‘L’Argent’ Cover Images

L’Argent was first published in 1891 and has been translated as Money by Vizetelly and more recently by Valerie Minogue for Oxford University Press.

For images of other covers please look on the Images page.

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The Conquest of Plassans Translation Comparison by Guy Savage

The Conquest of Plassans, the fourth novel in Zola’s Rougon Macquart series examines the issue of the “priest in the house.” Retired merchant Francois Mouret rents the second floor of his home to Abbe Faujas and his elderly mother. Mouret’s wife, Marthe, isn’t initially too keen on the idea, but ironically while Mouret becomes more uncomfortable with the priest in the house, Marthe turns increasingly to religion and becomes a fanatic.

It’s quite clear that religion and the priest assume a sexual dimension in Marthe’s life. Here she is reacting to a lecture from the Abbe:

She felt a pleasure in his harshness. That iron hand which bent her, and which held her back upon the edge of the adoration in the depths of which she would like to annihilate herself, thrilled her with ever renewed desire. She remained a neophyte, making but little advance in her journey of love, being constantly pulled up, and vaguely divining some yet greater bliss beyond. The sense of deep restfulness which she had first experienced in the church, that forgetfulness of herself and the outside world, now changed, however into actual positive happiness. It was the happiness for which she had been longing since her girlhood, and which she was now at forty years of age, at last finding; a happiness which sufficed her, which absorbed her for all the past-away years, and made her egotistical, absorbed in the new sensations that she felt within her like sweet caresses.”

That translation was by Vizetelly, but here’s the new translation from Helen Constantine in the Oxford World’s Classic edition of The Conquest of Plassans:

“She was happy to receive these blows. The iron hand that ruled her, the hand which kept her on the brink of this continual adoration, in whose depths she wanted total annihilation, was whipping her with a desire that was constantly renewed. She was still a novice, she was descending into love one step at a time; she would be brought up short, guessing she might plunge deeper, ravished by this slow journey to other joys yet unknown. The great peace she had first experienced in the church, that forgetting of the outside world and of her own self, was transformed into an active pleasure, into a blessed state which she could bring about, which she could reach herself. It was the happiness she had vaguely desired from girlhood, and which she was now finding as a woman of forty. It was a happiness which satisfied her, which gave back all the beautiful years which had passed her by and made her live for herself alone, attentive as she was to all the new sensations that wakened her innermost being like caresses.”

The second translation uses far more sexual imagery, with words such as “plunge deeper,” “desire,” and “ravished.” The first translation makes the point that religion is a love-substitute for Marthe, but this could be agape in its nature–worshipful & chaste, and there’s the sense that Marthe, in some ways, doesn’t quite understand what she’s experiencing: “She remained a neophyte, making but little advance in her journey of love, being constantly pulled up, and vaguely divining some yet greater bliss beyond.”  The second translation, however, conveys the idea that religion is an orgasmic experience for Marthe, significantly, “one she can even reach herself.” This passage then shows that religion (and the Abbe) may fill a need for Marthe, a gap in her life, but that need is inherently sexual. Zola, tracing the poisonous hereditary through the Rougon-Macquart family focused on madness & alcoholism, but there’s also the pleasure-loving side of this family as seen through Nana, one of Paris’s most sought after prostitutes, and her earthy mother Gervaise, who finds herself in a ménage a trois with two men who share her body, her home and her labor. In Marthe, we see sexuality repressed and perverted; add madness to the recipe and it’s a recipe for disaster.

 

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.