Money by Zola

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.  

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33 Comments

Filed under Rougon-Macquart, Zola

33 responses to “Money by Zola

  1. leroyhunter

    Zola, a big gap in my reading, and one I feel keenly reading this review. Wow, so much going on. Have you read all 17 previous parts of the cycle, Guy? That’s some undertaking.

    Seems particularly timely given the various predicaments faced around the world now.

    I read an excellent account of the construction of the Panama Canal a few years back (Panama Fever) which, among other strands, recounted the financial madness and chicanery that accompanied De Lesseps’ disastrous initial construction attempt. Sounds very similar to some of the ground covered here; the events would have been exactly contemporary with the publication of the novel.

  2. That sounds just excellent. A shame I’ll have to read through seventeen others first to get to it..

    I should pick up the first and get started actually.

  3. Some readers say they shouldn’t be read chronologically but I disagree. Reading them this way mixes the really good titles with the dodgier ones.

    Zola makes the Bourse like some Tower of Babel designed for the worship of money. Of course, with all the fraud and stock manipulation it sounds quite familiar these days…

  4. Leroy: yes I started in 2007 after reading about the series. I’d heard of the individual titles, of course, and even read a few without realising that they were part of a master plan. It was one of those WTF moments.

    Then I knew I had to read the lot. The quality varies (now I sound like an advert).

    That’s interesting about the time frame of the Panama Canal as Hamelin’s obsession is the trade routes into the Middle East (although the Suez Canal is mentioned along the way). It must be all part of the 19th empire building.

  5. leroyhunter

    You mean your investment in Zola went down, as well as up? Them’s the risks…

    Silly question, but if you had to choose one would you go for Zola or Balzac?

  6. You know I ask myself the Balzac/Zola question all the time. Some days I think Zola, Zola and others it’s Balzac.

    I come across many things in life that could have come right out of a Balzac novel.

    I think Balzac would be more fun to know…

  7. leroyhunter

    That’s a nice way to put it. I have the impression that Zola is more didactic, and I was much more interested in Balzac…at least till this review.

  8. … 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.

    This reminded me of the passage in Flaubert’s Sentimental Education when he describes the sound of gunfire in the streets as being like a huge piece of silk in the sky being ripped violently in two. That too, was the end of an era.

    I enjoyed this book too, and I loved the way Maxime is shown to have grown up.

    In this age of Enron, Madoff, and sub-prime disaster, Money and The Way We Live Now should be required reading!
    I posted on it twice:

    http://iamyouasheisme.wordpress.com/?s=%22inexpert+translation%22

  9. Zola does seem to have very serious intentions. That sounds odd even as I write it, but the way he laid out plans for the cycle, for example. He knew just what he was doing, planned it out all in advance and kept it to 20 novels. I haven’t read a bio, but I get the sense that he knew he was engaged in a very important project.

    Balzac, on the other hand, was all over the place. The idea for La Humaine Comedie came later when some of the novels were already written, and he then superimposed the idea over the works already written. His grand plan was not completed when he died.

    Zola’s plan was much more reasonable, much more specific, and then again he did have Balazc’s life and work to learn from. As a result, the writing seems much more purposeful and directed–except when he overdoes that scientific determinism. Therese Raquin is a prime example (not in the Rougon-Macquart cycle).

    The main thing that impresses me is how Zola can switch gears. La Terre was amazing in its creation of the lives of the peasants, and it shows how Zola can seem to slip into the skin of these alternate worlds. L’Assommoir was another incredibly powerful novel for its depiction of the life of Gervaise. I could go on and on….

    Humanity is there, evident, and great sorrow at the circumstances some of these characters cannot escape from–poverty, drunkenness, endless back-breaking labour, and then Zola creates Pot Luck which skewers the morals of the bourgeoisie. Again I am overwhelmed with this author’s talent.

    Balzac concentrates on character in a “wherever you go, there you are way.” In Cousin Bette, for example, one of my all-time favs, the poor cousin of a rich family brings about their destruction even though they feed and clothe her. Or there are the nasty selfish daughters in Pere Goriot.

    Much (not all) of Zola seems to concentrate on what society does to people (or allows to be done) whereas in Balzac , it’s what people do to each other.

    There are times when, quite literally, I miss Balzac, and then I know it’s time to go and pick up a novel.

  10. Lichanos: YES!
    Money is relevant to today’s disasters, and that’s one of the points Zola makes–that people never learn.

