Never one to shirk a challenge, nineteenth-century French novelist and crusader Émile Zola (1840 – 1902) declared his intention to write what became a twenty volume Natural and Social History of a Family under the Second Empire, itself a 20-year phenomenon from the coup d’état in 1851 to its collapse as a result of the Franco-Prussian war in 1870. Zola planned to follow the fortunes of the Rougon-Macquart family. Their personal good fortune came as a result of Napoleon III’s seizure of power, as Zola related in the first book, The Fortune of the Rougons (1871). Many of these novels have become masterpieces of French literature and well-read and respected in translation. Think of Germinal, Thérèse Raquin, La Bête Humaine, L’Oeuvre, Au Bonheur des Dames (Ladies’ Paradise), La Terre and now L’Argent (Money). But why do I say now when it was published in 1891 and an English translation appeared in 1894?
The first English translation of Money was by E A Vizetelly in 1894 (if one ignores some American versions pirated from the serialisation in Gil Blas and all of which have, mercifully, disappeared without trace). However, such was the Victorian climate of self-censorship, Vizetelly felt he had to bowdlerise great parts of the book or even omit them; and he committed the translator’s one crime of inventing whole passages to bridge the gaps. Essentially, the expurgations are to remove anything that is explicitly sexual. The total surprise to me, who had not read this novel before, is that there had been no translation since Vizetelly’s, over one hundred years ago. We are all in debt to Valerie Minogue, Emeritus Professor of French of the University of Wales and current President of London Émile Zola Society. Chapeau bas, Madame!
Money brings back the crooked financier, Saccard, who had appeared in La Fortune des Rougons and then changed his name to Saccard in La Curée. A villanous hero, he seems to have fascinated his creator. Saccard has once more been ruined as a result of his shady financial dealings but, completely self-delusional, he says it will all be different this time. Diminutive in stature, he is perfectly cast as a would-be Napoleon of finance. He has fairly basic sexual appetites and believes he is irresistible. There is no doubting his ability to organise others in pursuit of his goals but it never seems to occur to him that sharp practice and blatant dishonesty are not desirable. Indeed, his constant justification to Madame Caroline, the novel’s heroine, is that everybody else is doing it, so he would be at a competitive disadvantage. The early passages of the book picture Saccard prowling round the outside of the Bourse in streets that are there to this day, seeing the successful brokers going in and enviously watching the kerb market trading. He needs a scheme that will allow him to round up subscribers and let him get back into the market again. In the visionary plans of Madame Caroline’s brother, Hamelin, for development of the Near East – shipping monopolies, silver mines, railway companies, the Bank of Turkey – Saccard sees the sort of ‘prospectus’ he needs.
As Valerie Minogue, the brilliant translator, writes in her comprehensive Introduction, “It is Saccard’s energy that produces what he later calls ‘the pickaxe of progress’, his Universal Bank, to sponsor these vast enterprises and at the same time satisfy what seems at times almost a physical, fetishistic need to see ‘heaps of gold’ and ‘hear their music’. His recklessness manifests itself as soon as the Universal is launched, and illegality follows illegality.” But Saccard’s motivation to make money is coloured by his rampant antisemitism. Zola cannot avoid this issue in a novel of the period and shows how Saccard’s detestation of the very successful Jewish banker Gundermann undermines his whole enterprise as it drives him to all-or-nothing risks. Nor is Saccard’s sexual appetite ignored. It is desire for the mercenary Baroness Sandorff and the secrets he reveals to her that lead to his final downfall. At a point in the drama, even Madame Caroline, a young widow, succumbs but finds that her relationship to Saccard is not enough to deflect him from his goals or to protect her brother who has been made figurehead chairman of the Universal Bank and packed off to the Middle East to get the projects going on the ground.
The enduring power of the twin forces of greed and fear are shown by Zola as everyone from the vulgarly rich to the classic widows and orphans are caught up in the seeming unstoppable rise of the Universal’s share price. A few are brave enough to take their profit but the majority lock themselves in and go down in the final ruin. And yet, such is the power of self-delusion, even when Saccard is in jail awaiting trial, he still believes he was within an ace of defeating Gundermann and that all it would have taken was for everyone to hold their nerve and, of course, give him many more millions to throw into the struggle he could never win.
Zola writes meaty prose, putting himself into the minds of his various key characters and describes event, emotions and places in wonderful detail. His research was vast and his ability to marshal the details to create realism has seldom been equalled. If, as is possible, you have not yet read Money now is the time and this is the edition to put that right.
However, Money should be read not just for its exposition of the crooked financial dealers and dealings of that epoch. It is an enduring fable with 21st century relevance. The naïvety of politicians who proclaim the end of boom and bust and the misplaced trust of regulators who went to the same schools as the bankers, ought to mean that Zola’s Money should be required reading for all MBA students. Trouble is, for the successors to Saccard, it might well be read as an instruction manual.