowds outside her window are heard willing the people to battle with Prussia with cries of ‘To Berlin’, ‘To Berlin”. The symbolism is powerful and telling; examining as it does the values and beliefs systems of a society in decline and in particular the inequities between the rich and the poor and the fundamentals that supposedly constitute ‘respectability’.
Emile Zola is a masterful storyteller and his insight of society has many parallels in our contemporary world. Highly recommended reading.
Nana is available on Kindle from Amazon under the title ‘Four Short Stories by Emile Zola‘ at no cost.