Lit pick: Nana, Emile Zola and Second Empire Paris

I just finished reading Nana by Emile Zola, a deliciously risqué novel about Paris and the demimonde at the end of the 1860s. I haven’t read anything by Zola since college but I was inspired to read it by the current exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago.

210px-NanaZolaAfter touring it or the second time, I’m totally under the spell of Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity. As everyone who has written about the exhibit has said, it’s a delectable feast of paintings of the Impressionism period by Manet, Monet, Renoir, Degas, Morisot, Tissot and others, drawn from the Art Institute’s own excellent collection, and featuring exceptional works from the Musee d’Orsay in Paris and the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

The art is enhanced by beautifully displayed archival gowns and accessories of the period. Most important, the exhibit signage weaves a compelling story about societal and cultural change of the period from the 1860s through ca. 1890 and its impact on women’s apparel and lives.

At one of the Art Institute lectures on the exhibit, the speaker talked about other artists of the period and mentioned the writings of Emile Zola and especially his novel Nana, which features lavish descriptions of the costumes, décor and customs of the Second Empire in Paris.  (Image: Cover of the original French edition, courtesy of Wikipedia.) 

I had never read Zola’s novel, so I downloaded it to my Kindle when I got home that day. From the first chapter, I was amazed at Zola’s attention to detail of women’s costumes and the décor of the period.

The protagonist, Nana, is a young up-from-the-streets courtesan who becomes famous as “la blonde Venus” playing the lead in a fictional operetta, where she appears clothed only in a head-to-toe veil. She can’t act and can’t sing. But she is beautiful, voluptuous and charismatic. Nana is irresistible to wealthy Parisian men of all ages. In the beginning, she wants to find a man who can help support her and buy her suitable gowns and jewelry. But her tastes expand to include mansions, horses, servants – all requiring more and richer men.  She becomes more and more grasping, profligate and promiscuous and ruins each of the men in turn until finally creating her own downfall.

The story is vivid, dramatic and quite erotic (without X-rated detail). Most of the chapters in the book detail the happenings at a given event. The opening night at Théâtre des Variétés. A midnight dinner party at Nana’s home. A day at the races, when a filly named Nana owned by one of her admirers miraculously wins the race despite early odds against it. An engagement party for the daughter of Nana’s chief “sugar daddy,” who is about to go bankrupt.  The crowd scenes–masses of fashionable people gossiping, chattering, flirting—are especially noteworthy. The first half of the book is a little slow but the second half is full of energy and speeds to the denouement.

You could say that Nana prefigures the celebrity culture of the 21st century. The book is about wealth, sex and society and shows us how the fashionable set lived in Paris in the last few years of the Second Empire. The book was a huge success when it was published in 1879.

Nana on screen

Does Nana sound like a movie? It’s been made into movies four times. I started to watch the one that was available online (streaming on Netflix) and decided I’d rather finish the book. It is the 1982 Italian version (everyone speaks English) directed by Dan Wolman. This Nana is very racy (lots of female nudity) and very loosely based on the novel. I would like to see the 1926 version by Jean Renoir; I’m looking for a DVD.

Also by Zola

Zola, a prolific writer, wrote another book that’s related to the Impressionism/fashion exhibit. Titled Au Bonheur des Dames or The Ladies’ Paradise, it’s set in the world of a department store, an innovation of the 19th century as detailed in some of the Impressionism/fashion displays. The store is modeled after Le Bon Marché (still in business today and owned by LVMH Luxury Group) and details the operations of the department store. Retailing is a part of my business background and so these stories fascinate me. I’ve written about my retailing life in this article about Mr. Selfridge, the PBS series that has a strong Chicago connection. Season two will be showing in 2014.

And one more reading suggestion

Julia Gray, a Chicago writer, has written an excellent article on the strange copyright issues connected to the photography of Vivian Maier, whose work has become famous since her death in 2009. Check out the article at Gapers Block. Gray’s article also describes how Maier’s film, negatives and other photographic possessions were bought in rental storage locker auctions, mainly by three people who have profited from her work in various ways.

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