Nana by Émile Zola.

1922 edition of Nana published by A. A. Knopf.
Nana was written by Émile Zola and first published in 1880 as part of his 'Rougon Macquart' series. It's sometimes viewed as a sequel to Zola's 1877 novel L'Assommoir; Nana is the daughter of Gervaise Coupeau née Macquart, though Nana did not immediately follow L'Assommoir - between the two novels there is Une Page d'amour (1878). In order of publication, Nana is the ninth part of 'Les Rougon Macquart', in which he looks at, to quote the subtitle, the "Natural and social history of a family under the Second Empire" ("Histoire naturelle et sociale d'une famille sous le Second Empire").

The novel Nana had been planned in 1869 when Zola embarked on his Rougon Macquart series, back when the Rougons were going to be the Goirauds and the Macquarts the Bergasses. He imagined,
a novel whose setting is the boudoir world and whose heroine is Louise Duval, the daughter of my working-class family. Just as the offspring of Goiraud, people mired in hedonistic pleasure, is a parasite, so the offspring of the Bergassa, people gone rotten from the vices of poverty, is a creature noxious to society. Besides heredity effects, there is in both cases the fatal influence exercised by the contemporary milieu. Louise is a harlot extraordinaire. Draw the world in which these high-flyers live. Poignant drama about the appetite for luxury and facile pleasures ruining a woman's existence. 
Nana by Édouard Manet completed in 1877, three years
before the publication of Zola's Nana. 'Nana' was slang for
prostitutes in late 19th Century France. Manet may have
been inspired by Zola's L'Asssommoir (1877) but there is
no strong evidence for this.
Nana was born Anna Coupeau in 1852 (a fourth generation Macquart). Her age is of note: in Nana it is clearly said that she is eighteen, and the novel opens in 1867, the year of the World Fair - Exposition universelle de 1867, If she were eighteen, she would have been born in 1849, however the Rougon Macquart family tree that Zola commissioned for the final novel in the series Le Docteur Pascal (1893) states she was born in 1852. Nana, therefore, was fifteen in this novel  and I have no doubt that Zola meant it so. Furthermore it is in keeping with timeline of L'Assommoir. In that, Nana disappears for a period; and this disappearance is covered within Nana.

She is indeed a "harlot extraordinaire". She has left the Paris slums of L'Assommoir and is now a high class prostitute who, in the beginning, also stars in La Blonde Vénus at the Théâtre des Variétés in Montmartre. Her lack of talent is inconsequential: Nana is charismatic, but above all else sensual and voluptuous. The shockingly self-absorbed Nana exploits this, and consequently destroys almost every man she sleeps with. About half way through the novel there is a newspaper article written about her. Zola describes it:
Entitled 'The Golden Fly', Fauchery's piece was about a tart, the offspring of four or five generations of alcoholics, her blood tainted by a long heredity of deep poverty and drink, which in her case had taken up the form of unhinging the nervous balance of her sexuality. She'd been brought up on the streets in a working-class Paris slum and now, a tall and lovely girl with a magnificently sensual body, like a plant flourishing on a dung-heap, she was avenging the poor, unprivileged wretches from whom she'd sprung. While the people were left to rot in degrading circumstances, she would carry this pollution upwards to contaminate the aristocracy. She was turning into a force of nature and, without any intention on her part, a ferment of destruction; between her pump white thighs, Paris was being corrupted and thrown into chaos; she was making it rot in the same way as, every month, women make milk go sour. At the end of the article came the comparison with the fly; a golden fly, the colour of sunshine, escaping from its dung-heap and bringing with it the deadly germs of the carrion allowed to fester by the roadside; dancing and buzzing, as dazzling as a precious stone, it would slip through the windows of palaces and poison the men inside merely by settling on them.
From Zola en Images (1908).
This is the essence of Nana. In her world, the hierarchy is inverted - she, the low class child of the slum is at the top, and the rich and powerful are submissive to her. This perversion of the social order is symptomatic of the hypocrisy and moral decay within the Second Empire that Zola perpetually challenged. It is not so much Nana under attack in Zola's novel but those who pursue her and her kind. In order to survive and escape her impoverished past she must choose this path, and she is able to do so because of existing corruption. Paradoxically she adds to it; she is both a victim and a perpetrator, and though a not very pleasant character, it is hard to escape that fact, particularly when reading Nana after L'Assommoir (it is not necessary to read the Rougon Macquart novels in any specific order, but I do feel this pair is the exception. Nana does not have to be read straight after, but I think it is useful to read L'Assommoir first at some point).