    Great connection to The Way We Live Now. I hadn’t thought of that.

    I’ll add another novel to the money connection, Thackeray’s The Great Hoggarty Diamond. Highly recommended if you haven’t read it. Thackeray gets in on the idea of how people become very silly when there’s the possibility of an inheritance or a fortune to be made.

  11. Great connection to The Way We Live Now…

    The NYTimes ran an article a year or two ago about literature of financial disaster, or something like that. In the Business section, I think. David Mamet recommended the Trollope, whom I’d been meaning to investigate for some time…years..

  12. Based on the little I know of your tastes, I would guess that you’d really enjoy Trollope. I’m thinking of working my way through his 5 Barsetshire novels when I complete the Rougon-Macquart. I’ve read a few but certainly not everything.

    Keep Thackeray’s The Great Hoggarty Diamond in mind too. There are a couple of frauds going on in that novel.

  13. Every time I visit your blog I feel humbled by your ability to churn through these massive 19th century novels. I know they are really good but somehow my ambition to read more of them is never realised. I’ve read all the Barsetshire novels though! Yours is one of the few blogs I come back to and read seriously.

  14. The 19th century has always been my favourite period for literature. I got an e-mail this morning with a post from your blog, and the post looked interesting. Went to look and it wasn’t there, so I plan on visiting later today.

    I will be posting about a modern novel this weekend if all goes as planned.

  15. The 19th century has always been my favourite…

    Well, it is THE century for the novel, wouldn’t you say?

    BTW, a very interesting take on the history of the novel is this book:

  16. You and I may think so, but I don’t know everyone else agrees.

    I had a friend who refused to read anything 20th C and beyond.

    • Well, but just on a sociological level, quite apart from literary evaluation, wouldn’t everyone agree that the 19th century is THE century for the novel? I mean, the novel isn’t nearly important in culture relative to other things in the 2oth century, is it? Gads, it has to compete with film and TV to begin with.

      Actually, that’s what I meant. I sometimes dip into the 20th, and even like it. I suspect my fondness for pre 20th century writing, and I don’t limit myself to the 19th century, has a lot to do with escapism of a sort.

  17. I think that the 19th C is when the novel ‘form’ reached perfection.

    I watched Up In The Air last night and in one scene, the character played by Clooney texts his amorata. Not even a phone call, and somehow it diminished the relationship as I think it was meant to. That’s along the same lines I think–the shrinkage in importance of some things books, relationships…

  18. leroyhunter

    Guy, Lichanos – it strikes me that there was much broader agreement about what the ‘form’ of the novel was in the 19th century. Within the boundaries of that agreement, the giant names we now associate with “the 19th C novel” were able to work towards the perfect expression of their stories and themes.

    I think a lot of the experimentation with form that marks 20th century novels can be as compelling but it can of course also be a dead end and alienating for readers. And it goes without saying that there are still people writing good novels in the more classic 19th C mould today (or in the recent past).

    I browsed Zola the other day for the first time in oh 16 years or so…I nearly bought The Beast Within (back cover made it sound like a roman dur!) but held off until I understand better how his sequence works.

  19. Good point Leroy: the experimental stuff. Well some work and some don’t as you say. I dislike Faulkner.

    I think in the 19th, no tv, no ipods, no internet, well it was all about entertainment. Writers were often paid by the word and the novels serialised.

    My review of La Bete Humaine is here somewhere as it’s earlier on in the cycle. I only have two more to go. La Bete Humaine was one of the novels I read (happily) with no idea that it was connected to anything else.

    Wikipedia has a good article on the series if you type in rougon-macquart. There wasn’t much up a few years back but now there are some great family trees along with a lot more info.

  20. leroyhunter

    Very interesting stuff on Wikipedia Guy. I’m drawn in to the idea of the cycle…

    The article lists some recent English translations, not including the first book, but a quick search reveals an edition from The Echo Library. I suppose I should start at the beginning.

    I also want to get to Powell’s Dance cycle some time, and I have Proust to finish….you never stop climbing.

  21. leroyhunter

    Briefly, on Faulker: I read Light in August when I was quite young and it put me right off him. I relented last year and read As I Lay Dying and I have to say I thought it was an incredible book. I picked up The Sound & The Fury on the back of that experience.

