Money by Émile Zola.
I've been reading a lot of Zola this month - Money is the fourth since the end of July, and I think for me it's one of the hardest Zolas to get through. It's not that I didn't think it a good novel, but it was a struggle.
Money (L'Argent) was first published in 1891 and is the eighteenth of the Rougon Macquart series: only La Débâcle (1892), and Doctor Pascal (1893) follow, but though two books remain it does feel as though Zola is beginning to wrap the series up with the hints of the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) that signified fall of the Second Empire that Zola had studied in his Rougon Macquart novels (hints of the war to come are also found in La Bête Humaine, 1890). In it, we see the return of Aristide Saccard, a Rougon, and central to Zola's The Kill (1872). He is the brother of the government minister Eugène (His Excellency Eugène Rougon, 1876) and the doctor Pascal Rougon (Doctor Pascal, 1893), the son of Pierre and Félicité Rougon (The Fortune of the Rougons, 1871), and the grandson of the neurotic, obsessive compulsive Adélaïde Rougon (also featured in The Fortune of the Rougons and later Doctor Pascal). Adélaïde is the root of the Rougon Macquart dynasty and as Zola was aiming partly to write of heredity it is always important to keep her in mind when considering each character of the Rougon Macquart family. From her, Astride inherits his obsessive behaviour which, within the Second Empire, manifests in the obsession with accumulating money.
In The Kill (set ten years earlier), Astride invested in property, but we see in the beginning of Money that his enterprises have failed and he is bankrupt. But, like any 'good' Rougon he doesn't let that stop him! In this novel he seeks to establish the Banque Universelle (Universal Bank) which, he envisages, will help fund roads and railways and make him an absolute fortune. However, as he is bankrupt and his brother Eugène refuses to help him unless he leaves France he struggles to find financiers. he must scheme, manipulate, and even succumb to illegal practices to achieve his goals. And in this lies one of my major problems with Money - this world of finance and bankers and their practices is a mystery to me. There is in Money the use of a "straw man" and I simply cannot explain it. It is illegal, that I know, and suggests that his bank is doomed to fail despite best efforts - despite investors, and despite even buying newspaper companies to give the illusion of success and attack his brother (the latter of which struck a chord: we all know newspapers have their own political agenda, but I can never forget the shock of The Independent, a supposedly 'unbiased' newspaper that very clearly has always had left-wing biases endorsing a Conservative-Liberal Democrat government; shortly after one of their very despondent journalists tweeted "oh god did we just endorse the coalition? fml"). So for this reason, Money is interesting but more complicated for me perhaps than others: it was very hard for me to get really involved with it. But these methods of accumulation that I don't understand are not the only part of Money thankfully. We know Astride is corrupt, and he's even doomed by his own genes, but he is still loved by his mistress Caroline Hamelin. She is no fool, and she knows of all of Saccard's flaws, even his illegitimate child Victor (who shares many similarities with Jacques Macquart of La Bête Humaine as well as Adélaïde Rougon). So she too invests in the bank, but for her money is a means to an end - she sees potential for good, not for growth as Saccard does, nor simply just to have as his son Maxime does.
|"Northern Rocky" by Andy Davies (2009).|
And, unsurprisingly, the Universal Bank fails and sends shock waves through the whole of France and the rest of the world, and in 2015 this will no doubt remind people of the collapse of Northern Rock in September 2007 and the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers (2008) which marked the early days of the Global Financial Crisis. In Money Zola explores the corruption and subsequent failure, and its effects. Another element is the anti-Semitism of Saccard, whose rivals are the Jewish banks (Zola notes, "Ah, the Jews! Saccard had that ancient racial resentment of the Jews that is found especially in the south of France"). This makes for an uncomfortable read but we know from Zola's involvement in the Dreyfuss Affair that in Money he is drawing attention to anti-Semitism, not agreeing or identifying with it.
It is, as I say, a difficult book and I was interested to read that Zola had not enjoyed writing it. He told a friend (Cérad), "Money is decidedly a thankless subject, stock market business I mean" and he too found the subject matter "difficult to grasp" (as he told Jacques van Santen Kolff) and was rather "exhausted" by it. Nevertheless it is another excellent novel. About half way through Caroline Hamelin thinks,
Ah! Money! Money to corrupter, the poisoner, shrivelling souls, driving out all goodness, affection and love for others. Money alone was the great culprit, the promoter of all human cruelty and filth.
Yet through her Zola provides another perspective: I think it's a mistake to assume Money is anti-money. Money is about greed and corruption, but money can bring good to the world if used properly.
And there another chapter of the Rougon Macquart series is closed. I was surprised to see that this is my tenth review, which means I'm half-way through re-reading. I am very tempted to pick another one up - perhaps His Excellency (I'm put off by the translation, though), or the new translation of The Conquest of Plassans (1874). I haven't read this new translation yet (another Oxford University Press, 2014), and whilst I am still in my Zola-phase it would be good to read another... Normally I need a break between Zola novels, but I seem to be on a bit of a Zola-roll.