I've just finished Emile Zola's Nana. It is not really shocking now, but I certainly understand how shocking it would have been in 1880. The first thought I had was that Paris must have terrified respectable ladies everywhere in the 19th century. I immediately thought of Henry James's The Ambassadors and his depiction of Parisian excess. I believe that Henry James hated Emile Zola's naturalistic style. The pairing would have made for an excellent term paper, if I were an energetic English major.
Then I thought of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. Her drive to excess and social ruin was paralleled nicely by Nana's. Two ruined women, and the incessant, moralizing social commentary of two "stodgy old men." Hrmph. Of course this made me think of Virginia Woolf's Orlando. Cross-dressing and lesbianism. Juicy! Orlando in counterpoint to the other novels. Fodder for another paper!
I was amused by the accidental placement of Moll Flanders and Nana in order on my reading list. Nana is an utterly disagreeable character in the end, devoid of any real human emotion. In stark contrast to my favorable impression of Moll Flanders. Both novels carry the question of proto-feminism with them. Is resorting to prostitution the only way for women to exhibit any power at all in a patricharcial society? Is the power of women only vested in their youth and good looks? Is it wrong for a woman to use her sexuality when it is the only card she has to play? Are the male authors wrong for refusing to give women any other power at all? Are they justified in highlighting the folly of men (society) in this way? What does it say about women? In my mind, these two are better off than the silly heroines of the Romantic period that fell squarely between the two works.
I was impressed with Zola's writing. I'm sure the novel is exceedingly beautiful in French, if I could read just it. I am interested in details like the inner workings of a Paris theater. I was enthralled by the description of the horse races. I like this style of writing because I am not distracted by the details. I think I prefer it to Henry James. I do like that it is more complex than Defoe. Of course I believe we've come around to another period of "naturalism" with our reality TV driven world.