On the Incandescent Transience of Emile Zola and The Microsoft Corporation


In the elevator today, we were asked by an acquaintance what book we were reading, and in response displayed Emile Zola’s Nana. Noting his blank expression, we elaborated: “It’s an old French novel.”

“Is it good?”

Not wanting to digress into our true reasons for reading the book — namely, to better understand the context out of which the great JK Huysmans arose — we answered truthfully that we had only reached page two — still too early to judge — at which point the elevator doors opened and the conversation was mercifully terminated. Still, as we reflected in the seconds afterward, we reconsidered the following facts, which we had just read in an introduction to our paperback edition: on February 15, 1880, when Nana was first published by Charpentier, a first edition of 55,000 copies sold out — an unprecedented number — following the largest publicity campaign ever mounted for a novel. According to Henry Ceard in a letter written to Zola at the time, “[Nana] is being repeated ad infinitum over all the walls of Paris. It is becoming an obsession and a nightmare.”

Having just lived through the publicity frenzy and commercial triumph of this week’s release of Halo 3 by Microsoft, we understand completely. Described in Friday’s Times as “the video-game phenomenon of the year,” with over $170 million in opening-day sales, Halo 3 made more money than any “blockbuster” movie ever has in a single weekend.

We don’t bring this up to belittle our interlocutor’s lack of familiarity with Zola, a fading titan of 19th-century French literature; in fact, our own opinion of Zola’s writing remains decidedly mixed (though we will never hesitate to express our unqualified admiration for his defense of The Truth in L’Affaire Dreyfus). Still, as we peered into the deep fog at the infinite future, we could not help but be consoled by the thought that every entity — whether living or not — will eventually be relegated to the trivial and unknown.


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