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.
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.
Thank you to Horvallis for providing these images via the French Literature group.
I was reading Emile Zola’s The Kill (La Cureé) alternately with Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes, so I was struck by de Waal’s description of the Paris inhabited by Zola’s Aristide Saccard during his years of prosperity. The Kill is the third book in the Rougon-Macquart novel series in which Zola portrays the corrupt France of Napoleon III. (The “kill” is not a murder, but the piece of the fox awarded to the hounds after a successful hunt.) For a detailed description of the events in the novel, see Lisa Hill’s plot summary.
When Aristide Rougon leaves Plassans (Aix-en-Provence) for Paris after Louis Napoleon’s coup of 1851 he is poor and must continue to live a frugal existence on his clerk’s salary. An advantageous second marriage gives him the capital to speculate successfully in the real estate of Paris. The city is being transformed by the plans of Baron Haussmann, who creates boulevards and parks, including the Parc Monceau, next to which Saccard builds his mansion.
Parc Monceau, painted by Gustave Caillebotte
During the Second Empire, the [d’Orleans] family sold lots within the park to real estate developers, who built luxurious town houses, reducing the size of the park by half. The remaining part of the park was purchased by the city of Paris in 1860. All that remained of the original folly was the water lily pond, the stream and the fantasy “tombs,” including the Egyptian pyramid.
In 1860 the park was purchased by the city, and in August 1861 Parc Monceau became the first new public park in Paris to be remade by Baron Haussmann as part of the grand transformation of Paris begun by Emperor Louis Napoleon. Two main alleys were laid out from east to west and north to south, meeting in the center of the park, and the alleys within the park were widened and paved, so carriages could drive the park. An ornamental grill 8.3 meters high was installed along a newly created avenue, Boulevard Malesherbes, Curving paths were laid out around the park for strolling.
The house Saccard builds dramatizes the opulence he has achieved. After a rather precise explanation of its structure, Zola goes on to describe the decorations.
The display of decoration was profuse. The house was hidden under its sculpture. Around the windows and along the cornices ran volutes of flowers and branches; there were balconies shaped like baskets full of blossoms, and supported by tall naked women with wide hips and jutting breasts; and here and there were fanciful escutcheons, clusters of fruit, roses, every flower it is possible for stone or marble to represent. The higher one looked, the more the building bust into blossom. Around the roof ran a balustrade on which urns, at regular intervals, stood blazing with flames of stone; and there, between the bull’s eye windows of the attics, which opened on to an incredible mass of fruit and foliage, mantled the crowning portions of this amazing spectacle, the pediments of the turrets, in the midst of which the naked women reappeared, playing the apples, adopting poses amidst sheaves of rushes.
So. Fruit and flowers and naked women, but none of them real – just stone representations without any softness at all.
Zola used as his model for the mansion he calls a “fireworks display” the Hotel Menier, which still stands today in its favored position by the park. After finding the beautiful Hotel Ephrussi, the home of the Parisian branch of his family, Edmund de Waal visits the nearly Hotel Menier.
But nothing compares to the mansion built by the chocolate magnate Émile-Justin Menier. It was a building so splendidly excessive, so eclectic in its garnished decorations, glimpsed above its high walls, that Zola’s description of it as ‘an opulent bastard of every style’ still seems about right. In his dark novel of 1872, La curée, Saccard – a rapacious Jewish property magnate – lives here on the rue de Monceau. You feel this street as the family move in: it is a street of Jews, a street full of people on display in their lavish golden houses. Monceau is slang in Paris for nouveau riche, newly arrived.
That’s an interesting error, calling Saccard a rapacious Jewish property magnate. Rapacious yes, Jewish no. Saccard was a Rougon and nowhere does Zola hint that any of them were Jewish. If, as de Waal suggests, some wealthy Jews were sharp-dealing scoundrels, it does not follow that Saccard was Jew. Many 19th century authors would at least hint at the probability. In Zola’s Money. this same Saccard must deal with the Jewish banker Gunderman. Saccard’s feelings about Gunderman may be those of the character or his author; we cannot be sure. We can be sure, however, to find casual anti-semitic jibes in well-regarded authors right up to the time of World War II.
