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Publisher's Summary

Nana Coupeau is a beautiful woman, able to attract men of enormous wealth with the crook of her finger. Part-time prostitute, part-time actress, she makes her debut in a mediocre operetta The Blonde Venus at the bustling Paris World’s Fair of 1867. She can’t sing, act, or dance, yet she is stunning. Nana soon rockets through elite Parisian society, and, blinded by desire, men crawl to her feet, yielding to her every demand. Affections are manipulated, hearts are broken; fortunes are gutted and inheritances squandered. The poverty and violence of Nana’s upbringing have led her to a cold and profligate life - a metaphoric indictment of the excesses of France’s Second Empire, and a striking example of Zola’s naturalism. 

Translated by Alfred Ernest Vizetelly (updated)

Public Domain (P)2018 Naxos AudioBooks

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Beautiful and devastating

With this production of “Nana,” Naxos provides another excellent entry in its series of 19th century classics. I hope there are more Zola novels to come, especially with Leighton Pugh as narrator.

“Nana” is a tragic story, beautifully written. Zola has the curious ability to write about things he finds detestable - like drunkenness and prostitution - with great compassion and a brilliant eye for the telling detail. The characters are individuals, not just by virtue of external mannerisms and speech, but through a deep perception of their motives and failings.

Nana, although she takes great joy in life, has little awareness or concern for the effect she has on others. She is a prostitute with an almost hypnotic beauty. She tries to parlay this into a career as an actress, but though her physical form enchants Parisian audiences, her acting and singing are somewhat lacking (to put it mildly). Though she spends most of the novel in the keeping of Count Muffat, she strings a number of other men along, leaving behind her a trail of suicidal and financially ruined former lovers.

Zola is never explicit about sex, but it leaves unmistakable traces in every chapter. For example, Nana needs 400 francs to pay a debt; she leaves for two hours; she returns with 400 francs in an envelope. There’s no question how she earned it. A visit to a dive turns out to be an introduction to same-sex relationships - again without ever saying so in quite so many words. The relentless focus on Nana’s beauty leads to the devastating final paragraphs of the novel.

“Nana” can be a tough listen for someone (like me) who doesn’t have the hang of French pronunciation. Many chapters are crowded set-pieces with dozens of people, and I often found it hard to distinguish the names. My solution was to download the text of the novel - there are plenty available, both free and paid - and look up the names while listening to the first few chapters until I became familiar with them.

Zola is a compelling novelist, although it must be said there’s little humor in his dire view of Parisian society. I loved it and hope to listen to it again soon.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful