Nana, by Émile Zola, translated by Douglas Parmée

Nana Nana (1880) is one of Zola’s many masterpieces in the Rougon-Macquart cycle, no.17 in the recommended reading order.  It follows the spectacular career of the young girl who ran wild at the end of L’Assommoir (1877) (see my review) and was last seen beginning her life as a prostitute, entering high society in a grand carriage as her alcoholic mother dies pathetically in abject poverty.

In Nana she starts out as a showgirl of very little talent in a (fictional) opera called La blonde Vénus at the Théâtre des Variétés, but her beauty makes her the talk of the town.  From the moment she flaunts her gorgeous body on stage, the audience is agog, and the men who fancy her almost batter down the stage door to gain access to her dressing-room.  While she’s not a cunning woman, and she all too often acts against her own best interests, she soon realises that what she needs is a wealthy patron who can set her up in style, and she finds a helpful servant called Zoé to manage the queues so that they don’t bump into each other.


This ‘good-time-girl’ symbolising the moral corruption of the Second Empire destroys every man who comes her way, and most often their families too.  Her insatiable appetite for extravagance and her inability to manage money even when she’s got a lot of it, means that she expects to be paid lavishly for her charm, and she bankrupts one man after another.  Her first major victim is Steiner, who buys her a lovely house in the country and is thrown over as soon as he bankrupts himself with speculations on the stock exchange…

That idyll in the Loire also brings her into contact with young, naïve Georges Hugon.  He comes from a very respectable old family and his widowed mother is mortified by the sudden presence of Nana and her disreputable friends in her region, but Georges loses his innocence in no time, and so does his brother Philippe who was subsequently despatched to rescue him.  Both of these young men come to a terrible end, leaving Madame Hugon devastated.

Zola paints the indifference of society to the financial carnage with a mocking pen, but he does not spare his readers an insight into more catastrophic consequences.  Vandeuvres has a vast fortune from inheritance which he was busy wasting even before he met Nana.  But by the time Nana has finished with him, his only recourse to recover what he has lost is to gamble vast amounts at the racecourse.  The scandal that ensues after he gets involved in a betting scam sends him to despair, but society moves on.

And so does Nana.  Her most spectacular victim is Count Muffat, a pious and respectable man of old family who loses his head over her and ends up in ruin.  He’s a foolish man, but it’s hard not to feel a little pity for him when he realises that he’s spent his fortune buying Nana’s fidelity to him, but has never had it.  Her mansion in the heart of Paris is, with its red walls and suffocating heat is a holocaust consuming the honour of the whole of [his] ancient house, and in a superb irony, Muffat’s own wife duplicates the décor in his own home as she, too, descends into debauchery.  In a magnificent set scene at his daughter’s extravagant engagement party, Muffat is forced to shake the hand of his rival and Nana’s lover Fouchery to the strains of The Blonde Venus waltz.  Everyone there is aware of Nana’s presence although she is not there in person: she is responsible for the décor, for the music, for Muffat’s choice of future son-in-law and for his forced reconciliation with his wife.

Muffat, long tortured by the qualms of his Catholic conscience, finally recognises his degradation when he stumbles in on his own father-in-law in bed with Nana.  It is from this point on that Zola starts to chart the downfall of all of Nana’s men, and finally, of Nana herself, exhausted by her own inexhaustible folly and greed, and succumbing at the last, to the corruption of smallpox.  Her death is so horrible and so noxious that none but her old rival Rose will care for her; her men stand vigil outside her hotel window, but they are talking of politics, not of love.

It is a pathetic end for a girl who, in the Loire Valley, dreamed of achieving respectability like old Irma d’Anglars, a former Parisian prostitute who lives in a grand chateau bought by a former lover and has reinvented herself as a pious old lady.  Nana had been enchanted by country life, and was ecstatic that her small child could live with her there.  Alas, that idyll among the plants blooming in the rain was interrupted by the arrival of young Georges, and before long her men had followed her from Paris, bringing their sordid demands with them.

