Nana (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

Nana (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

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Nana, by Emile Zola, is part of the Barnes & Noble Classics series, which offers quality editions at affordable prices to the student and the general reader, including new scholarship, thoughtful design, and pages of carefully crafted extras. Here are some of the remarkable features of Barnes & Noble Classics:
  • New introductions commissioned from today's top writers and scholars
  • Biographies of the authors
  • Chronologies of contemporary historical, biographical, and cultural events
  • Footnotes and endnotes
  • Selective discussions of imitations, parodies, poems, books, plays, paintings, operas, statuary, and films inspired by the work
  • Comments by other famous authors
  • Study questions to challenge the reader's viewpoints and expectations
  • Bibliographies for further reading
  • Indices & Glossaries, when appropriate
All editions are beautifully designed and are printed to superior specifications; some include illustrations of historical interest. Barnes & Noble Classics pulls together a constellation of influences—biographical, historical, and literary—to enrich each reader's understanding of these enduring works.


One of the founders of literary naturalism, Émile Zola thought of his novels as a form of scientific research into the effects of heredity and environment. He created characters, gave them richly detailed histories, and placed them in carefully observed, precisely described environments, and his readers watch as they wriggle and thrash toward their inevitable destinies.


In Nana, the characters are a prostitute, who rises from the streets to become what Zola calls a “high-class cocotte,” and the men—and women—whom she loves, betrays, and destroys. Among the novel’s many ironies is the mutual envy felt by Nana and those around her. She yearns for their material possessions, while they admire her apparent independence and sexual self-confidence. And despite the chaos Nana causes, Zola imagines her as being essentially “good-natured,” a stupid, vain but beautiful creature who can’t help drawing people into her web.


Not surprisingly, Nana’s portrait of a decadent world in which a prostitute amasses great wealth and power provoked protests from “polite society,” and it became one of Zola’s most controversial works. Today it is regarded as his masterpiece.


Luc Sante is the author of Low Life, Evidence, and The Factory of Facts and coeditor, with Melissa Holbrook Pierson, of O.K. You Mugs: Writers on Movie Actors.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781411432741
Publisher: Barnes & Noble
Publication date: 06/01/2009
Series: Barnes & Noble Classics Series
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 496
Sales rank: 646,362
File size: 2 MB
Age Range: 3 Months to 18 Years

Read an Excerpt

From Luc Sante’s Introduction to Nana

Zola’s star has risen and fallen since his death. In the first half of the twentieth century he was one of the most widely read authors in the world, his name virtually synonymous with the struggle for social progress. He was translated into all languages and was a staple, especially, in the Soviet Union. His role in the Dreyfus affair doubly assured his stature—because of it he was even the subject of a Hollywood film, The Life of Émile Zola (1937), with Paul Muni in the part. But the 1930s were probably the peak of his posthumous career. After World War II, especially, his work acquired a reputation as turgid, well-meaning gruel. The New Left more or less consigned him to the dustbin of history, and litterateurs everywhere decided he was clumsy, laborious, didactic. It is true that even in his lifetime and among his supporters he was never considered a particularly subtle author, and his most fervent disciples would have found it hard to make a case for him as a prose stylist—a fatal deficiency in France, where style reigns supreme, where his older colleague Flaubert, the model of the stylist, sometimes hesitated for weeks over a choice of words.

            Nana, however, shows how wrongheaded all such approaches were in regard to Zola, and effects a demonstration of his unparalleled strengths. Zola may not have parsed ambiguities or dealt in fugitive emotions—he did not work close up, with a single-hair brush, but on a large scale, with a palette knife (perhaps, actually, like his old friend Cézanne, he could be said to have worked with a brush in one hand and a knife in the other). The analogy to painting is not idly chosen, and it is not simply because of his close connection to the Impressionists, although in many ways he resembles less the starkly graphic Manet or the dreamily approximative Monet or even the dramatically essentialist Cézanne than he does Gustave Caillebotte, the Impressionist most devoted to depicting the flotsam and jetsam of urban life, which he framed as radically as with a camera lens. For that matter, while it has become a terrible cliché to say of a writer of the past that had he lived in our time, he would surely have become a filmmaker, with Zola it might actually be true.