“Time, we are told, brings round its revenges, and the books burned by the common hangman in one age come to be honoured in the next.” Henry Vizetelly
]Zola’s magnificent 20-volume Rougon-Macquart series examines the history of two branches of a family founded by matriarch Adelaide Fouques–the last of the line of a wealthy landowning family whose “name died out a few years before the Revolution.” First Adelaide shocks her neighbours in the rural town of Plassans by marrying a peasant named Rougon. Their son, Pierre begins the Rougon line, but when, after the death of her husband, Adelaide shacks up with a drunken poacher, she later produces two illegitimate children: Antoine and Ursule Macquart. The Rougons claw their way up into French society while the Macquarts remain the poorer side of the family. While there’s the occasional character with just a tinge of derangement, mostly these are a motley bunch: “a pack of unbridled, insatiate appetites amidst a blaze of gold and blood” which include scoundrels, adulterers, drunks, swindlers, a religious maniac turned arsonist and of course, one of the most infamous prostitutes of her time: Nana. If you’ve read the novels–the complete series or just a few of the more famous titles, then you know exactly what I’m talking about. Zola’s intent was to trace the hereditary influences of alcoholism and insanity through the two branches of the family set against the backdrop of the Second Empire of Napoleon III (1852-1870) in the years from the coup d’etat (1851) which overthrew the Republic to the aftermath of the Franco Prussian war of 1870-71.
Henry Vizetelly’s publishing house released translated versions of Zola’s novels and met a witchhunt led by The National Vigilant Association--a group of people I know I couldn’t stand just from the name of this whacko group. Henry Vizetelly was dragged into court, convicted twice of “obscene libel,” and went to prison for 3 months. Henry’s son Ernest reworked the translations and these are considered “bowdlerized.” Given the subject matter of Zola’s novels, it only makes sense that the more salacious bits disappeared thanks to censorship. Many of the Rougon-Macquart novels have been freshly translated but oddly Money was not until 2014 by Oxford World Classics and Valerie Minogue. This is the first new translation in over a hundred years and the first unabridged translation in English. Unbelievable really. And here’s a quote from Ernest Vizetelly which appears in the Translator’s Note in the new version of Money. How fitting that a new translation should give credit where it’s due: to the Vizetellys for having the courage to try and defy small-minded petty hypocrisy and censorship. The characters in Zola’s novels are flawed human beings, but who among us cannot recognize human nature here? The message, according to the censors, is people may act like this, but let’s not read about it…
Nobody can regret these changes more than I do myself, but before reviewers proceed to censure me… If they desire to have verbatim translations of M. Zola’s works, let them help to establish literary freedom. (Ernest Vizetelly)
So let’s see what those 19th century prudes didn’t want us to read:
‘Terrible things happened yesterday,” the Princess went on, “a crime, in fact, that nothing can repair.”
And in her ice-cold manner she related an awful happening. For the last three days, Victor had got himself placed in the infirmary, claiming to have unbearable pains in his head. The doctor had certainly suspected that this might be merely the pretence of an idler, but the child really had suffered from frequent attacks of neuralgia. Now that afternoon, Alice de Beauvilliers was at the Foundation without her mother; she had gone to help the sister on duty with the quarterly inventory of the medicine cupboard. This cupboard was in the room that separated the two dormitories, the girls’ dormitory from the boys’, in which, at that time, Victor was the only occupant; and the sister, who had gone out for a few minutes, had been very surprised on her return not to find Alice; indeed, after waiting a few minutes, she had started to look for her. Her astonishment had increased on observing that the door of the boys’ dormitory had been locked on the inside. What could be happening? She had had to go right round by the corridor, and had stood gaping in terror at the spectacle that presented itself: the young girl lay half-strangled, a towel tied over her face to stifle her screams, her skirts pulled up roughly, displaying the pitiful nakedness of an anaemic virgin, raped and defiled with appalling brutality. On the floor lay an empty purse. Victor had disappeared. The scene could be reconstructed: Alice, perhaps answering a call, going in to give a cup of milk to that fifteen-year-old boy, already as hairy as a man, and then the monster’s sudden hunger for that frail flesh, that overlong neck, and the leap of the nightshirted male, the girl, suffocating, thrown on to the bed like a rag, raped and robbed, and then a hasty pulling on of clothes, and flight. But so many points remained obscure, so many baffling and insoluble questions! How was it no one heard anything, no sound of a struggle, no cry? How could such frightful things have happened so quickly, in barely ten minutes? and above all, how had Victor been able to escape, to vanish, as it were, leaving no trace?
