This is another of the books I read during my wet week indoors. I had never read anything by Zola before, partly because -- as I said in an earlier mail -- I have not been willing to read books in translation. Perhaps this is something to do with the fact that, being a bit of a writer myself and having spent a good deal of my life teaching and criticising the writing of others, language -- the way things are expressed -- is really important to me. So if I am not reading the exact words of the original author, I have this feeling that I am missing something. But I've broken through the barrier now and am so glad I did.
Nana is an amazing book. Published in the 1880s but set twenty years earlier in the 1860s, it is the story of a courtesan, the Nana of the title. Aged only 17 when the novel begins, she already has a 2 year old son and is living in an apartment in Paris, paid for by a Russian who has absconded. Her successful career really begins with a part in a musical play, in which she appears at one point almost naked, her glorious body causing an astonishing stir among the mostly male audience. From this point on, she abandons acting and rises to the heights of success in the demi-monde, her luxurious life-style financed by various besotted aristocrats. She embraces luxury wholeheartedly, but eventually her tastes become more and more excessive until she single-handedly destroys the lives and fortunes of a number of of her most ardent lovers. She is forced to travel abroad, and the last years of her life are only known of by hearsay, until she returns to Paris only to die in a hotel bedroom, her beauty destroyed by her final illness.
This has to be one of the richest novels I've read. By this I mean partly that it has so many scenes which are breathtakingly full and intense -- great set-pieces at the theatre, in Nana's various houses, at the races, at numerous society parties -- that one is swept up and swept along on a great golden tide of excess. But also, in another sense, the whole trajectory of Nana's life has that same inexorable overwhelming movement -- at first she rises high, in the centre of the novel she falls to the depths, abandoning her wealthy lovers and taking to the streets to support the abusive actor she has fallen in love with, she rise again, even higher, she destroys everything almost on a whim... Reading this was rather like eating an extraordinarily delicious meal -- you feel you really should slow down and savour every mouthful, but instead you race through, stuffing yourself with all the irresistible goodies.
In his own lifetime Zola was considered pornographic, at least in England. Today of course he is considered one of the greatest European novelists. I can't wait to read another of his books.