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indictment of decadence
on November 17, 2001
This novel employs a courtesan, Nana, to condamn the decadence of late 2nd Empire France (1852-1870). Arising from a family ravaged by alcoholism and abuse, the great beauty Nana becomes a celebrity in theatre and then as the mistress of the high aristocracy and bourgeous. At her core, she is a devourer, empty of anything but the will to suck whatever she can out of anyone who comes near. She ruins the fortunes of numerous men with frivolous demands for things she barely wants, and Zola in the process illuminates how they made their careers and were ruined by their appeites for this woman, who becomes an archetypal destuctive force. It is indeed a bleak and severe indictment of an entire society: you learn how celebrity worked in it, from the bottom up and back down again. Her sexuality is omnivorous, the men her willing victims for a mention in the Figaro gossip columns. (As Zola put, "les hommes suivent une chienne qui n'est pas en chaleur.")
Zola makes for fascinating reading, as does Balzac, for the wider tableau he paints. The writers are similar, except that Zola was a far more careful writer. Unfortunately, it is often difficult to find any characters you can like or admire, which makes the cynicism and condamnations overbearing and hard to get through at times. There are numerous inventions in it that became classic, like "blond venus" and "golden fly". This adds to it as a glorious classic novel.
In a wider sense, this is one of the central novels in Zola's cycle on the "natural history" of an extended family, the Rougon-Macquart. It is based on a crude kind of Darwinist sociology, a kind of reasoning that was in its infancy when he wrote and which later culminated in Freud and Durkheim. THat is another level that is quite fascinating, a philosophical cycle of novels mixing biological science and Schopenauer, all deeply pessimistic and determinist.
Recommended, but it takes perserverence and a strong stomach to finish it.