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Ultimate Bitches & How Zola’s Nana Slept Her Way to the Top

Nana by ZolaNice girls finish last.

Women who sleep their way to the top are the Ultimate Bitches.

In my field, originally Latin schoolmarmism, we never Slept Our Way to the Top.  There were very few women classics profs in my day, and they were our role models, respected for their Non-Whoreishness.  Perhaps Mary Beard, the ultimate celeb classicist, can vouch for the integrity of Latinists.  (Beard reminds me of a character in my favorite Margaret Drabble novel,  The Realms of Gold:  Frances is an archaeologist who sails effortlessly from success to success.)

So why are I so fascinated by the meretricious?

It is the depths to which one can sink, if, like Zola’s Nana, one is the daughter of alcoholic deadbeats in the slum.

In Zola’s Nana, one of my favorite books, a novel you must read to understand prostitution, the heroine Nana sleeps her way to the top.  After a career on the streets of Paris as a prostitute, she stars in an operetta, “The Blonde Venus.” She laughs at herself onstage and men find that irresistible.  They fall in love with her semi-nude body, draped only in veils, though she has zero talent.

At the theater before the show, the journalist, Fauchery, doesn’t know who Nana is and has low expectations.

Ever since this morning, everybody has been asking me about Nana.  I’ve met over a score of people, and it has been Nana here and Nana there.  What do they expect me to tell them?  Do I know all the girls in Paris?…  Nana is something invented by Bordenave.  I don’t need to say any more than that.”

And Bordenave, the producer and director, indeed refers to his theater as a brothel and invents Nana.

Nana rises quickly in the world:  bankers, counts, and handsome young men give her money.  She runs through it like water, and it is fascinating to see what she buys.  She has sex joyously with everybody, but doesn’t love anybody.  She spends several fortunes as a mistress/courtesan, and the men will do anything to keep her.  The theater is truly the setting for Nana, even after she retires from it:   thus the big beautiful house the Count gives her is decorated in bad, glittering, gaudy taste that reminds the reader of the theater.

Nana is a reader, and her opinion of a novel about prostitutes is surprising.

After that, Nana chatted with the four men like a charming hostess.  During the day she had read a novel which was causing a sensation at the time.  It was the story of a prostitute, and Nana inveighed against it, declaring that it was all untrue, and expressing an indignant revulsion against the sort of filthy literature which claimed to show life as it was–as if a writer could possibly describe everything, and as if novels weren’t supposed to be written  just to while away the time.  On the subject of books and plays Nana had very decided opinions:  she liked tender, high-minded works which would set her dreaming and uplift her soul.

Of course Zola was mocking himself, and what Nana might think of him.  He was writing for a serious purpose:  he intended in his twenty-novel series, The Rougan-Macquarts:  the Natural and Social History of a Family under the Second Empire, to explore the effect of heredity and environment on one family.

Nana is not a nice girl.  She is a bitch, but is very likable and enjoys life. Money means everything to her.  Sleeping with men doesn’t matter in the least; she can’t imagine why the prim middle-aged count who falls in love with her cares that she has sex with a woman friend from the slums, Satin, another prostitute.  She is able to convince him that none of it matters, even when he walks in on her with another man.

I adore Zola.  I devoured everything I could find in translation after  watching a BBC miniseries of Nana sometime in the ’70s.  I’ve even read some of them in a turn-of-the-last century translation, and they’re still powerful, though I prefer to go with something more modern.

I also love Balzac, Zola’s role model.

More on the French later!

3 thoughts on “Ultimate Bitches & How Zola’s Nana Slept Her Way to the Top

  1. Lovely! I so want to read Zola, but he’s so overwhelming that I feel I need an entry point – so I’ve sent off for some short stories…..!

  2. I have been reading my way through Zola in no particular order. I think a good starter book might be The Belly of Paris, about the great market at Les Halles and an impractical and idealistic revolutionary.

  3. Karen, I have enjoyed Nana, and I suppose you could read them in order, though I haven’t! I very much enjoyed The Ladies’ Paradise (which may have a different title in some editions) about a department store. But The Belly of Paris is also very good. It has been a long time since I’ve read them…

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