Money (L’Argent), by Emile Zola, translated by Valerie Minogue

Money I was justifiably excited by this new translation of Emile Zola’s novel Money: there are scenes that were excised completely from the prudently self-censored Vizetelly translation which make the characterisation more complex and much more interesting…

Money (L’Argent) was first published in 1891, the eighteenth of Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle, but fourth in the recommended reading order because it follows logically on from The Kill (La Curée) published almost twenty years before in 1871-2. It follows the extraordinary career of Aristide Saccard, the youngest son of Pierre and Félicité Rougon, a financial wheeler-and-dealer to rival any of the rogues who engineered the recent Global Financial Crisis or the financial scandals of the 1980s. But this is no simplistic morality tale excoriating the greed of financiers: Saccard is a much more complicated character in Money than he was in The Kill, and speculation with money for all its drawbacks is shown to be essential to the growth and development of nations.

Most interesting of all in this novel is the characterisation of Caroline Hamelin, and this is the character to whom Vizetelly’s prunings do a disservice, because in Minogue’s translation Caroline’s knowledge of Saccard’s flaws is complete. It’s not just that he has drawn countless innocent vulnerable people into his web of shady dealings, it’s also that he is sexually depraved (by 19th century Parisian standards, that is) and yet she still finds it hard to condemn him. The man has a magnetism that is irresistible even to the woman who is the moral compass of the novel. She knows about his lack of restraint, and is compromised by it.

One thing I do like in the Vizetelly version in The Complete Works of Emile Zola on my Kindle is the illustrations. There is a beaut B&W drawing of the Bourse, the Parisian stock exchange in 1867, showing the room packed with investors shoulder to shoulder and the brokers frantically responding to the calls to buy or sell. There’s also a plan of the Bourse drawn by Zola as part of his research and a raunchy publicity poster for the novel. On the other hand, there aren’t any pictures in this new Oxford World Classics edition, but there is a very useful introduction by the translator, who is Emeritus Professor of French at the University of Wales and President of the London Emile Zola Society. (BTW I was very pleased to see the warning that there were spoilers in this introduction. That gives the reader the choice to risk them or not). It is the illustrations in the Vizetelly version, however, which convey the excitement of this novel much better.

It is an exciting novel. I wasn’t expecting that, after all, banking and finance has to be one of the most boring aspects of our everyday lives if you’re an ordinary person for whom banking means electronic payment of salary, payment of bills, a mortgage, a credit card and the occasional miserly payment of some interest. But Saccard is an inveterate salesman and when we find him bankrupt and outcast at the beginning of the novel, we can’t help but be lured in by his grand ambitions. He seizes on and fascinates us with the vision of Georges Hamelin to mount a new crusade in the Middle East, a crusade to restore Christianity to its birthplace with majestic transportation systems of roads, rail and steamships. For Georges, the vision is religious – he wants to develop the ‘wasted’ lands of the Middle East so that the Pope (under siege in the Papal States from the unification of Italy under Victor Emmanuel) can move to Jerusalem. Saccard thinks this is absurd, but he is captivated by the idea of French capital developing ‘idle’ land and bringing ‘civilisation’ to the inhabitants. He loves to see money moving around, doing something, and achieving great things…

With nothing more than his powers of persuasion, his few remaining contacts and his ability to do a shady deal when he needs to, Saccard sets up his new bank, the Universal. Along the way he captures the imagination of Paris, attracting investors large and small. By the time of the Universal Exhibition in 1867 when all the world flocked to Paris, Saccard’s bank has moved to lavish new premises and the share price has reached astronomical proportions. The reader knows it is doomed to fail, and as the novel moves towards its climax there are portents which illuminate the lives of those destined to be ruined. There is pathos and schadenfreude in equal measure in Money, and of course there are also those who profit, those who lose but don’t pay their debts, and those who get off scot-free without any apparent sense of guilt as well.

As the rain fell in torrents on Saccard at the beginning of the novel when he was broke and friendless, it falls too in cascades as the denouement at the stock exchange looms. Zola writes this compelling chapter with all the verve of a battle, because that’s what it is, a battle between the bear market and the bull market, with Saccard fighting for financial survival against compelling odds. Among the crowd are the strategists and tacticians, prophets of doom and barrackers, loyal supporters and betrayers, and the tension is maintained as the share price goes up and down. Saccard’s composure almost never falters, and when it does, it is not because of his own fortunes – it is because he sees in the crowd the faces of the humble investors who trusted his word and are depending on him now.

