That I found reading Nana difficult is an understatement. I expected some labour over it because classics is not my usual genre and Zola makes the slow pace even harsher by his scientific glare.
But Nana presented more challenges than my anticipation. For instance, I couldn’t empathise with the tempestuous, irritating child at the center of the story, who is perennially unhappy. She reminded me of Wilde’s Dorian Gray, out on a mindless chase of pleasure, afraid of growing old. Despite the beautiful image that Eduard Manet has captured of her, I imagine Nana as something cheap, engulfed in a putrefying odour of a fake perfume and poor quality makeup. The painting and the character are reversed.
The story starts with a climactic build up in the theatre. Zola expertly describes the palpable tension in the audience as they wait for a promised new Venus. In those few pages, a greedy and seedy Paris is presented to the reader. A Paris interested not in art, but only in its indulgences. Zola drops many names, and while we get introduced to a whole city, we know nothing about the individuals, who will keep flowing in and out of the story. Zola does not want you to engage with them. Out of the theatre, these blobs float away to all-night parties, to uncomfortable dinners, or circle around the houses of theatre actresses.
Amidst all these blobs sits Nana; Zola has certainly sharpened the pencil on her, but not filled in all the details. Nana is a high society prostitute who runs her men through ruin. There are small fleeting parts of the book when you sense her hankering after a simple life in the country, or one of domesticity. But it is clear that she doesn’t want to work towards those dreams, and keeps them as impossible ideals to be unhappy about. Once, she tries domestic life with a fellow actor and the experiment is so dramatic and theatrical that you know it is headed to failure.
Zola himself has no empathy for his creation. He judges her more harshly than he judges the lusting, foolish men who run around her consuming every inch of her space. In his experimentation, he has defined Nana with 2-3 variables only, and in this sense his ‘provoked observation’ seems incomplete. Nana, comes out looking like a ghost moving through boudoirs and theatre corridors, rapidly changing upholstery and ultimately ruining everything.
I cannot escape the question whether my distaste in the novel is biased because of my judgement of Nana and the society she inhabits. I do not like the gluttonous Paris that Zola has created, because it conflicts with my image of Paris as a city which has nurtured art above the material. The struggle to continuously separate the fiction from the real created a distraction.
But I think I struggled less with the judgement, more with the scientific writing itself. Zola has defined each of his creations as a collection of black and white variables, and in that definition he has been sparse. Each person is a variation of greed, lust, need for current/desired social status, age and physical attractiveness. The only one with the back story is Nana, and with a mild stretch C. Muffat. All conflict is played out within the above variables.There is no variety to the ambitions, and there is no transcendent love or need for a higher ideal. It is this need, the biggest chaotic variable which gives people conflicts. In Nana’s world it is missing not just from her own personality, but all of Paris. This is different from the other two stories I have read from Les Rougon-Macquart series, where emotions and higher ideals conflict with natural desires. (The beast within, and The Ladies’ Paradise), and in one the ideal even wins.
I recognise that in order to understand Zola’s experiments, I need to read more books from the series. But coming off this long experiment, I will take time returning. Meanwhile, I started reading his essay on the experimental novel which will take me a while to finish.