It is 1867, the year of the World Fair, when Paris, thronged by a cosmopolitan elite. was La Ville Lumiere, a perfect victim for Zola's scathing denunciation of hypocrisy and fin-de-siecle moral corruption.
Nana is a prostitute, a tart , a courtesan ,who as the novel opens is about to make her debut on the theatre stage or as the manager would have it called 'the knocking shop'. The word has spread and the audience gather and gossip with great anticipation about this latest talent . But Nana has no talent........" a voice like a corncrake and no idea how to move". What she does have is a beautiful body and she oozes sex appeal. When she appears virtually naked as Venus...........
.........every male present is reduced to a sweating, leering , lusting desire to own and possess her. It isn't pleasant but then , it's not meant to be. This first chapter sets the tone for the whole book........it's worth reading more than once for many characters are introduced and the confusion isn't helped by the French names.
Zola is writing about people en masse , crowd behaviour ,and he takes the reader to the places Nana and her part of society frequent. Having worked in journalism as a drama critic Zola knew the theatre world well and uses his knowledge in scenes not only on stage but during rehearsals, backstage and in dressing rooms.
There are dinner parties, drawing room gatherings, country weekends, the lesbian cafe, the boudoirs and the boulevards of Paris.....and big or small, always the crowd.
These are not particularly nice people, they're greedy , selfish and seemingly lacking in any real loving emotion, and their behaviour reflects that. It didn't take long before I began to wonder if I would last through reading 14 very long chapters of such awfulness but then Nana , in the first flush of her stage success, decides to hold a supper party for her friends and the lustful gentlemen. The result is so dreadful, so grotesque that the images it created in my mind suddenly became hilariously funny. I discovered the strange dark humour that is present amidst all the drama , sex and tragedy and really began to enjoy the reading experience.
Nana's greatest moment of glory comes at the Longchamp race-meeting where it seems the whole of Paris has gathered to watch the running of the Grand Prix.