Now the Vizetelly version:
“A terrible thing happened yesterday,” continued the Princess–” a crime which nothing can repair.”
And thereupon, in her frigid way, she began to relate a frightful story. There days previously, it seemed, Victor had obtained admission into the infirmary by complaining of insupportable headaches. The doctor of the Institute had suspected this to be the feigned illness of an idler, but in point of fact the lad was prey to frequent neuralgic attacks. Now on the afternoon in question it appeared that Alice de Beauvilliers had come to the Institute without her mother, in order to help the sister on duty with the quarterly inventory of the medicine closet. Victor happened to be alone in the adjoining infirmary, and the sister, having been obliged to absent herself for a short time, was amazed on her return to find Alice missing. She had begun to search for her, and at last, to her horror and amazement, had found her lying in the infirmary most severely injured–in fact more dead than alive. Beside her, significantly enough lay her empty purse. She had been attacked by Victor, and, brief as had been the sister’s absence, the young miscreant had already contrived to flee. The astonishing part of the affair was that no sound of struggle, no cry for help, had been heard by anyone. In less than ten minutes the crime had been planned and perpetrated, and its author had taken to flight. How could Victor have thus managed to escape, vanish, as it were, without leaving any trace behind him?
The first translated passage (from Oxford World’s Classics: Valerie Minogue) makes it perfectly clear that Alice de Beauvilliers has been brutally raped. Here’s the revolting image of hairy Victor against ” the pitiful nakedness of an anaemic virgin, raped and defiled with appalling brutality. Defective Victor, Saccard’s bastard son feels a “sudden hunger for that frail flesh, that overlong neck, and the leap of the nightshirted male, the girl, suffocating, thrown on to the bed like a rag, raped and robbed, and then a hasty pulling on of clothes.” She’s even gagged to muffle her screams. This is an important incident in the novel for Saccard raped Victor’s mother in a violent coupling on the stairs, so the repetition of rape across two generations emphasizes Zola’s examination of hereditary behaviour. Plus then there’s the victim herself–Alice de Beauvilliers. Alice and her mother, impoverished aristocrats, the last of an “ancient race,” have invested all they own with Saccard with the goal that they will finally be able to secure a dowry for Alice. The great irony here is that Saccard is ruined; there will be no dowry; there will be no marriage; and instead of a wedding, Alice is violently raped by Victor who seems to have inherited all of his father’s animal appetites but without inheriting his brain and social skills. Alice’s rape will scar the poor woman for life; if there was any hope of a bridegroom before, now those hopes are dashed forever,. So much for the de Beauvilliers line or …. will Alice bear a bastard child?
The Vizetelly translation makes it sound as though Alice were pushed over during the course of a mugging and that Victor stole the contents of her purse and not her virginity–which sad to say, isn’t much coveted by the males of her class, but after all Alice and her mother have been dreaming of the “long-awaited” bridegroom, scrimping and saving twenty thousand francs for Alice’s dowry–even as Alice ages and her prospects wither. But this goal of a bridegroom for Alice, no matter, how slim the possibility, has kept Alice and her mother directed in sustained hope. Saccard comes along and scoops up their nestegg along with the proceeds from the sale of Les Aublets. Alice de Beauvilliers and her mother are but another couple of victims of Saccard’s speculations, but the rape of Alice, while vile, violent and guaranteed to shatter the poor timid girl is also symbolic. There is no bridegroom; there never will be any bridegroom and Alice, the last of a long line of aristocrats will die unmarried, utterly ruined and without hope. Saccard loots them of their money and their hope, and his bastard son, Victor delivers the coup de grace, and through the rape, robs them of their pride. Not that their pride could ever feed them, but at least it give the two women some sort of purpose in life. Saccard’s sins come home to roost, but who pays the price? And after all this is typically what happens with this family; they’re simply bad news.
