This morning I finished reading Emile Zola’s masterpiece and later spent a good while scanning the illustrations and drafting this post.
It is 50 years since my previous enjoyment of the Folio Press edition of 1973, being a reprint of the Folio Society’s 1956 publication. I have not studied the original French, but Charles Duff’s translation is fluent and contains number of colloquial English phrases such as “kick the bucket” which suggests effort to render them intelligible to UK readers.
This is the title page and the frontispiece.
From the opening paragraphs depicting the feverish anticipation of the theatre-goers of a city waiting the opening of the new presentation of the Théâtre des Variétés and the first sight of The Blonde Venus to the intense excitement of the races Emile Zola carries the readers along at breakneck speed as if we are present in various venues, also including stately homes, bucolic environments, streets splendid and sordid; night and day, light and dark, playing their part in the narrative.
All senses, especially keenly that of smell, are engaged. The pungent, foetid scents, pervading the back rooms and corridors of the theatre, its windows closed against the cold outside in the depths of inadequately heated winter, assaulting the olfactory nerves which are enticed by sweeter scented warm flesh in a variety of bedrooms more or less savoury.
Nana, a young girl from poor, muddy, streets, by virtue of her generous nature and her gifted charms, rises to be the virtual Queen of Paris capable of attracting and bedding numerous wealthy men until she bleeds them dry and eventually discards them.
She places the child of her teenage pregnancy with an aunt; she visits when she can, though often neglects him; she occasionally falls in love, but usually uses her sexuality to earn wealth and admiration, otherwise indiscriminately. She also has a lasting lesbian affair.
Zola’s insightful characterisation shows how destructive obsessions can be, including almost modern text-book understanding of a lover’s compulsion to return to a physically abusive partner, or to tolerate constant insults and betrayal; being the source of self-destruction.
The fluent, poetically descriptive prose, so full of detail makes it hard to believe that this exploration of contemporary sexual norms comes from Ludovic Halévy’s having introduced him to an operetta at the above-mentioned Théâtre, and providing him with many supplementary stories about the star.
An early morning episode after a night on which Nana has no wish to sleep is just one of the many delightful paragraphs encompassing the author’s evocative skills: “She looked at the sky through the window panes, a livid sky across which soot-coloured skies were scudding. It was six o’clock. Opposite, on the other side of the Boulevard Haussmann, the still sleeping houses showed in sharp outline their moist rooftops in the morning twilight; and on the deserted roadway a troupe of street- sweepers passed by with a clattering of their clogs. And, contemplating this woebegone awakening of Paris, she found herself seized by the tender emotion of a young girl, by a need for the countryside, for the idyllic, for something gentle and white.”
The perhaps inevitable conclusion is beautifully told with an unexpected twist, and set in an historical context which puts it in an apt perspective.
The delicate etchings by Hungarian born Marcel Vertès exquisitely capture the essence of the period.
This evening we all dined on Jackie’s tasty lemon chicken; savoury rice with garlic and peas; sweet potato chips; and tender Broccoli stems, with which I drank Côtes du Rhône Villages 2022.