Emile Zola (1880)
Nana has been patiently sitting on my bookshelf for about two decades. Over the years, I’ve moved multiple times and rearranged my bookshelves countless times in between and each time Nana made the cut. I’m glad now that it did. Otherwise, it wouldn’t have come to my attention recently when looking for a work of classic literature to recommend for book club. (Every January, our tradition is to meet in Chicago over high tea to discuss a classic.)
This was just the ticket—a great read with more than enough juicy material for a lively discussion. Nana comes in as number nine in a series of 20 books Zola called his “natural and social history of a family under the Second Empire.” When this book begins, Nana is already a famous courtesan, wowing audiences on stage with her terrible acting, off-key singing, and scantily clad sex appeal. Her allure is powerful and before the book is done, Paris is littered with the respectable men who have heeded her siren call and met their doom. Nana doesn’t just burn through men, she takes them for every they’ve got, sullying reputations, destroying marriages and families, ruining businesses, and bleeding bank accounts dry.
Nana is Zola’s comment on France during the Second Empire, a hypocritical, hedonistic society hurtling toward its collapse. The book reads like a fly-on-the-wall observation of a scandalous, amoral world where the upper class melds with theater folk and the demimonde. Nana, the most infamous kept woman of Paris, is the burning sun around which everyone revolves and most everyone who comes in contact with her is burned. Zola’s writing is evocative, provocative, and surprisingly contemporary, as is the story. No flowery metaphor is to be found here—Zola’s treatment of sex and his heroine’s sexuality is frank, to say the least.