The true meaning of this significant incident is lost in the censored Vizetelly version. Once again–no Vizetelly bashing here, but which version would you rather read?
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
Publisher: Oxford World Classics, 2014
Source: Review copy courtesy of Oxford University Press
Regular readers of my blog know that it took me a few years to read my way through Zola’s phenomenal 20-volume Rougon-Macquart cycle. To anyone out there even remotely interested in Zola or 19th century French literature, I urge you to read these novels–some of them became the best novels I’ve ever read.
One of the issues I encountered when reading the novels of the Rougon-Macquart cycle was an issue of translation. While the better known novels had been recently translated, the lesser known novels had not. That left readers with the Vizetelly ”bowdlerized” translations, and I’m not going to launch into Vizetelly bashing as the Vizetelly family attempted to bring Zola to the British reading public and were subsequently dragged into court on obscenity charges; they paid dearly for their efforts, and Henry Vizetelly was even sent to prison for his ‘crime.’ So when I approached the RM cycle I read new translations when they were available and Vizetelly when they were not.
I was, then, delighted to hear that Money was finally receiving a new translation, thanks to Oxford University Press and Valerie Minogue. This is the first new translation in over a hundred years, and the first unabridged translation in English. I’m not going to spend a great deal of time on the plot, but for those who haven’t read this fantastic, prescient novel here’s a little background: Money is the 18th novel in the cycle, and its main character is a financial speculator, Saccard. Saccard was also in The Kill, and in The Kill (the second novel in the series)Saccard was a married man and on his way to a meteoric rise in Parisian society. In Money, Saccard is widowed, and the novel opens with him a bankrupt, more or less a pariah, thanks to his wild speculations. In the book’s opening scenes, he has arranged to meet someone to discuss his future. Saccard, ever the optimist at all the wrong moments, expects his brother, a powerful political figure, Eugène Rougon (the main character in the sixth novel in the series, His Excellency, Eugène Rougon) to bail him out of his current situation. Rougon, who knows that Saccard is a dangerous loose cannon, will help, but only if Saccard agrees to go abroad. That’s the deal. Saccard refuses the offer and remains in Paris; he can’t leave the Paris Stock Exchange, the Bourse. These initial scenes show Saccard’s relationship to the Bourse. He has an overwhelming obsession–addiction to making money through speculation, and he also desires to show other men of means that he will make a come-back. Here is a translation comparison for any potential readers out there:
For a moment he stood quivering on the edge of the footway. It was that active hour when all the life of Paris seems to flow into that central square between the Rue Montmartre and the Rue Richelieu, those two teeming arteries that carry the crowd along. From the four crossways at the four corners of the Place, streams of vehicles poured in uninterruptedly, whisking across the pavement amid an eddying mob of foot passengers. The two rows of cabs at the stand, beside the railings, were continually breaking and reforming; while along the Rue Vivienne the Victorias of the remisiers stretched away in a compact line, above which towered the drivers, reins in hand and ready to whip up at the first signal. The steps and peristyle of the Bourse were quite black with swarming frock-coats; and from among the coulissiers, already installed under the clock and hard at work, there rose the clamour of bull and bear, the flood-tide roar of speculation dominating all the rumbling hubbub of the city. Passers-by turned their heads, curious and fearful as to what might be going on there–all those mysterious financial operations which few French brains can penetrate, all that sudden ruin and fortune brought about–how, none could understand–amid gesticulation and savage cries. And Saccard, standing on the kerb of the footway, deafened by the distant voices, elbowed by the jostling crowd, dreamed once more of becoming the Gold King, the sovereign of that fever-infested district, in the centre of which the Bourse, from one till three o’clock, beats as it were some like some enormous heart. (Vizetelly)
Now the new Valerie Minogue translation:
