History: Completed in 1880, Nana is the ninth installment in the 20-volume Les Rougon-Macquart series, which was to tell "The Natural and Social History of a Family under the Second Empire”. In Nana, Zola examines the nature of his heroine as well as her conquests. He is also criticizing the excesses, sexual and political, of France before 1870. The section of the novel that describes the system of policing imposed on Paris prostitutes provides an interesting study of the intersection between medicine and society.
Plot: As the book opens, Fauchery, a drama critic, is waiting for the hottest play in Paris to open. "The Blonde Venus" has bad music and bad actresses, but a new star, Nana, who appears on stage clad only in a diaphanous wrap brings down the house anyway. Nana is an experienced concubine. She exploits the hysteria caused by her nearly nude performance to win Steiner, a wealthy banker. Steiner buys her a country house where she entertains other lovers to win more gifts. Here she also has a brief affair with the penniless student George, who is much younger than her.
There are long sequences about the late night parties that Nana gives, the men that compete for her attention, and the humiliation they will endure to have her.
Soon Steiner runs out of money, and she disposes of him. She takes up with Fontan, an actor. She tries to be domestic and kind, but Fontan beats her, then abandons her and she turns to streetwalking. Threatened by the police, who in order to prevent the spread of syphilis can imprison women and perform mandatory gynecological exams, she quickly searches for a new, wealthy lover. She finds Count Muffat whom she humiliates, trampling on his uniform and sleeping with whomever she likes. Count Muffat is married, and his wife is having an affair, and Nana reminds him of this constantly. He is very traumatized by this. Like the other men, he is in love with her, and isn’t able to control himself. She also has an affair with Satain, a streetwalker, and is open about it toMuffat, telling him if he doesn’t like it, too bad. She also continues to rake in money from men for sex, but she never has enough. And she is very critical of the gifts they buy her, laughs at them when they propose to her, humiliates them to see how far she can push them. Young George finally grows so jealous of Muffat and of his brother, another of Nana's conquests, he stabs himself with scissors in the door of her bedroom. He eventually dies, his brother Phillipe, is in prison for not paying his debts, from gifts he has bought for Nana. Her other lovers must step over the bloodstain to approach Nana's bed. Satain also dies, and her maid, Zoe, the loyal servant, gives her notice to become a prostitute herself. At the end of the novel, Nana leaves Paris to travel abroad. At that point the story is told from the young prostitutes that knew of her. When she comes back, she is in the hospital dying from smallpox. There are chants of war in the street when she dies. She dies in 1870 just as the Franco-Prussian War begins.
Review: I listened to this book. I didn’t like the narrator Walter Zimmerman. But I appreciate the honesty and realism, the description of a prostitute’s life, and the vacancy of the lives she destroyed. Zola tells the book in a straight forward manner, does not judge her, but points out her abuse to the men that come back for more.
Opening Line: “At nine o’clock in the evening the body of the house at the Theatres des Varietes was still all but empty.”
Closing Line: “A BERLIN! A BERLIN! A BERLIN!”
Quotes: “She becomes a blind power of nature, a leaven of destruction, and unwittingly she corrupts and disorganizes all Paris, churning it between her snow–white thighs as milk is monthly churned by housewives.”