Money is the eighteenth volume in Zola’s spectacular Rougon-Macquart cycle–a “natural and social history of a family during the Second Empire.” The series is winding down, and as it turns out, so is the Second Empire. Under examination in these volumes are various members of the Rougon-Macquart family which is split into two branches: the wealthier and supposedly more respectable branch, the Rougons and the lower-born Macquarts. The establishment of the family is discussed in the first volume The Fortunes of the Rougons, and then the subsequent volumes follow the lives of various family members while exposing the reappearance of family traits: the relentless quest for wealth, madness and alcoholism. The Rougon-Macquarts aren’t exactly a pleasant bunch, and that brings me to Money.
The main character of Money is Aristide Saccard. Saccard appears in the first volume of the series, The Fortunes of the Rougons, and he is also a main character in the second volume The Kill. Money is a sequel of sorts to The Kill, but these two novels were written almost 20 years apart from each other (The Kill was published in 1871 and Money was serialised in 1890). To place Saccard in the Rougon-Macquart family tree, his real name is Aristide Rougon; originally from Plassans, he’s the youngest son of Pierre & Felicite Rougon, and the brother of Eugene and Sidonie Rougon.
Money begins a few months after the death of Renee Saccard (The Kill). It’s Paris in 1864, and Saccard is now a bankrupt. The novel opens with Saccard loitering in the Bourse (stock exchange), noting that people can measure their success or failure by whether or not they are greeted, fawned upon or avoided like pariahs. At this point in Saccard’s life, he falls into the latter category. Saccard’s currency has plummeted since the boom years of Baron Haussman’s reconstruction of Paris, and “he realised the necessity of slipping into some new skin.” Saccard, who is nothing more than an embarrassment to his politician brother, Eugene Rougon, hopes that a little nepotism will guarantee a political career as he feels “discontented with speculation.” While Saccard daydreams of a position in the “upper circles of the Civil Service” Rougon intends using his influence to get rid of Saccard by shipping him off to be a governor in some remote colony.
Schemers like Saccard are naturally drawn to idealistic dreamers, and propinquity leads to a relationship with an impoverished brother and sister team, the engineer Hamelin and Madame Caroline. The three friends spend many evenings together concocting plans, and consequently ”the bond of intimacy between them was drawn tighter.” Saccard, sparked by the desire to one-up his brother, combined with his rabid anti-Semitism, conceives of a grand plan to create The Universal Bank. Hamelin and Madame Caroline fuel Saccard’s plans with their enthusiastic ideas to improve trade routes in Asia Minor. While Saccard wants to make millions, Hamelin is motivated by religious fervour–ultimately he plans to establish the pope in Palestine.
The first hurdle for Saccard is to get enough money to start his bank, and by sheer force of personality (and a few connections) he manages it. The bank stock is initially distributed at 500 francs a share, and then Saccard goes to work committing large-scale fraud. He buys up various newspapers which function to fuel excitement about the bank’s profits. Saccard also uses a number of agents to buy stock, thus falsely inflating its worth.
Of course, the fraud cannot continue forever, and when the bank shares inflate to more than 3000 francs, it becomes obvious that there is something wrong….
A large portion of Money is devoted to Saccard’s endless and tireless endeavours to build up the Universal Bank. Many of these scenes take place at the Bourse with various agents scrambling around for clients or forming alliances. As the share prices mount, the shareholders wonder if the success can be sustained, and Saccard becomes obsessed with continuing the madness–no matter the cost. Some stockholders panic, but Saccard’s assurances have a “tranquilizing” result on those who want to sell and make a profit while they can. Throughout it all, impoverished family members pin their meagre fortunes on Saccard who is seen as a messianic figure. In one great scene, Saccard compares his ventures to that of Napoleon and reveals his megalomania in the process:
“Not succeed, nonsense! Money was lacking , that was all. If Napoleon, on the day of Waterloo, had had another hundred thousand men to send to the butchery, he would have triumphed, and the face of the world would have been changed. And if I had had the necessary few millions to throw into the gulf, I should now be the master of the world.”
Money is a study in human nature, and as the story develops, Zola illustrates how money enters every aspect of life and just how far people will go to possess it. Women prostitute themselves for a sou or for a fortune, and relatives turn on each other, neglecting duty and obligation for the promise of profit. Sordid histories are revealed with money gained from nefarious circumstances and in other instances fortunes are drained through a range of human vices. As the insane euphoria continues and stockholders think that they are millionaires, many become consumed with greed and grandiosity. Madness reigns as dowries are imagined and advantageous marriages are planned.
