Thursday, July 21, 2011

Chronicles of Nana

What is one to make of Pocket Books’ 1941 edition of Emile Zola’s Nana with its lurid cover of a torch singer in a transparent white dress? It’s back-cover blurb declared, “she squandered fortunes, ruined lives, with sublime contempt and abandon -- yet her disease-ridden days were spent in squalor and oblivion.” Is this art or trash?
   -- Paula Rabinowitz, Black & White & Noir : America’s Pulp Modernism, pp. 81-82.


Emile Zola’s classic novel Nana has been well served by the publishing industry [1]; even the most cursory glance at LibraryThing or Google Images reveals covers which likely number in the hundreds. Classic era vintage, modern, and all shadings in-between have gotten into the act, but for vintage pb buffs the sine qua non are the two, alas anonymous, ‘scandalous’ covers from the unlikely source of Pocket Books, which was usually conservative in its cover art. Both versions depict the title character in all her (more or less) unclothed glory, and it's debatable which one is actually the more risqué cover. The 1945 printing is particularly effective with all those voyeuristic, tuxedoed silhouettes in the darkened theater. A nice creepy touch.

Anyway, perhaps the folks at Pocket thought better of the racy treatment and reverted to form in the 1954 Pocket Cardinal reissue, which is pretty tame in comparison. Avon's take on Nana’s Mother is similarly bland [2], the décolletage-rich depiction of the title character notwithstanding. And speaking of restrained, there are a couple of James Avati sketches (later used for Bantam 2811) posted by the redoubtable Piet Schreuders. While technically proficient they fall far short of the Pocket covers in sizzle.

[1] A good sampling of Zola covers can be found here
[2] Avon returns to lurid form, however, with Piping Hot, a (spurious?) Nana-esque title from the Zola oeuvre

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