            Zola is at his best when staging crowd scenes and major conflicts. This is no small feat, especially when you consider how often great writers have avoided such things—in how many classic war novels, for example, the principal action is set offstage or viewed through a narrow and subjective focus. And while most nineteenth-century novels begin and end with a major set piece—one to introduce the characters and set them in motion against the backdrop, the other to tie up loose ends and release us and the characters from our mutual contract—each of Nana’s chapters is a set piece. The chapters pass in succession, like so many acts of a tragedy: the theater, the dinner, the country house, the horse race. The chapters immediately call up a visual analogy: They are wide-screen affairs, like movies shot in Cinerama or like the panoramic photographs Zola himself took around 1900. Although in truth there are plenty of closeups and flurries of montaged action, we are given the illusion that the camera, as it were, takes in the whole scene, all at once and unmovingly, while characters pass across its unblinking aperture. Zola excels at directing his characters’ points of view, listening to them talk while they take in the setting and the peripheral action surrounding them, and then following their gaze to some other characters some distance away. Upon being introduced by the commentary of the first set of characters, these become in their turn the focus of the author’s attention for a while before passing the baton to yet more people in some other corner of the setting. This provides for a powerful spatial illusion.

            Zola’s method appears to all but eliminate the omniscient narrator—he is present at all times, of course, but Zola is so clever at inserting exposition into casual dialogue that it feels as though we are witnessing eeverything for ourselves without mediation. The direct authorial commentary, meanwhile, discreetly dissolves into the scene setting, since almost all of it is parenthetical, the most significant observations being either delivered by the characters in the course of apparently banal chitchat or else built into the fabric of the plot. The final chapter, for example, tells us everything we need to know about Zola’s attitude toward the Franco-Prussian War, but it does so incidentally, in hubbub rising up from the street while our attention is focused on Nana’s plight as she lies in bed in her hotel room. Like a great documentary painter (anyone from Bruegel to Courbet to Seurat) or filmmaker (perhaps Jean Renoir, who was the son of the Impressionist painter Auguste, an acquaintance of Zola’s, and who made a spectacular silent adaptation of Nana in 1926), Zola unfolds for his audience the entire social fabric of his setting, in lavish detail, and conveys exactly what he thinks about it all while pretending to be no more than passively subjected to it, as if it were weather, and keeping his eye on a few central figures, as if their actions were not crucially interwoven with and wholly dependent upon their background.

            The story of Nana is simplicity itself—thanks largely to the movies, it has become a thumping cliché in the intervening century and a quarter, although it wasn’t yet one at the time. It is, classically, the story of the poor girl who uses her body to advance through society, nearly to the very top, before being finally betrayed by her fate, or her genes, or her hubris, or her lack of education, so that she falls back down, metaphorically or otherwise, to the muck of her origins. Meanwhile men of all shapes, sizes, ages, and stations have become besotted with her, all of them at some cost, whether to their money or their marriages or their dignity or their lives. Besides the obvious titillation factor, the story is so potent and durable because, like all the most mythopoetic stories (consider Don Quixote or Moby-Dick, for instance), its plot and its central metaphor are one and the same. Nana herself is a perfectly rounded, three-dimensional character, whose strength and generosity are as apparent by the end as her vanity and cruelty and selfishness, but she is also a metaphorical linchpin, the embodiment of the vapid decadence and dull hypocrisy of the Second Empire, whose fall she enacts in boudoir scale.