It is this Saccard who challenges the image of the decadent greedy speculator that was dominant in The Kill. This Saccard gives his expertise to help underprivileged children in Princess Orviedo’s foundling homes and hospitals – even though he thinks she’s mad to be deliberately divesting herself of a fortune ill-gotten in speculation by her now dead husband. This Saccard confronts the rapacious Busch to force him to cancel an egregious debt against the hapless author Jordan; this Saccard weeps when he realises the enormity of the wrong he has done to his natural son and the terrible consequences of that. It is this combination of good intentions, wild reckless ambition and addiction to making money grow no matter the risk to others, that troubles Caroline – because she finds herself unable to resist him. Intelligent, sensible, prudent and scrupulously honest, she feels herself complicit in his shady dealings because she can see the benefits too. Zola shows us that it is indeed Saccard’s bank that has realised Georges’ dream of a thriving transport industry in the Middle East, and the beginnings of development such as the Carmel Silver Mine. (Today of course, we interpret this development differently, as part of European colonisation and exploitation, with few benefits filtering through to the locals. But that’s not how anybody looked at it in the 19th century, not even the people in the Middle East who agreed to let them to do it.)

One aspect of this novel will bother modern readers, quite a bit. Saccard’s rival for pre-eminence is the Jewish banker Gundermann, and there are anti-Semitic references to him in some of Saccard’s tirades. This is countered a little by Caroline’s mild remonstrance that Jews are no different to anybody else and of course Zola is famous for risking his career in his defence of the Jewish officer Dreyfus, but still, anti-Semitism is always uncomfortable reading.

The translation is generally very good. I detected a couple of glitches which might have been picked up by an assiduous editor: a tautologous died ingloriously in Rome without any glory (p. 341) and an incongruous ticked all the right boxes p. 102) but these are easy enough to rectify in future editions. Overall the text is fluid and reads as if it were not translation at all. Helpful notes at the back of the book explain references which might otherwise elude readers unfamiliar with events in European history, but as I’ve said above, this translation is the first unabridged edition for more than a century and that is why any reader of Zola in English will be delighted by it.

Perhaps as you find yourself chuckling over the adventures of the Baroness with Sabatini, you too will be tempted to read some parts of Money in both versions to see what else is missing. For as I know from reading The Censor’s Library by Nicole Moore, it wasn’t just salacious material that was censored, though that is bad enough as you can see if you read the Vizetelly version and try to make sense of Victor’s crime. Zola’s compassionate understanding of the impact on the victim is missing too and I am quite sure that if I look it up I’ll find that his rather endearing concern for other exploited women will be obscured or omitted altogether as well.

Next up in my Zola project is The Dream (La Rêve) but alas there is no modern translation of that one. If only my French were good enough to read it in the original! I’m working on it, I’ve translated a short story by Zola but it would take me forever to read a whole novel in French and I’d probably misunderstand parts of it anyway. I’m hoping that there are other translations of the remaining novels on the way!

Author: Emile Zola
Title: Money
Publisher: Oxford World Classics, 2014
ISBN: 9780199608379
Source: Review copy courtesy of Oxford University Press

Cross-posted at Lisa Hill’s blog as part of the Zola Project at ANZ LitLovers.

20 comments on “Money (L’Argent), by Emile Zola, translated by Valerie Minogue

  1. […] Cross-posted at the collaborative blog, The Books of Emile Zola […]


  2. SilverSeason says:

    Thank you for your review and for your comments on the translation. I no longer have my copy of the book and am not sure of the translator, but I found it fascinating. It had a lot of impact after the Madoff scandal here. Zola shows how the financial bubble required Saccard to begin it, but also all the investors and speculators who joined in and who believed in it because they wanted to.


    • Lisa Hill says:

      As far as I know, Nancy, the Vizetelly is the only one, and based on the parts that fell prey to his self-censorship my guess is that no one else was brave enough to tackle it until these more liberal times. I’ve taken copious notes so that I can write a summary and will be more forthcoming about the missing bits in that because I didn’t want to reveal spoilers in what is meant to be a review. But that will have to wait till the school holidays before I get round to it. Too many corrections this weekend!


      • SilverSeason says:

        Even in a limited translation the book is powerful and I liked it a lot, better than La Curee.

        In our book group we debated whether Caroline did or did not have an affair with Saccard. Someone even brought the French and we puzzled it out. I concluded that she did. It was symbolic I think of how she yielded her judgment to the seductions of money.


        • Lisa Hill says:

          Ah ha! Well, that’s interesting, it had not occurred to me that Vizetelly obscured *that*. In Minogue’s edition there is no mystery about it at all. The first time is an impulse born of proximity and Caroline’s emotional state after the unfortunate timing of her husband’s death, and Zola explores with considerable perspicacity her embarrassment about that. The way he gets inside her head later when she had been betrayed by Saccard’s liaison with the Baroness is extraordinary and I am so tempted to drop what I’m now reading and dig out the Vizetelly to see how he handled her ‘dark night of the soul’ without her ruminations about women investing the act of love with significance it doesn’t have. How Vizetelly must have laboured to deal with the passages where she dismisses his visits to brothels because those women don’t matter but the Baroness does!