  22. Leroy: re the translations…A few newer translations have come out since I started reading.

    The Vizetellys translated Zola into English and got themselves hauled into court for the privilege. (Private libraries had translations, but the Vizetellys translated for public consumption). Consequently they were forced to edit the editions and in some cases this is still the only English version of a few of the novels. These are mainly the weaker novels, although His Excellency was one of those (at that time, perhaps there’s a new version now), and I really enjoyed that novel a great deal.

    In The Earth, one of the characters is called Jesus Christ, and according to the censors this HAD TO GO along with many other things, so some of the Vizetellys are more censored than others. I read a recent translation of the Earth (it’s reviewed here) and loved it. It remains one of my favourites from the series. If you read it, you’ll see that the censors must have had a red letter day with that one, so it’s imperative NOT to read the Vizetelly version. My version was translated by Douglas Parmee and I thought it was wonderful. Brian Nelson also translated some of the series too.

    Mondial books also releases all the Vizetelly translations. The publisher is devoted to Zola and other European writers so when I had to buy a Vizetelly version, I stuck with them.

    I will be writing a post on the entire series when I am done. The first book is not the best and it’s a bit of a warm up exercise really, loads of characters and you’ve no idea where it’s going.

    I don’t know who’s been working on the Wiki page, but it’s really great to see it. I ended up drawing my own family tree of the Rougon-Macquarts years ago to avoid confusion. At the time Wiki had very little info up there. Good to see there are fellow devotees.

    RE: the cycle. There are good and not so good novels in the mix. I’m glad I read them in the order they were written as I think it mixed up the quality a bit.

  23. My intro to Faulkner was through a university course. It was such an aversive experience, I have never returned.

    Max (Pechorin’s Journal) once said that it was wonderful (paraphrasing here) that there were so many books to read as he’d hate to ever run out. I think that’s a good way of looking at it as I tend to stress about whether or not I’m going to read everything on the planet.

  24. In The Earth, one of the characters is called Jesus Christ, and according to the censors this HAD TO GO along with many other things, so some of the Vizetellys are more censored than others.

    Interesting stuff there! I always felt that a lot of those older translations were too tame, so I avoid them when possible. I wonder what they did with La Curee, or did they not attempt it?

  25. Nana, Piping Hot, and La Terre were originally deemed obscene (even though they were expurgated) in a first trial in 1888.

    Yes La Curee (The Rush for the Spoil) did come under fire along with other novels in the series in a second case (1889) against Vizetelly (and a handful of novels by other writers). This trial ended in a prison sentence for Vizetelly.

    All very silly as the novels were available in French. So it wasn’t a crime to own them or read them in French, but it was a crime to publish them in English. Can’t have the plebs being corrupted, can we?

    Reminds me of the infamous comment made by the prosecutor during the obscenity trial against Lady Chatterley’s Lover: is this the sort of book you’d “wish your wife or servants to read?”

  26. Lichanos: I should add that Vizetelly (son) decided to cut out the Jesus Christ thing as he thought it would offend readers.

  27. (From my review of La Terre) Ernest Vizetelly, while proofreading The Earth prior to its publication in English was “struck by the boldness of Zola’s story,” and he removed all references to the nickname, Jesus Christ–along with any mention of this character’s amazing ability to fart almost on demand. Vizetelly labels this “an infirmity.” The Vizetellys were under tremendous pressure and scrutiny, so they can’t be blamed for censoring the novel. It’s just a shame as to take out the nickname Jesus Christ is to miss the entire point.

  28. leroyhunter

    Great information Guy, many thanks. My brief research led me to Mondial as well. Look forward to your eventual thoughts on the series…

  29. Leroy:
    I wanted to read the series for myself, of course, but I also hoped that in the process of writing the reviews, I might interest a couple of people in reading it too.

    The first 18 are up here already, and I think I’m going to start Debacle in July/August.

    Another reason for the posts is to help me remember some of the salient details–for example, I’d already forgotten exactly how Jesus Christ was altered by Vizetelly before the book was even published. I thought the name was a victim of censorship, and it was…in a way… Preemptive censorship on the part of the Vizetellys. In the long run it didn’t help. Off to the slammer.

    That family suffered for Art.

  30. It’s just a shame as to take out the nickname Jesus Christ…

    I couldn’t believe it when I read it. Outrageous, like something from a 60′s film! A comic summary of all the anti-clerical and religiously apathetic views of the peasants.

  31. La Terre is one of my favourites. Have you read Pot Luck?

  32. Pingback: Zola’s take on stock exchanges | Book Around The Corner

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