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B+ : stylish fun (though, yes, not entirely unproblematic ...)
See our review for fuller assessment.
The complete review's Review:
[Note: this review is based on the French original, and the translations are mine; I did not have access to a copy of Victoria Reiter's English translation.]Nana begins with Serge Gorodish arriving by train in a provincial French city of some 12,300 souls. Among the first things he encounters, already at the train station, is a striking pale-skinned blond thirteen-year-old girl named Alba; he sees her only in passing, but she makes quite the impression.
A talented pianist, two other passions eventually displaced that for music when Gorodish was in his early twenties: (far too) young girls and drawing. For a while he had a studio and was well-known among collectors for his erotic pictures, but the threat of proceedings against him for the corruption of minors forced him to close it; fearful of the consequences of indulging in his desire for young flesh, he sublimated it entirely through drawing. Eventually, he went to work for a newspaper and for a couple of years was their caricaturist, but he never liked working for others. Now he is determined to 'find his way', and this was the time and place he wanted to do it.
Soon after arriving in town, Gorodish struck up a friendship with the editor in chief of the regional newspaper -- and immediately started pumping him for information (and gossip) about the locals that mattered, the secrets of this placid (so it seems ...) town. Eventually he compiles some eighty-odd dossiers -- and sends them anonymously to the movers and shakers of the town, pitting them against each other. He wants to rile things up -- and does so, very effectively. (In Gorodish bringing ruination to town, the novel obviously means to echo Flaubert's Nana -- even as neither Gorodish's nor then Alba's arcs follow those of Flaubert's heroine (they fare much better).)
Others are riling things up as well: the local motor-bike gang, a bunch of vicious hooligans calling themselves the Vampires, don't like the look of the new guy in town, and try to get him in trouble by framing him -- first for torching some cars in the middle of the night, then for a small-time bank robbery. They don't just have Gorodish in their sights, and pick on others as well, but he becomes their prime antagonist. But he's also the one that sees to it that they only get a slap on the wrist -- fifteen days jail -- for the bank robbery they tried to pin on him; of course, that's only because they figure in his grander scheme as well .....
Alba and Gorodish are aware of each other during those first few months he spends in town, but there's no closer personal contact between the two for quite a while. Alba is an enterprising and independent youngster, not too thrilled about her home life with a father who drinks too much, various siblings, and an absent mother. She's an adept shoplifter -- and when she pays for a purchase, it's with stolen money. She's also not averse to some blackmail, dosing a church picnic with LSD and then capturing the lively resulting scenes with her instant camera.
Alba's interest in photography -- and the ... acquisition of a better camera -- are also what finally bring her and Gorodish together: she captures the Vampires' attempt to frame Gorodish on film, and gives him the exonerating evidence. Observant Alba reveals that she's had her eye on Gorodish since she first saw him when he arrived at the train station, and declares: 'I am in love with you because I know that everything that's happened since you came to town, it's all your doing'. She recognizes him as a master of subtle manipulation -- and she wants in: she's looking for a mentor, and escape from this dreary town. She has grand ambitions -- she's not interested in petty shoplifting, she wants to steal: 'cars, buses, trains, planes, ships, big things' -- and she knows Gorodish can teach her (starting with how to drive for one, and throw a knife for another). She puts on a small display of her light-fingered talents, and while the smitten Gorodish hardly needs convincing, everything she shows him just makes him more certain that he wants this girl in his life.
Alba can't just run away with Gorodish -- but then she doesn't have to. He has set several plans in motion, and one sees him getting a reputation as a generous supporter of rising young talents. It doesn't take much for him to convince Alba's father that the smart young girl could flourish if he takes her under his wing -- though it's the thousand-francs-a-month stipend he's willing to pay the father that presumably is what does the trick.
As for Gorodish's other plans, they culminate with his (and Alba's) departure: not only does he get the girl, but he also manages a decent-sized coup which will certainly see them comfortably through for a while. He is conveniently also able to turn the tables on those who would have made him a fall-guy -- much more professionally and remuneratively, too.
