Last night, my sweet baby boy drifted off to sleep in my arms as I read him the dramatic conclusion of a book called Nana. Reading with one’s children is one of the most important things a parent can do for at least one million very serious and highly scientifical (yes, scientifical) reasons: language learning, imagination, discovery, cognitive development, together time, instilling a lifelong appreciation for literature and culture, as everyone likely to be reading this blog has probably heard many times before…
Nana, contrary to what the name seems to imply, is not a heartwarming story about a beloved grandmother. It is the eponymous nineteenth-century novel by Emile Zola about the rise and fall of a high class Parisian hooker. You are now harrumphing indignantly and judging me for my terrible and shocking choice of reading material for an 18-month old child who is still brimming with innocence, or at least was.
“That book doesn’t even have any pictures! Why would you read it to a baby?” you might be thinking.
But trust me, it would be worse if there were pictures, much worse. Nana spends a great deal of time admiring her voluptuous naked body in the mirror (not that this is wrong in and of itself), abusing rich men and ruining their families and fortunes, wasting and/or destroying everything she can get her hands on, treating her young sickly son horribly, and being a stunningly beautiful, but nonetheless repugnant narcissist in general. If one were to print an illustrated edition of this charming story, it would include images of Nana performing nearly naked in her theatrical debut as the Blonde Venus, her raunchy romps in the sac with a few of her many suitors as others wait in the next room, a portrait of the austere but sexually frustrated Count Muffat as she pushes him to the breaking point in his desire to possess her, and sprinkled in between, a few mournful shots of her miserable tubercular toddler being paraded around occasionally and then forgotten. Nana is, most shockingly of all, in my eyes at least, one of the worst mothers EVER. She didn’t have a fairy tale childhood herself and she is a product of her society, but still. I’m not a big fan of mom shaming or mom guilt…we are all doing our best most of the time. But whatever twinges I might feel in spite of myself from time to time, nothing I could do or not do would ever come close to her egocentric cruelty.
Before you scoff and wonder what I am doing reading such a book to my child and simultaneously complaining about the rotten mother depicted in its pages, wait! There is an uplifting and edifying moral to redeem this story of decadent debauchery. Obviously, Nana cannot sustain her wild rampage of unbridled sexuality with impunity forever – society would crumble! (Spoiler alert!) She is duly punished in the end by a slow and excruciating death from a nasty, and I mean nasty, case of smallpox, which she picks up visiting her ailing son, who also dies from the disease. Everyone lives happily ever after! Except for the fact that Nana dies as the French army marches off to war…
Seriously though, did I mention I’m working on building a syllabus for this fall? And that I’m a dix-huitièmiste (18th century specialist)? In other words, I am out of my century here and desperately trying to squeeze in as much prep work as I can to avoid a pedagogical disaster. Reading the book before I try to teach it is kind of important, however I can make it happen. And I’m getting there. Little by little. And I bet not many toddlers can boast having read Zola (in the original French)!
What is the most scandalous thing you have done as a parent trying to balance different priorities?