For a moment he stood tremulously on the edge of the pavement. It was the busy time when all the life of Paris seems to pour into this central square between the Rue Montmartre and the Rue Richelieu, the two congested arteries carrying the crowds. From each of the four junctions at the four corners of the square flowed a constant, uninterrupted stream of vehicles, waving their way along the road through the bustling mass of pedestrians. The two lines of cabs at the cab-stand along the railings kept breaking up and the re-forming; whilst on the Rue Vivienne the dealers’ victorias stretched out in a close-packed line, with the coachmen on top, reins in hand, ready to whip the horses forward at the first command. The steps and the peristyle of the Bourse were overrun with swarming black overcoats; and from the kerb market, already set up and at work beneath the clock, came the clamour of buying and selling, the tidal surge of speculation, rising above the noisy rumble of the city. Passers-by turned their heads, impelled by both desire and fear of what was going on there, in that mysterious world of financial dealings into which the French brains but rarely penetrate, a world of ruin and bankruptcy and sudden inexplicable fortunes, in the midst of all that barbaric shouting and gesticulation. And Saccard, on the edge of the stream, deafened by the distant voices and elbowed by the jostling bustle of the crowd, was dreaming once more of the royalty of Gold in this home of every feverish passion, with the Bourse at its centre, beating, from one o’clock until three, like an enormous heart.
Money is abstract, but that does not make it less powerful. Hold a dollar bill in your hand. Now imagine setting a match to it. It doesn’t feel like an easy thing to do. Now, continue to hold that dollar bill in one hand and hold a $20 bill in the other. Both are pieces of paper of identical size and construction. One would burn as easily as the other, but they don’t feel the same at all. You can try this with a $100 bill also, but by now you I am sure you have the idea.
Emila Zola’s novel about speculation in the Paris stock exchange in the 1860s is L’Argent, Money. As in his other novels in the Rougon-Macquart series, Zola provides a host of characters and subplots, but the center is money and what it means. For some money is power.
Oh! Let us understand each other; he doesn’t love money like a miser, for the sake of having a huge pile of it and hiding it in his cellar. No; if he wishes to make it gush forth on every side, if he draws it from no matter what sources, it is to see it flow around him in torrents; it is for the sake of all the enjoyments he derives from it – luxury, pleasure, power.
The man who makes the money gush forth, Saccard, wins over Lady Caroline, his severest critic. Power and luxury do not impress her, but she longs for what money can be the means to accomplish.
She had cursed money, and now she fell in awe-stricken admiration before it; for was not money the sole force that can level a mountain, fill up an arm of the sea – briefly, render the earth inhabitable by men, who, once relieved of labour, would become but the conductors of machines. From this force, which was the root of all evil, there also sprang everything that was good.
Another voice is heard in the novel. It is heard faintly, but it is there. The idealistic brother of one of the petty speculators is a devout Marxist. He lives for the day when the concentration of capital will bring the demise of capitalism itself. He explains it to Saccard.
I have followed your enterprise with passionate interest; yes, from this quiet out-of-the-way room I have studied its development day by day, and I know it as well as you do, and I say that you are giving us a famous lesson; for the collectivist State will only have to do what you are doing, expropriate you in bulk when you have expropriated the smaller capitalists in detail. And in this wise… to absorb all the capital in the world, to become the one bank, the one general warehouse of public wealth.
Saccard makes the money gush forth both for himself and, temporarily, for others. They love him for it. He loves them too when the money flows, but feels no pity when the crash comes. Madame Caroline is now undeceived and she does have pity.
What frightful silent tragedies were here! – the whole throng of petty capitalists, petty shareholders, who have invested all their saving in the same securities, the retired door-porters, the pale old maids living with their cats, the provincial pensioners who had regulated their lives with maniacal rigidity, the country priests stripped by almsgiving – all those humble beings who budgets consist of a few sous…. And suddenly nothing was left, the threads of life were severed, swept away….
Bernard Madoff and the banksters are not new creations. Zola knew them well in the Paris of Napoleon III. The cautionary nature of the tale is not that there are always scoundrels who will manipulate if they can. It is rather that we ourselves join in the bubble they create because we too want money.