The stock exchange, once handed over to the likes of Saccard, is little more than a gambling den, and it becomes clear that the only way to stop Saccard is to take away the dice. Here’s financier Gundermann when Saccard hits him for investment money:
“You are wrong to go into business again; I render you a real service in refusing to launch your syndicate; you will inevitably come to grief, it is mathematically certain, for you are much too enthusiastic, you have too much imagination; and besides, matters always end badly when one deals with other people’s money. Why doesn’t your brother find you a good post, eh? a prefecture, or else a financial receivership–no, not a receivership, that also is too dangerous. Beware, my good friend, beware.”
As it turns out, Gundermann has Saccard’s number–the man simply shouldn’t be allowed around money. To Saccard money is an addiction. Put a little money in his hands, set him loose, and he won’t stop scheming until he’s taken away in chains.
Since the issue of money is at the fore in the novel, it’s appropriate that debt collectors are included in the bazaar-like atmosphere surrounding the Bourse. The debt-collectors are integral to the plot–mainly because Victor, a hideously misshapen lad is under the care of debt-collector bottom-feeders La Mechain and Busch. Victor becomes valuable when it’s discovered that he’s Saccard’s bastard son. The creation of Victor also allows Zola to introduce his ideas of scientific determinism. Madame Caroline compares Victor to Saccard’s foppish son, Maxime:
“So much vile wretchedness, hunger, and filth on one hand, and on the other such exquisite refinement, abundance and beautiful life. Could money, then be education, health, intelligence? And if the same human mud remained beneath, if not all civilisation consist in the superiority of smelling nice and living well?”
Sigismond, the brother of bottom-feeder Busch is another minor, yet important idealistic character. Sigismond believes that a healthy society can only be formed with the abolition of money and the wage system. While Sigismond hopes to convert the world to Marxism, he’s diametrically opposed to Hamelin who hopes to convert everyone to religion through commerce. In spite of the fact that Sigismond sees money as a toxic, corrupting force, he’s also consumed with the subject of money and how it operates within the world. There’s one great scene in which Sigismond holds up a sou to Saccard and declares that the day is coming when money and its misused power will be no more. Saccard declares this is nonsense, but deeply unsettled by the prospect, he mutters “there would be nothing left.”
Another great character, Saccard’s son, Maxime must be mentioned. He appeared in The Kill, and here he is again. Now he is completely and sensibly estranged from his father Saccard, and he refuses to get involved with the bank. Maxime is hardly the book’s moral centre, and instead he’s a bored bystander. Here’s Maxime, a perfumed, cosseted dandy when he hears that he has a bastard brother:
“What, what! So I am not the only son! A frightful little brother falls on me from the sky, without so much as shouting ‘look out!’ ”
Once Maxime gets over the initial shock, he starts shining his nails with a “tortoiseshell polisher.”
Money is a splendid addition to the Rougon-Macquart cycle, and once again I am impressed with Zola’s ability to create vastly different worlds. This novel seems amazingly modern, but perhaps this is possibly due to the fact that Zola captures the unchanging face of human nature. Here’s my favourite passage:
“Madame Caroline raised her eyes. She had reached the Place de la Bourse, and saw the Temple of Money in front of her. The twilight was falling. Behind the building a ruddy cloud hung in the fog-laden wintry sky–a cloud like the smoke of a conflagration, charged with the flames and the dust of a stormed city. And against this cloud the Bourse stood out grey and gloomy in the melancholiness born of the catastrophe which, for a month past, had left it deserted, open to the four winds of heaven, like some market which famine had emptied. Once again had the inevitable, periodical epidemic come–the epidemic which sweeps through it every ten or fifteen years–the Black Fridays, as the speculators say, which strew the soil with ruins. Years are needed for confidence to be restored, for the great financial houses to be built up anew, and time goes slowly by until the passion for gambling, gradually reviving, flames up once more and repeats the adventure, when there comes another crisis, and the downfall of everything in a fresh disaster. This time, however, beyond the ruddy smoke on the horizon, in the distant parts of the city, it seemed as though one could hear a vague sound of splitting and rending, betokening the end of a world–the world of the Second Empire.”
My copy from Mondial books is translated by Vizetelly. Mondial Books (an independent book publisher in New York) has a number of Zola novels (and many other interesting titles) to their credit.