She tries family life too, in an impetuous marriage to Fontan.  She sells off her trinkets and abandons her creditors to try life in Montmartre but that soon sours too.  In a rare example of Zola’s writing making me feel very uneasy, there are disturbing scenes of domestic violence.  As you’d expect in this author’s realism, there have been examples of this in his other novels too, but this is the first in which he writes that the abuse makes her more attractive:

But after that evening, their life together grew increasingly stormy.  From one week’s end to the next, there was a constant sound of slaps, regulating their lives like the ticking of a clock.  Nana got so many thrashings that she became as soft as fine linen, her skin delicate, her complexion pure peaches-and-cream, so tender to the touch and so radiant that she looked even lovelier.  (p.231)

I can’t imagine what made him write that, I really can’t.

What is more authentic is that, like many victims of domestic violence, Nana blames herself, and goes to great lengths to please and placate a man who uses any excuse at fault-finding to beat her.   And as is so often the case, those who witness it do nothing – and even Madame Lerat’s advice to leave him is motivated by wanting Nana to return to earning money.  Her submissiveness is in marked contrast to her usual high-handed behaviour, and she ends up having to go back to street work because he won’t give her any money.  It is only when he throws her out, that she finally escapes from this situation*.

Unlike most of the characters in this novel, Nana is a complex character.  (Even Muffat is a bit of a parody).  In some ways she is incredibly naïve, and her hot temper leads her into all sorts of difficulties.  She wants to be well-off and respectable, but because she is so improvident, she throws her chances away, first with Steiner and then with Muffat.  She thrives on her celebrity status, exulting in the cheers of the crowd at the race course when they cheer the winning horse with her name.  She is scatter-brained, quixotic, and extravagant in manner as well as with money, and she takes a perverse pride in ruining her lovers.  But although there is a lesbian affair between her and young Satin, and although she often derides men, Nana often enjoys their company as friends and regards the sexual act as an act of friendship.  (Except for the marriage with Fontan), she is a woman who has agency over her own body and her own career but not in a way that Zola approves.  She is a symbol of French corruption under the Second Empire, and her characterisation has to serve that.

The settings of the novel allow for the juxtaposition of the ‘old’ Paris with the new, showing each time how the vulgar and the brash intrude into polite society.  In grand old houses, in the countryside, at the theatre and at the races, the men straddle both worlds, bringing moral decay with them.  Noticeably, there are no young people offering redemption, only the elderly helplessly deploring the situation.  Even Estelle, the plain young girl who is married off to Nana’s old lover Daguenet, is judged incapable of reforming him, she’s completely insignificant.  And as the novel ends with the declaration of war against Bismarck, even the saucy ladies who came to view Nana’s grotesque body are making plans to save what they can from the coming disaster.

As always with this series of Oxford World’s Classic, the artwork on the cover is an aptly chosen painting.  This one is a detail from ‘The Bath’ by Alfred George Stevens in the Musée d’Orsay, but the image has been reversed.

Author: Émile Zola
Title: Nana
Translated from the French by Douglas Parmée
Publisher: Oxford World’s Classics, 2009
ISBN: 9780199538690
Review copy courtesy of Oxford University Press.

(I also have the illustrated 1956 Folio edition of Nana, but I chose to read this edition because it has a good introduction and a more recent translation.  But the etchings by Vertes in the Folio edition are gorgeous!)

*If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit In an emergency, call 000. For more information about a service in your state or local area download the DAISY App in the App Store or Google Play.


Fishpond: Nana (Oxford World’s Classics)

Cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers


‘The Attack on the Mill and Other Stories’ by Émile Zola

Attack on the Mill and Other Stories

Attack on the Mill and Other Stories

Zola is famous for his novels, especially the excellent Rougon-Macquart series, so I was a little bit nervous approaching a book of his short stories. Would Zola continue to impress or would he falter in this format? In my experience novelists aren’t always good short story writers and vice versa; they seem to be quite separate skills. Well, the answer is that he did not fail, and this collection is, with a few exceptions, an impressive collection of stories that is as good as anything I’ve read by him so far. They are similar in style and quality to the best of Chekhov’s short stories.

The stories included in this volume range from a few early stories to one he wrote in 1899 during his exile in England but the bulk, and the best, of the stories were written between 1877 and 1880 for the Russian periodical Vestnik Evropy or European Messenger. More details of the stories can be found on this earlier post.

