Thursday, November 12, 2015

Nana - Émile Zola

A few months ago I wrote a book report on The Princess of Cleaves and the Birth of Fomo. The book focused on the upper echelons of Parisian society circa 1678, where infidelity was rampant and the finesse of balancing multiple lovers simultaneously was practically the norm. Yet, alongside this culturally acceptable moral myopia were those that held fast to their principles, creating a sort of dialectic between virtue and debasement.

Our heroine, eventually is either so virtuous (or so afraid that her true love may be only a mirage) that her only solution is to join a convent, and there she spends the rest of her short life in pious contemplation while her suitor hovers just outside the frame hoping she'll change her mind.

Two hundred years later, during the Second Empire, Parisian culture is quite different. Rather than trysts being carefully hidden and out of sight the courtesans are a ruling class of their own, destroying the peerage with their avarice and caprices and making a laughing stock of all that is noble.

In contrast to the respect and esteem the Princess of Cleaves was met with by her equals, who admired her virtue even if they were confused by her stubbornness, in 1870 virtue is no longer an attribute to be lauded and to devote oneself to God is an endeavor only to be pitied.

About a hundred pages into Nana we find ourselves at a cocktail party. While conversation flits about from one topic to another, there is a soliloquy devoted to which of the ladies have remained faithful to their spouses. Eventually the conversation turns to a topic that has gripped society for the last three days: "The eldest daughter of the Baron de Fougeray, who at the bidding of an irresistible vocation, had just entered the Carmelite Order."

High society is in an uproar, "What a horrible way to lose a daughter!" is a constant murmur throughout the crowded streets and at our cocktail party the sentiment is a bit more vulgar:

"The fact is that they marry God when they haven't been able to marry their cousin,' muttered Vandeuvres, who found the whole subject a bore. Joining Fauchery, he went on: 'My dear fellow, have you ever seen a woman who had a man to love her become a nun?"

And at that the two men go back to the intrigue of the following night's party at Nana's house, where some of the most desired courtesans will be on display.

I thought this would be a good place to start. Paris is a different world, but not necessarily one without religion, just a new religion whose deity is pleasure and debauchery. In the introduction, Zola sums up his philosophy for his novel:

"The philosophical subject is as follows: A whole society hurling itself at the cunt. A pack of hounds after a bitch, who is not even in heat and makes fun of the hounds following her. The poem of male desires, the great lever which moves the world. There is nothing apart from the cunt and religion."

As always, Zola is an expansive writer, detail obsessed down to a microcosmic level. The way the narrative progresses, leaving one protagonist to follow another, creates a frenetic atmosphere where at any moment a hero or heroine may find themselves cast off and struggling along the dregs of society to merely survive, while the never ceasing maelstrom of Parisian debauchery moves on to the next victim.

As the novel opens, we find ourselves in an Opera house waiting to catch a glimpse of the new up and coming star that has left Paris breathless and trembling. As the merits of the play and the star are debated, the crowd waits, expectations only growing in anticipation.

"At that very moment the clouds at the back of the stage parted, and Venus appeared. Very tall and well built for her eighteen years, in her goddess's white tunic, and with her long fair hair hanging loosely over her shoulders, Nana came down towards the footlights with quiet self-assurance. Greeting the audience with a laugh, she launched into her big song..."

The audience for a moment is stunned. Never before has anyone heard a more tuneless voice, could this be a joke? But Nana knows how to work the crowd and with a toss of her curls and a sway of her hips she seems to let the audience in on the joke- she does have a terrible voice, and can hardly be expected to remember all of the lyrics, but isn't life simply hilarious? Isn't it all just perfectly grand?

And slowly the crowd, tickled in all the right places, is captivated.

"When she came to the end of the verse, her voice failed her completely, and she realized that she would never get through the whole song. So, without getting flustered, she thrust out one hip which was roundly outlined under the flimsy tunic, bent backwards, so that her breasts were shown to good advantage, and stretched out her arms. Applause burst forth on all side."

While she is a tremendous success on the stage, there is no end in sight for her pecuniary problems. The next morning we find her searching through her apartment for a louis to pay the workmen already sitting in her foyer. After begging change from her maid to no avail she resorts to her steady failsafe: a quick trick with a gentleman caller.

The transition between prostitute and gentlewoman seem only to happen in her mind.  At her dinner party, the guests arrive and make themselves at home in her sparse, barely furnished apartment and she presides over them like a schoolmarm, demanding order and decorum. The men wait with baited breath, surrounded by courtesans, the anticipation of vulgarity is almost too much to bear.

Eventually Nana's success catapults her into a life of notoriety and wealth. Being desired by princes and bankers, she takes what she can from them, climbing the ladder out of the gutter one rung at a time, until at last she has convinced one of her lovers to buy her a country estate where she can escape for the summer to play house. But even here, in this place of expected solitude, there is little escape. She is hounded by boys and men and seems to pick her lovers indiscriminately.

She has left the city certain that her place in the theater was secure, but after her summer vacation comes to an end, she finds that she has been readily replaced by another buxom girl/body. She takes this in stride and decides to set up house with a friend of hers, Fontan, a goat-like actor whom all the courtesans seem to love for his "personality." As Nana spends her savings setting up their garish apartment, throwing away her hard earned money one louis at a time, it is not long before Fontan's true personality begins to shine through.