And, of course, Nana adds to Zola's 'frescos' of France during the Second Empire. In this we see, for example, the stock markets (Money, 1891), the markets (The Belly of Paris, 1873), the department store (The Ladies Paradise, 1883), the mines (Germinal, 1885), and now the brothels.

Nana's Daughter.
Nana was met with mixed reviews, which is not surprising (some of which upset Zola who wrote to Jules Laffitte, the editor-in-chief of Le Bien public in which Nana was published, "I confess that it troubles me a bit, on account of the blood lust critics display"). It was loved and loathed in equal measures, some finding it unbelievable and unrealistic; Nana's 'triumphs' being, according to them, inconsistent with her character. Other praised a realistic portrayal of a morally degrading Paris. And it even led to a spin-off - Nana's Daughter by Alfred Sirven and Henri Leverdier (published in the same year as Nana) in which Nana is "picked out of the gutter".

As for me, though it's not a favourite I enjoyed it (if that's the right word) and was disturbed by it. When I first read it a few years ago I read the Tancock translation (Penguin) but this time I read Douglas Parmée's translation (1992) for Oxford World Classics and on the whole I think I preferred it. A strange and compelling novel, not as strong as L'Assommoir perhaps but even so I would recommend it even if it wasn't a part of the Rougon Macquart series.

The next novel in the series is Pot Luck (1882), however I would like to stick with Gervaise's off-spring and read Germinal (1885) next. And it is my favourite novel!


  1. I do look forward to this one. I notice that Zola does like to use young characters in his stories.

    When I started The Fortune, I realized too late that I should have drew up a genealogy chart and kept tract of the family. I have not been able to find a good one online, and the one you link in your post has really fine print. When I enlarge it, it just gets blurry. I'm so bummed b/c I really should have kept track from the beginning. It is really helpful to remember who belongs where b/c hereditary seems very important to Zola.

    1. I actually did keep notes on the family relationships - I have them on my computer. I could post them if you like?

    2. Only if it is no trouble. At this time I am trying to put something together, but I will have to work backwards to fill in the missing links.

    3. No problem at all :) I've put the post up, here's the link. Hope it's helpful!

    4. Great post and link! I always enjoy browsing through your Rougon/Macquart information. :-)

      I haven't had a problem keeping the characters straight, but I think that's because I started with #1 and am working my way through in Zola's recommended order. So far everything fits nicely into place. I'm not sure if that will continue though, so it's nice to have some handy references.

    5. I keep looking at the recommended order list: I actually assumed it was a kind of historical sequence list but I discovered it wasn't at all. I need to work out *why* it is recommended. I sort of see the logic. I wish I'd read it in order now! Though, that said, I like picking them up at random :)

  2. This is the only Zola novel that I've read, so I can't compare it to any of his other novels. But while I didn't love it, I did like it. I'd like to read more of Zola, I'm just not sure which of his novels to read next. Got any suggestions?

    1. I think my favorites so far are Germinal and La Bete Humane, though I found Pot-Bouille to be quite amusing, sort of a bedroom farce.

    2. I second Germinal! :)

      Karen - which translation of Beast Within did you read? I wasn't so fond of it, thinking of getting a different translation.

  3. Nana was the first Zola I read so I have a soft spot for it and looking forward to a reread as I work through the Rougon-Marquets. Fabulous post - as always!

    1. Thank you very much, I appreciate that :)

  4. Nana was one of the first books by Zola that I didn't really like. Even my less-favorites have elements that I liked, but this one, not so much. I think the only part I really liked in the entire book was the horse racing scenes. I've read half the series so far and I still have three or four on the TBR shelves.

    1. As I said, Nana wasn't a favourite of mine either. I remember my heart sinking when I first read it at the first chapter - what did you make of the opening? I really wasn't keen on that, found it dragged a wee bit!


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Getting up on Cold Mornings by James Henry Leigh Hunt.

2017 in Pictures.

The Book Tag.

20 Books of Summer.