This ‘Oxford University Press’ (OUP) collection was published in 1984 and all the stories were translated by Douglas Parmeé. More recently it has been re-issued by ‘Oneworld’ as ‘Dead Men Tell No Tales and Other Stories’. In that book it mentions that the collection was first published in 1969 by OUP but no mention of this is made in my OUP version; the only copyright information is for 1984. There are loads of notes at the back which includes lots of information on each story such as original title, date of publication, subsequent publications, character details etc.

So I’d like to state that Douglas Parmeé’s translations here are perfect. Of course, not being able to compare them with the French I can’t make a direct comparison, but they read beautifully and the translator is unobtrusive which is all that the general reader requires. My only gripe with Parmeé is with the story titles; he states that ‘Zola’s titles are often rather unenlightening, and the translator has ventured, here and there, to provide English versions that may be found more stimulating.’ So Naïs Micoulin becomes A Flash in the Pan, La Mort d’Olivier Bécaillé becomes Dead Men Tell No Tales and so on. Why do this? Why does a story title have to describe what happens in the story? Presumably the translator wouldn’t do this throughout the text so why do it with the title? This sort of thing tends to annoy me but it is the only gripe I had with the book.

The stories are roughly in chronological order and so the first five are quite early ones; they’re quite playful and in a way, quite modern. In the four-page story, Death by Advertising, Zola describes a man who tries to live his life by trying every gadget and product that is advertised and to believe faithfully the claims that the advertisers make – it doesn’t end well! In Rentafoil we hear about Durandeau who has found a market for ugliness; he sets up an escort agency whereby women can rent an ugly companion so that they look beautiful in comparison. The last story in the collection, The Haunted House is a sort of anti-ghost story; it’s amusing but it’s a bit of a ‘throwaway’ story.

Although these are quite fun to read, it’s the rest of the stories that really impress. There’s quite a range as well; a range in styles and settings. For example in two of the stories, The Way People Die and Priests and Sinners, the stories are made up of small sketches. The Way People Die starts off describing the lavish funeral of the Comte de Verteuil, then the successive funerals of a judge, a shop-owner’s wife, the sickly child of a washerwoman and bricklayer, right down to the seventy year-old peasant Jean-Louis Lacour. In Priests and Sinners Zola goes the other way, from poor to rich; he starts off with a parish priest in a small village, who ‘looked like a peasant in his smock’, then we get Father Michelin, a confessor to several aristocratic ladies, right up to a soon-to-be cardinal busy writing theological articles.

The title story, The Attack on the Mill takes place during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, and the whole story takes place in and around Merlier’s mill and shows the effects of war on civilians. Running through the story is quite a typical nineteenth century love story, where Françoise is forced to decide whether her father or her lover lives. This story was Zola’s contribution to the Naturalist’s anti-war story collection, Les Soirées de Médan which also included Maupassant’s Boule de Suif.

Captain Burle tells the story of a womanising, gambling Charles Burle, who’s a regimental paymaster who can’t keep his hands off women and can’t stop stealing from the army to pay for his vices. His colleague, Laguitte, eventually gets tired of covering for him and decides to take action.

A Flash in the Pan takes place in Aix-en-Provence and a smaller seaside town. It centers on the love between the lazy son of a lawyer, Frédéric, and the daughter of one of their tenants, Naïs. The set-up seems quite uninspiring, but with Zola’s excellent characters and his descriptive skills he turns this into a wonderful story, with comedy, thwarted murder attempts and a cynical ending.

Dead Men Tell No Tales starts off with this sentence: ‘I died on a Saturday morning at six a.m., after an illness lasting three days.’ The narrator is assumed dead but he is still conscious. Ok, we’re into Poe territory here with a ‘live burial’, but it’s filtered through Zola’s brain. So, either he really dies in the coffin or he escapes and returns to his wife, right?

Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder starts off in the Paris Commune and concentrates on Jacques Damour, who gets involved in fighting and politics and ends up getting arrested and deported. He’s given up for dead back at home and his wife eventually re-marries. After several years he finds his way back to Paris and tries to see his wife. But what should he do? How will it end?