In a moment he goes from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde, demanding she pay for everything and beating her at first because she needs more money or can not provide dinner, but eventually just because he feels like it. Yet, she chooses to stay and eventually must resort to walking the streets and prostituting herself on the street, simply to put food on the table for Fontan and his guests. With each beating, she looks forward to the moment when they will make up and so chooses to stay. It is not until she is actually locked out of her apartment, while Fontan makes love to another woman, that she decides to move on and reinvent herself. This time she will no longer be the plaything, but will exact her revenge on men first and class second, carefully laying her traps of destruction and devouring all that, by their own caprices, fall into her lair.

The first step to her plan is to accept the Comte Muffat's addresses, which she has heretofore rejected. She demands terms and conditions, which he hastily accepts, shaking with lust and desire. She will be established in one of the finest houses in Paris, she will be given an infinite stipend and recast as a gentlewoman. It is not long before she has become an icon of fashion and Paris waits with baited breath each day to see what she will wear.

All that the Comte asks is that she remain faithful to him. And at first she does so, biding her time while the currency of desire rises amongst the men that are constantly surrounding her. Quietly, she begins her conquests, one fortune at a time, as these men, lacking agency and completely controlled by their lust and desire lay their fortunes at her feet. Fortunes that took generations to amass are decimated in a matter of weeks. Estates are sold to pay for her equipage and brocades. And when a suitor is no longer solvent, our Medusa moves on the next victim who is waiting for the privilege of being stripped and decimated by a courtesan of such high rank and prestige.

Eventually these trysts become more brazen. Nana is practically taunting the Comte to leave her, knowing he is powerless over his desire. Instead, he must take his place in line behind the rest of her suitors, her bedroom a veritable public house, with the effluvia of the men before still clinging to the sheets and bed curtains. The high price he pays to keep her established grants him little more than the title of "official lover" and the courtesy of a smile, yet his need for her gnaws at him like an inescapable disease.

"A pious churchgoer, accustomed to ecstatic experiences in sumptuous chapels, he encountered here exactly the same mystical sensations as when he knelt beneath some stained-glass window and surrendered to the intoxication of the organ music. Woman dominated him with the jealous tyranny of a God of wrath, terrifying him, but granting him moments of joy as keen as spasms, in return for hours of hideous torments, visions of hell and eternal tortures. He stammered out the same despairing prayers as in church, and above all suffered the same fits of humility peculiar to an accursed creature crushed under the mud from which he has sprung."

If anyone is the victim in this narrative, it is the men. They lack free will and are totally controlled by desire and lust. It's almost too easy. All it takes is a little cleavage and they are groveling at the feet of their infatuation. As a whole they are weak cowards, unable to take destiny into their own hands but rather throwing away their fortune and dignity at the shrine of Bacchus. The Comte is an even sadder exhibit. He is a cuckold and as such completely emasculated. He has no power over the women in his life and while he throws his money at them, their avaricious demands grow and morph into infinite unmet expectations.

Upon learning that his wife is cheating on him with a newspaper man, he walks the street late at night, circling the apartment where he assumes the tryst is taking place. He thinks about confronting them, but eventually decides on standing in the shadows and waiting, watching, hoping to see if his wife will emerge and confront her. But his wife is nowhere to be seen, and as the sun comes up, he is once again a man of inaction, too weak to defend his honor and too cowardly to confront his wife.

As his relationship with Nana becomes more tenuous, he shrinks even more until his humiliation becomes the thing that keeps both of them interested in an otherwise boring relationship. It is now her turn to be the master, and like Fontan, Nana begins her games of abuse and debasement.  Finally, she demands that he come dressed one evening in his uniform of court chamberlain and after laughing uproariously, carried away by her irreverence, she begins a new game of kicking him in the ass and shouting "get a move on, chamberlain!"

"Every kick was a heartfelt insult to the Tuileries and the majesty of the imperial court, dominating an abject and frightened people. That was what she thought of society. She was taking her revenge, settling an unconscious family grudge, bequeathed to her in her blood. Then, once the chamberlain was undressed and his uniform spread out on the floor, she shouted jump, and he jumped; she shouted at him to spit, and he spat; she shouted at him to trample on the gold, the eagles and the decorations and he trampled on them. Abracadabra, and nothing was left; everything was swept away. She smashed a chamberlain just as she smashed a bottle of a comfit-box, turning him into filth, and reducing him to a heap of mud in the gutter."

At last, the Comte has had enough, walking in on Nana with his old and decrepit father in law is the last straw. Death and destruction have surrounded him and he has finally worked up enough gumption to walk away. Nana is ready for a change herself, the house feels too small, she has vanquished all the vanquishable and is ready to move on to greener pastures, but her victory lap is short lived.

After traveling abroad for a few months, she returns to Paris and has somehow along the way contracted smallpox. As her body begins to decompose, her face unrecognizable behind the mask of suppurating boils, she takes her last breath surrounded by her fellow courtesans. None of the men are brave enough to enter the sick room and instead hover outside, making awkward conversation and pretending they care less than they all actually do. As Nana breathes her last breath, the women surrounding her are destined to carry her torch, to spread a virus of their own of lust and debauchery. And while Nana lies there, her skin already decaying she is the embodiment of a festering Paris, rife with an incurable disease.  From her deathbed, through the open window can be heard "To Berlin, To Berlin, To Berlin" chanted by the crowds enamored by the recent declaration of war on Prussia, a war they will lose, and with it the collapse of the Second Empire.

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