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Of the great nineteenth-century French novelists, Victor Hugo still enjoys a certain renown in America, thanks to the popularity of the musical version of Les Misérables, while Gustave Flaubert and Honoré de Balzac have grown dimmer with age, and Émile Zola gathers dust. Some thirty-six years ago Tom Wolfe tried to revive interest in Zola as an artist who, much like Wolfe himself, went out and about in the world and delivered a nuts-and-bolts report on its workings. But any excitement that Wolfe’s Zola stirred did not last long. The loss is ours. For Zola was far more than a veteran reporter who has seen everything; he used his diligently gathered knowledge and imaginative reach in the service of moral vitality. 

His novel Nana (1879) truly speaks to our own time and place, both directly and obliquely. Some have dismissed it as a work of pornography—writing about a prostitute. But the protagonist, Nana, is no common streetwalker—though she has pounded the pavement both when financial need was urgent and when indiscriminate sex was just good sport. An actress who can’t act, a singer who can’t sing, Nana shines nevertheless for her sexual magnetism, which makes her the sensation of the Parisian theatrical scene as the novel begins. 

At the Théâtre des Variétés, the operetta The Blonde Venus features Nana in the title role, and gives her the opportunity to parade her ravishing nude body before an audience overcome by the spectacle: 

This was Venus rising from the waves, with no veil save her tresses. . . . There was no applause. Nobody laughed any more. The men’s faces were tense and serious, their nostrils narrowed, their mouths prickly and parched. A wind seemed to have passed over the audience, a soft wind laden with hidden menace. All of a sudden, in the good-natured child the woman stood revealed, a disturbing woman with all the impulsive madness of her sex, opening the gates of the unknown world of desire. Nana was still smiling, but with the deadly smile of a man-eater.  “God!” was all that Fauchery said to La Faloise.

This exclamation comes equipped with gimcrack irony: To see Nana on display is the closest these men will ever come to the Beatific Vision. When the theater critic Fauchery tells Bordenave, the show’s producer, that his theater will be filled for the foreseeable future with tout Paris, the acerbic Bordenave is only half-joking as he corrects him: It is not a theater he is running, but a brothel. The business swings into high gear once the play is over. What really sells is not art but sex, and Nana makes herself available to those who can meet her price, though she considers them “filthy pigs.” 

Her price increases exponentially over the next few years, as she rises in the world, kept in the highest style first by a fat old German moneybags and then by a French count. Nana delights in destroying the men who cannot resist her, and treats her primary benefactors with contempt, while various lovers whom she keeps on the side kill themselves or land in prison. The entire realm of sexual pleasure is her preserve: She disports herself with another actress and whore, Satin, and takes to picking up lesbian traffic on the street. Elevation to sexual superstardom rewards her remarkable looks and abilities: The Goddess of Love and the Beast of the Apocalypse in one alluring package, she becomes the paragon of Parisian beauty, luxury, voluptuousness, and vice at its most irresistible. 

Zola describes Nana as “a force of nature,” though the source of ruin rather than of creation, “a ferment of destruction.” But Nature betrays her with an unwanted pregnancy. 

And she felt a perpetual sense of surprise, as if her sexual parts had been deranged; so they still made babies, even when you didn’t want them to, and you used them for other purposes? Nature infuriated her, with this intervention of solemn motherhood in her career of pleasure—this gift of life in the midst of all the deaths she was spreading around her. Why could one not dispose of one’s self as fancy directed? Shouldn’t you be able to do what you like with yourself without all this trouble?

A miscarriage spares her further inconvenience, but Zola’s point is clear—and so is the lesson for the likes of us. 

What Zola presented in 1879 as the singular and malignant self-love of a woman born to whoredom has become the accepted attitude among people who consider themselves perfectly decent and would be outraged to be called any different. Obdurate Nature is the great enemy of progressive sexuality, which is the sort in common practice today, and which is founded on the inalienable right to do what you like with yourself without any trouble. The respectability of pornography; the grab-it-and-go hook-up culture; the universal embrace, at least in principle, of what was once known as perversion; the cause célèbre that transsexuality has become: This is the new normal, here to stay. As the song says, people everywhere just want to be free. A woman I have known for a long time insists with heat that there will be no sexual equality until artificial wombs are readily available. A Wellesley and Harvard Business School graduate with five children, she has never gotten over the tyranny of motherhood that cost her the chance to become a Goldman Sachs partner like her husband. 

Seen from our enlightened vantage, Nana might well seem the original torchbearer of all the brave new freedoms. She is a show business star who merchandizes all her selling points, a defiant nemesis of the patriarchy who bends pliable men to her own purposes, a sexual adventuress comfortable with her bisexuality, a heroic representative of unlimited tolerance (she even sleeps with filthy pigs) to whom nothing human is alien. In the end, however, uncharitable Nature undoes her, as she dies of smallpox in a moralizing tableau. Zola's description is truly obscene. “What lay on the pillow was a charnel-house, a heap of pus and blood, a shovelful of putrid flesh. . . . Venus was decomposing. It was as if the poison she had picked up in the gutters, from the carcasses left there by the roadside, that ferment with which she had poisoned a whole people, had now risen to her face and rotted it.” Only her beautiful golden hair still shines like sunlight. The rest stinks. 

Algis Valiunas is a fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. 

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