Translation: George Holden, 1972
Edition: Penguin, 1975
Review number: 1065
Because of its film versions (which are considerably toned down) and its controversial subject matter, Nana is Zola's best known novel. One of his series Les Rougon-Macquart, which together amounts to a study of heredity, Nana is the story of a prostitute in Paris just before the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.
The portrait painted of this part of Parisian society is neither cheerful nor romanticised (as it was, for example, in Dumas' Dame aux Cammelias about thirty years earlier). Nana herself, who was a child character in L'Assommoir, has nothing going for her except beauty; she is stupid, vulgar, greedy, vain and capricious, a product of the worst slums of the city. She at least has the excuse that she is the inevitable result of her background, but the remainder of Zola's characters are no more pleasant. The members of high society are hedonistic hypocrites who are rushing headlong to their downfall (the Prussian invasion being given a moral dimension by the author). In the meantime, they are oblivious to the suffering they cause and to the mental and physical consequences of their actions, not to mention the degrading nature of the pleasures they seek. (Even though venereal diseases are not mentioned, their corruption is indirectly part of the novel, particularly towards the end.) Even the church is involved (in a depiction controversial at the time), waiting to garner those crumbs not wasted, rushing Nana's lover Count Muffat off the moment he repents and shows signs of wanting to return to the fold.
Zola's writing was extremely shocking in its day, with its strong emphasis on the unpleasant and unglamourous side of life; parts of Nana are still not an enjoyable read and it is unrelentingly bleak. The underbelly of nineteenth century life was a theme for several of its authors, notably Dickens in English, but Zola differs from the others in at least two ways. As I have already implied, his self-publicised emphasis on "realism" basically meant that the details of life over which a veil had previously been drawn now became the centre of attention. He is much more uninhibited than earlier authors. (His claim that his writing is more realistic is actually not quite true.) The other difference is that writers like Dickens and Gaskell were trying to change things; they wrote to campaign. Zola exaggerated society's ills for other reasons, for an artistic purpose, for the fascination of the exercise. (This is one reason why the novels are set a decades or so in the past rather than in the present favoured by the English writers mentioned above.)