The story flits along rather quickly, Delacorta presenting entertaining scenes of Gorodish and Alba -- mostly separately, and then finally some together --, as well as some featuring other townsfolks. The excesses veer towards the silly -- the LSD-infused picnic; a circus lion (released by Alba, and then convinced by Gorodish to return to its cage) that rips apart three bystanders (something rating only a casual mention); a gymnastic sex-scene during a high-speed motorcycle ride (described in full but still hard-to-believe detail) -- but Delacorta keeps everything light enough that it all somehow fits in the easy flow of the story. There is some ugliness -- the Vampires, in particular, are unpleasant punks, beginning with the initiation-procedure into the gang, while Gorodish also proves to be more than just a gentleman-thief in staging his final coup -- but in barely wallowing it, Delacorta doesn't drag his story down too much; the shades of black flicker throughout, but Gorodish and Alba's comfortable confidence outshine it.
Delacorta doesn't go into too great depth with much of the story: things happen, rather than get over-explained, and so, for example, the havoc Gorodish unleashes when he sends out all his revealing dossiers is only shown in bits and pieces (though the local P.I., who had almost given up on his practice after barely finding any interesting cases the first three months he was in town suddenly finds himself flooded with work -- though, again, Delacorta barely addresses how all that plays out).
Nana isn't quite a caper-novel. Gorodish's plans unfold almost casually -- though obviously there's lots of planning -- and everything proceeds remarkably smoothly; what hiccups there are are fairly light (and quite entertaining) bumps in the road. Delacorta is more concerned with style than substance -- to good effect: Nana is a smooth but spirited novel, and for all its darkness and borrowings from noirs, Delacorta's presentation remains determinedly vibrant and bright (in no small part because of Alba and Gorodish's cheerful confidence and determination).
Of course, there's also no getting around the problematic central relationship in the novel. Alba and Gorodish don't consummate their relationship -- indeed, there's little physical intimacy here -- but Delacorta loads their looks (from the first glimpse in the train station) and feelings with the deepest passion and lust: these two really want each other -- and given that the one is a thirteen-year-old girl, that certainly makes for an uncomfortable and highly charged tension throughout. Delacorta's blithe approach is meant to be provocative; beyond the set-up, Nana isn't really sensationalistic (for all its echoes of Lolita it doesn't actually go nearly as far, after all) -- but Delacorta's story is certainly twisted so as to make his readers squirm with discomfort (perhaps all the more so because the story is only nominally Platonic; sure, almost nothing that's really indecent happens -- but it still feels anything but okay). It doesn't really help that Delacorta makes (or allows) Alba to be the more aggressive of the two: Gorodish is, for the most part (and not just with Alba), passive, biding his time. Meanwhile, it is Alba that first kisses him -- when he is unconscious -- and she is the one, at the very end, when they've made good their escape and are set to begin their lives together, that asks him whether or not he's had a vasectomy -- and, learning he hasn't, says he should: 'otherwise you risk getting me pregnant. That isn't really my dream'. (The more cautions -- and apparently restrained -- Gorodish responds: 'Let's not get ahead of ourselves' -- and indeed they seem to agree that they have a lot of other things to get to beside or before sex; they begin with a music lesson .....)
[The follow-up to this novel, the second in the series, was Diva, and the success of the film-version presumably contributed to the spread and success of the book-series (Nana was only published in English after Diva), but the Alba-Gorodish relationship seems to have limited its continued appeal; the series seems largely out of print (in various languages). Meanwhile, the German translation -- beside, oddly, changing Alba's name to 'Nina' (except, in a poor piece of editing, in the first mention of her) -- ages her to (a maybe-it's-more-acceptable-?-the-editors-presumably-thought) sixteen, and makes a few small cuts in the text, including just how lustful Gorodish's first glimpse of Alba is, as well as the final exchange about vasectomies .....]
Nana is a solid little small-city thriller. It is stylish, above all, with two strong, confident protagonists and a fill of colorfully painted scenes and encounters. The shifting perspectives and focus in the string of short sections keep things constantly moving in this busy, far-flung novel, without it ever bogging down; despite the many threads of the story, the quick resolutions are entirely satisfactory. It is all fairly light -- not quite fluff, but with an effortless feel -- and is mostly good, harmless fun (despite some very bad things happening, as well as the discomfiting relationship between Alba and Gorodish).
Most readers likely will come to the novel via (the film) Diva, which does it no favors; other than in (some of) the style, Nana is something rather different -- and rather good at that (and better than its unfortunate reputation). A worthwhile, very French little thriller.
- M.A.Orthofer, 5 November 2018
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Delacorta is the pseudonym of Swiss author Daniel Odier, born in 1945.
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