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Nana (Barnes & Noble Classics Series) 3.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 94 reviews.
Seghetto More than 1 year ago
The first 1/3 or so of the book was pretty dull. The only real strong parts of the book happen towards the end. The interplay between Nana and her courtiers is ridiculous. The plot was very well thought out. This was the 9th in a series of 23 novels. The commentary stresses that this series was thought of by Zola as an experiment, needless to say that it shows. The characters are introduced one after the other. Towards the end it is pretty hard to sympathize with any of them besides the main 3 or 4.
albertgoldfain on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Zola's modernist classic from the Rougon-Macquart series of novels. I believe the title character is supposed to be a thinly veiled metaphor for Paris at the end of the 19th century (the end of the second empire), but I don't know enough about the time period for this to resonate. The novel starts with a nice description of the "popular" theater of the time but doesn't really gain much momentum until the final three chapters (the horse race chapter could be a story on its own). The intervening chapters are filled with verbose descriptions (Zola's so-called "naturalistic" style). It is almost like a pointilist painting where someone goes into details about each point. All I can remember is the overall impression.
AlexAustin on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Zola creates a brilliantly shallow woman who uses beauty and sex to keep numerous balls in the air. Merciless.
jwhenderson on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I read this book as part of a "Literary Cityscapes" class at the University of Chicago. The focus of the class was on novels in which Paris was an important factor if not a character. In Nana we have a novel inspired by real life characters, an operetta singer, who are transformed into a steamy story romance and demimondaines as the Second Empire is about to expire. I enjoyed the realistic description of the light opera scene with Zola's detail depiction of the performance of La blonde Vénus, a fictional operetta modelled after Offenbach's La belle Hélène, in which Nana is cast as the lead. Nana unfortunately leads a life not atypical for paramours (see La Traviata) and yet, the realistic portrayal of Parisian society raises this novel above the typical story. Zola again achieves artistic brilliance with his naturalistic novelization of real life.
Clara53 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A word on the importance of good translation. I read this book in two translations. First half - by an unknown translator, as there was no title page in this old book that I had bought a while ago at a library sale, there was just a year written in pencil by the owner (1953), the pages were very yellow, so it might even date earlier than that. The translation was not very good at all, and to prove it, as I was in the middle of the book, I borrowed a newer library copy to finish reading it in another translation, and oh, what a difference! (This one was translated by George Holden). The reading became so much more enjoyable. But the fact that I didn't give up on the book while reading the first half in really poor translation, certainly shows in favor of the author.I won't presume to aspire to give an adequate review on this classic. Zola is, doubtless, one of the great masters of literature. As to the plot, only one word comes to mind: ruin. It obviously goes beyond the carefree world of Parisian courtesans; it's dramatic, self-induced ruin as represented by the protagonist and prompted by society of that time.
ablueidol on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
These were some of the first books I read as an adult and authors like Zola and Tolstoy made 19th century literature live far more then Dickens ever did for me
Stbalbach on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
What an amazing novel. From the first blow-away chapter it is a speeding hot-house driven by the unpredictable winds of lust and fortune, time is compressed so minutes of ecstasy seem like years, and years can go by in minutes. Nana's addictive qualities ensnare both vile and vulnerable, perversely encouraged by society in the decedent years leading up to the Franco-Prussian crises. Chapter 5's description of the inner workings of a theater is an unforgettable submersion into Dante's Inferno. The gruesome ending is a Realist version of 'Dr Jekyl and Mr Hyde', or 'The Picture of Dorian Gray' (both later works and probably influenced by Zola). In the end there were no villains, just victims.The most difficult element is keeping the many secondary characters straight, it is a crowded novel. They are introduced in rapid fire sequence and the details (age, weight, background, relations etc) are spread throughout so the characters are not easily visualized which can make the plot often confusing, a whirl of people. Yet this is exactly the point, imagine the modern club scene or college parties.The symbolism throughout is intense and unusual for Zola, this is the least Naturalistic of his novels, yet is retains its realism, as Flaubert said: "Nana turns into myth, without ceasing to be real."
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