In my opinion, the best three stories are Coqueville on the Spree, Shellfish for Monsieur Chabre and Fair Exchange. When reading these stories the reader almost knows how it’s going to end right from the first page. The pleasure in reading them, therefore, centers on how Zola is going to get us to the end, rather than what is going to happen. In the introduction Parmeé makes this point: ‘it is not so much what is going to happen, as when and how is what we can expect to happen actually going to happen. Far less common is the question why something happens.’

Fair Exchange initially takes place in a small town and Zola introduces us to Ferdinand Sourdis, an amateur artist, and Adèle, the daughter of a shop-owner dealing in artist’s supplies. Adèle also paints. After the death of her father, Adèle and Ferdinand marry and move to Paris where Ferdinand has an initial success with one of his paintings. He enjoys his success but finds it increasingly difficult to produce more work; he relies on Adèle more and more as she organises his life and assists in his work.

Coqueville on the Spree is an unusual story by Zola in that it’s a lot of fun and there’s even a happy ending – there I’ve spoilt it for you! The story is basically simple: Coqueville is an isolated seaside village, and there are two rival clans, the Mahés and the Floches. They argue over everything. One day, following a storm, some barrels of liqueurs are found at sea. More and more barrels are found and the inhabitants stop fishing each day and instead ‘harvest’ the sea of its booze. They end up having a big booze-up on the beach which ultimately brings the rival clans together. Maybe they should try this in the Middle-East.

Finally, there’s Shellfish for Monsieur Chabre which is probably my favourite of the lot. Right from the character descriptions on the first page you can guess what’s going to happen. So it involves the forty-five year old M. Chabre who ‘had one great sorrow: he was childless’ and his beautiful twenty-two year old wife of four years, Estelle. The family doctor suggests that they should go on holiday to the sea and that M. Chabre should eat loads of shellfish. They meet up with the good-looking Hector who ends up joining them on some of their excursions. Both Hector and Estelle love swimming but Chabre can’t swim. So, anyway, Chabre eats loads of shellfish, Estelle and Hector go swimming and Estelle gives birth to a baby boy back in Paris. It’s the journey to the end of the story that’s brilliant, not the ending itself.

Short Story Collections


The Attack on the Mill and Other Stories is a collection of short stories by Émile Zola, published by Oxford University Press in 1984 and translated by Douglas Parmée.

Dead Men Tell No Tales and Other Stories was published by OneWorld Classics in 2009 and is a revised edition of the Oxford University Press publication. It has some additional material consisting of ten photographs and some biographical information at the end of the book.

The contents of both books are listed below with the English title, the original French title, the original publication it appeared in and the date of publication. Many of the stories were first published in the Russian periodical Vestnik Evropy or European Messenger.


  • The Girl Who Loves Me (Celle Qui M’aime, from Contes à Ninon, 1864)
  • Rentafoil (Les Repoussoirs, 1866 in Esquisses parisiennes)
  • Death by Advertising (Une Victime de la réclame, 1866 in L’Illustration)
  • Story of a Madman (Histoire d’un fou, June 1868 in L’Événement illustré)
  • Big Michu (Le grand Michu, March 1870 in La Cloche)
  • The Attack on the Mill, (L’attaque du Moulin, 1877, 1880 in Soirées de Médan)
  • Captain Burle, (Le Capitaine Burle, 1880 from Vestnik Evropy)
  • The Way People Die (Comment on meurt, Aug. 1876 from Vestnik Evropy)
  • Coqueville on the Spree, (La Fête à Coqueville, 1879 from Vestnik Evropy)
  • A Flash in the Pan, (Naïs Micoulin, 1877 from Vestnik Evropy, published in France in 1879)
  • Dead Men Tell No Tales (La Mort d’Olivier Bécaille, March 1879 from Vestnik Evropy)
  • Shellfish for Monsieur Chabre, (Les Coquillages de Monsieur Chabre, 1876 from Vestnik Evropy)
  • Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder, (Jacques Damour, Aug. 1880 from Vestnik Evropy)
  • Priests and Sinners (no original French title, 1877 from Vestnik Evropy)
  • Fair Exchange, (Madame Sourdis, 1880, from Vestnik Evropy, pub. in France 1900)
  • The Haunted House, (Angeline, pub. in London Star, 1899)