At the Variétés Theatre, a new star is about to be launched upon the stage. Nana can't sing and isn't much of an actress, but she has some indefinable something else - something men can’t resist. Tired of having to keep the appointments made for her by a local procuress, Nana sets out to live life on her own terms, in a succession of guises - actress, live-in girlfriend, mistress, courtesan. Men throw themselves at her, women look down at her, servants fleece her, and her new lives never quite work out. Her avaricious longing for attention, and for money and the things it can buy, see to that.
In a way it’s inapt that the play in which Nana first appeared was set on Mount Olympus; she would have made a better Kali (Hindu goddess of destruction) than a Venus, judging by the trail of financial catastrophe she left behind her. The book’s opening, set at the play’s opening night, is brilliant; Zola pulls the same trick on the reader as theater manager Bordenave does on his audience, dropping hints and stirring up curiosity about this new sensation and deferring her appearance as long as possible. When Nana did show up I was underwhelmed, but then I’m not male. And it’s not easy to forget that this is a book written by a man, with a male audience in mind. There are numerous overblown descriptions of Nana’s good looks, lush flesh, and various states of undress, and when she spends time in a abusive relationship the beatings only make her more beautiful (a major “What the -?” moment).
I’ve long known I have little patience with fictional women who make idiots of themselves over the wrong men; now I know I have just as little when the genders are reversed. At the height of her career men are queuing up for the privilege of being ruined by her, happily throwing away everything they possess in terms both of money and common sense. And I despised them for it. I didn’t think much of Nana either; whenever I got close to liking her she behaved like a spoiled brat, or did something spectacularly spendthrift, or neglected her son, and I went right back to being annoyed by her.
Fortunately for my patience, this is more than just a story. The early description of a newspaper piece makes that clear, telling the tale of a fly that rises from the gutter to spread filth and corruption amongst the respectable folk. (Subtle as a sledgehammer, really.) I could almost pity Zola; what a cynical view of society he must have had to write such a condemnation of it. Men make fools of themselves, wives betray or dominate their husbands, and only the whores are likeable. My favourite, though, was Rose Mignon, a married actress who carried on profitable affairs with her husband’s consent; she could have made a more interesting protagonist. But less symbolic.