Money by Émile Zola

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Translated by Valerie Minogue

Reviewed by Harriet Devine

 ‘It’s very difficult to write a novel about money. It’s cold, icy, lacking in interest’.

money zola

So said Zola in an interview in 1890. But Money (L’Argent), which appeared later that same year, is the very opposite of those things. Here, money – whether it’s the sound of tinkling gold falling in showers inside the goldsmiths’ shops, the discounted bills stuffed into the shabby capacious bag of the monstrous La Méchain, or the shares traded in their millions in the feverish, hectic atmosphere of the Paris Bourse – seems to throb with life and power. Several times in the novel it’s compared to sex, and with reason here, since both have the capacity to take over people’s lives, engendering insatiable passions which almost invariably end by ruining their lives.

At the centre of the novel, which is set in the 1860s, is Aristide Saccard. When the novel starts, he is bankrupt, but determined to re-establish himself. Inspiration comes when he gets to know his upstairs neighbours, the engineer Georges Hamelin and his sister, Madame Caroline.  These two are fundamentally good people, and thus almost unique in this novel, which teems with greedy, crooked, immoral ones. Hamelin is a visionary, with dreams of transforming the Middle East by creating railways, improving roads and renovating ports, and Saccard decides to back him by founding a bank. Sadly, though he does see the value in what Hamelin wants to do, his prime motivation is to make huge amounts of money for himself. Furthermore, and this is extremely important to Saccard, it will be a Catholic bank – he is a ferocious anti-semite, and bitterly resents the fact that the Bourse is dominated by Jewish bankers.

The Universal Bank is initially a huge success. The shares start at 500 francs and soar, within three years, to nearly 3000. Alas for all the people who have invested their entire savings in it, this has been achieved by Saccard’s syndicate buying up stock themselves and hiding this illegal practice by setting up a dummy account.  A massive collapse follows when this is discovered, and many people’s lives are ruined.

Money is the eighteenth novel in the twenty-novel Rougon-Macquart series that Zola had planned at the end of the 1860s. The study of a family and its fortunes, the series was intended to show the effects of heredity and environment (you can read more about this in Victoria Best’s article on Zola here). This is embodied here in Saccard’s two sons, the wealthy, cold Maxime and the terrifying degenerate Victor, both of whom have inherited characteristics from their father and from their very different mothers.

As for Saccard himself, he may have been intended to demonstrate a theory, but his fantastic energy and life transcend any such clinical intentions.  For Saccard is an example of that tremendous literary archetype, the overreacher. Think of Satan in Paradise Lost, Marlowe’s Dr Faustus, Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein – brilliant, powerful characters who follow their desires and abilities beyond the accepted limits and who, ultimately, are headed for a fall. Physically small, Saccard sees himself as the Napoleon of finance, dreaming of oceans of gold created by his own brilliance. But his passion for money is matched by his sexual appetite, and it is this that contributes to his downfall, when he is betrayed by his one-time mistress Baroness Sandorff. There’s an extraordinary scene before these two part in which Sandorff’s other lover catches the two of them in flagrante, which surely must be one of the most sexually explicit passages in any novel of the period.

It is indeed his sexual attractiveness that leads Madame Caroline to become Saccard’s mistress, despite her grave misgivings. At first she tells herself that the arrangement is a convenient, almost maternal one, but she is shocked to find, when she learns of his affair with Sandorff, that she is really in love with him. A fundamentally good woman, she tries unsuccessfully to restrain Saccard’s excesses, but her decision to shield him from the knowledge of his son Victor’s existence ends up misfiring badly.

The novel is packed with fascinating secondary characters, almost all of whom are, or become, greedy and corrupt. As for Paris, a city I’m slowly becoming familiar with, it emerges in all its glory – the new boulevards of Haussmann, the great mansions and palaces, many of them falling into decay, and in contrast the terrible slum known as the Cité, presided over by La Méchain,  where Caroline goes in search of Victor. Towards the end of the novel, Caroline spends her time walking round the city, a sad, disillusioned observer:

Madame Caroline looked up. She had reached square, and saw before her the Bourse. Twilight was falling, and the winter sky, laden with mist, had created, behind the monument, a cloud of dark and reddish smoke as if from a fire, as if made from the flames and dust of a city stormed. And the Bourse stood out grey and bleak in gloom of the crash, which for the last month had left it deserted, open to the four winds of heaven, like a marketplace cleared by famine. It was the fateful, the periodic epidemic that ravages the markets, sweeping through every ten to fifteen years, the ‘black Fridays’, as they are called, that strew the ground with wreckage. It takes years for confidence to be restored, and for the great banking houses to be rebuilt, rebuilt until the day when the passion for gambling gradually reawakens, blazes up, and sets the whole process in motion again, bringing a new crisis, and sending everything crashing into a new disaster. But this time, behind that reddish smoke on the horizon, in the blurred and far-off parts of the city, could be heard a sort of muffled creaking, as of the imminent end of the world.

This new edition is the first English translation since that of Ernest Vizetelly in 1894, for which the poor translator was forced to expurgate and rewrite numerous passages. So, much praise to OUP for bringing out this excellent translation by Valerie Minogue, complete with an informative introduction and notes. Finally, English readers get the chance to read and enjoy what is truly a most wonderful novel.

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Emile Zola, Money (Oxford World’s Classics, 2014), pbk, 387 pp.

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