  3. Jonathan says:

    Thanks for the review Lisa. I really enjoyed Money and couldn’t understand why it had been ignored, i.e. even more than the other ones in the series. The tale is certainly relevant to our present economic crisis and Zola handled it just as you’d expect him to – with brutal honesty, loads of detail and a gripping story. When I read it there was only the Vizetelly version which seemed a bit flat but quite readable, so it’s useful to see both your and Guy’s comments on the new translation. I’d be interested to see more of the differences in the translations.

    As for The Dream: there are two translations from 2005; one was translated by Michael Glencross and published by Peter Owen (978-0720612530); the other one was translated by Andrew Brown and published by Hesperus Press and republished recently by Alma Classics (978-1847493118). I read the Hesperus version. There was nothing in the book to ‘excite’ the censor so the old version should be ok – Graham King says (of the old translation) that it is ‘spoiled for the modern reader by the impossibly stiff prose.’


  4. Lisa Hill says:

    Thanks Jonathan, I have found a copy of the Andrew Brown translation and it is making its way across the skies as I write, I hope!


  5. […] Jew. Many 19th century authors would at least hint at the probability, however, including Zola in Money. In that novel, this same Saccard must deal with the Jewish banker Gunderman. Saccard’s feelings […]


  6. […] Jew. Many 19th century authors would at least hint at the probability, however, including Zola in Money. In that novel, this same Saccard must deal with the Jewish banker Gunderman. Saccard’s feelings […]


  7. lisiate says:

    I loved this one.

    Saccard’s scheme seems oddly familiar. The breathtakingly grandiose business plan, the massive increase in stock price based on rumours and innuendo, vague and opaque financial data, insiders creaming off money all the way up, only for the greater fools at the end to be left holding the can after a couple of seemingly minor revelations reveal the sham for what it is. It’s as though Zola wrote a how-to guide for all the shady stock scams to follow. Hell, half the NASDAQ companies seem to operate the same way even today..

    What raised this above being merely a very good tale of market manipulation (a genre which I’m quite fond of) were all the little side notes – Saccard’s involvement with the charity, Caroline’s affair with Saccard, the financial war with Gunderman, all the little sidegames amongst the characters of the Bourse, the vultures circling, the long lost (and monstrous child). So many little touches really add to the book, like the clerks on the Bourse front-running their own clients to get every last sou profit they could. I could go on and on.

    Once again I read the Viztelly who added a really interesting Preface, about the tjhen current Liberator Building Society scandal in the UK (look up Jabez Balfour for yet-another-Saccardesque figure). Viztelly also does a good job of showing that Saccard’s antisemitism is not shared by the author. Sadly I think many contemporary readers would be put off by this, which is a crying shame as otherwise I think this is an excellent read all round.


    • Lisa Hill says:

      Hello, and thank you for sharing your thoughts about this: it’s one of my favourites too.
      I am interested to see your comment about Vizetelly’s introduction. I’ve only ever read his translations as eBook freebies which haven’t included the preface. I’ll have to check it out:)


  8. lisiate says:

    Hi Lisa,

    It’s Conrad here, somehow I managed to screw up my WordPress account and posted under a different name.

    I’ve found the introductions are often quite interesting, and provide good context for many of the novels. The omnibus edition on my phone has them all in, but they are chock full of spoilers for the first time reader.

    I”m about half way through The Debacle now, am getting close to having to find another big reading project to start.


  9. Lisa Hill says:

    *chuckle* I didn’t realise it was you, Conrad!
    A new Big Reading Project?! Mine is to read Finnegans Wake but you need to be a masochist to join me with that one (and you have to have read Ulysses first too). Have you thought about Maupassant? We have a sister site to this one called Marvellous Maupassant, and so far Jonathan has reviewed some of the novels and a good few of his countless short stories (see I am currently working hard on my French so that I can try reading some of the short stories in the original. (I read one of Zola’s in French and felt very proud of myself but it was a lot of work because my French tenses are not so good).


    • Conrad says:

      I’ve read (and enjoyed) a few Maupassant short stories. I may be a bit Frenched out after finishing Rougon Macquart though. I’m not a fan of Joyce, I tried Ulysses a long time ago and my abiding memory is that I didn’t enjoy it much at all.

      At the moment I’m considering Solzhenitsyn’s Red Wheel cycle (although the fourth hasn’t been translated into English as far as I know). I’m a bit of a fan of Russian history and literature, and I thought The First Circle is a great novel. And I’m endlessly fascinated by the First World War as well.

      The other candidate is Yukio Mishima’s Sea of Fertility series, which sounds interesting (and a lot shorter). Deeply weird author and an interesting setting too.


      • SilverSeason says:

        If you like Russian novels (I do), try Grossman’s Life and Fate. It is not a series, but it is long and contains multitudes.


        • Conrad says:

          I have, it is indeed incredible.I haven’t read anything else by him though. If he wrote anything half as good it’d be worth looking out for.


  10. Lisa Hill says:

    *gasp* Solzhenitsyn! I love Russian history and lit too, but while I thought Ivan Denisovich was interesting, Cancer Ward and The Gulag Archipelago were definitely a plod.


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