SPECULATIVE FINANCE AND NINETEENTH CENTURY FRENCH SOCIETY: CASINO CAPITALISM IN ZOLA’S NOVELS “MONEY” AND “THE KILL”

February 22, 2011 at 2:17 am | Posted in Books, Economics, Financial, France, Literary | Leave a comment

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L’Argent

L’Argent (Money) is the eighteenth novel in the Rougon-Macquart series by Émile Zola.

L’Argent
Author Émile Zola
Country France
Language French
Series Les Rougon-Macquart
Genre(s) Novel
Publisher Charpentier & Fasquelle (book form)
Publication date 1890-1891 (serial) & 1891 (book form)
Media type Print (Serial, Hardback & Paperback)
ISBN NA
Preceded by La Bête Humaine
Followed by La Débâcle

L’Argent (Money) is the eighteenth novel in the Rougon-Macquart series by Émile Zola. It was serialized in the periodical Gil Blas beginning in November 1890 before being published in novel form by Charpentier et Fasquelle in March 1891. It was translated into English (as Money) by Benj. R. Tucker in 1891 and by Ernest A. Vizetelly in 1894 (new edition 1904; reprinted 1991 and 2007).

The novel focuses on the financial world of the Second French Empire as embodied in the Paris Bourse and exemplified by the fictional character of Aristide Saccard. Zola’s intent was to show the terrible effects of speculation and fraudulent company promotion, the culpable negligence of company directors, and the impotency of contemporary financial laws.

Aristide Saccard (b. 1815 as Aristide Rougon) is the youngest son of Pierre and Félicité Rougon. He is first introduced in La fortune des Rougon. L’argent is a direct sequel to La curée (published in 1871), which details Saccard’s first rise to wealth using underhanded methods. Sensing his unscrupulous nature, his brother Eugène Rougon prompts Aristide to change his surname from Rougon to Saccard.

Aristide’s other brother Pascal is the main character of Le docteur Pascal. He also has two sisters: Sidonie, who appears in La curée, and Marthe, one of the protagonists of La conquête de Plassans.

Plot summary

The novel takes place in 1864-1869, beginning a few months after the death of Saccard’s second wife Renée (see La curée). Saccard is bankrupt and an outcast among the Bourse financiers. Searching for a way to reestablish himself, Saccard is struck by plans developed by his upstairs neighbor, the engineer Georges Hamelin, who dreams of restoring Christianity to the Middle East through great public works: rail lines linking important cities, improved roads and transportation, renovated eastern Mediterranean ports, and fleets of modern ships to move goods around the world.

Saccard decides to institute a financial establishment to fund these projects. He is motivated primarily by the potential to make incredible amounts of money and reestablish himself on the Bourse. In addition, Saccard has an intense rivalry with his brother Eugène Rougon, a powerful Cabinet minister who refuses to help him after his bankruptcy and who is promoting a more liberal, less Catholic agenda for the Empire. Furthermore, Saccard, an intense anti-Semite, sees the enterprise as a strike against the Jewish bankers who dominate the Bourse. (In a footnote, Ernest A. Vizetelly, the first British translator of L’argent, draws a distinction between Zola’s depiction of this aspect of Saccard’s character and Zola’s personal pro-Jewish beliefs as manifested in the later Dreyfus affair.)

From the beginning, Saccard’s Banque Universelle (Universal Bank) stands on shaky ground. In order to manipulate the price of the stock, Saccard and his confreres on the syndicate he has set up to jumpstart the enterprise buy their own stock and hide the proceeds of this illegal practice in a dummy account fronted by a straw man.

While Hamelin travels to Constantinople to lay the groundwork for their enterprise, the Banque Universelle goes from strength to strength. Stock prices soar, going from 500 francs a share to more than 3,000 francs in three years. Furthermore, Saccard buys several newspapers which serve to maintain the illusion of legitimacy, promote the Banque, excite the public, and attack Rougon.

The novel follows the fortunes of about 20 characters, cutting across all social strata, showing the effects of stock market speculation on rich and poor.

The financial events of the novel are played against Saccard’s personal life. Hamelin lives with his sister Caroline, who, against her better judgment, invests in the Banque Universelle and later becomes Saccard’s mistress. Caroline learns that Saccard fathered a son, Victor, during his first days in Paris. She rescues Victor from his life of abject poverty, placing him in a charitable institution. But Victor is completely unredeemable, given over to greed, laziness, and thievery. After he attacks one of the women at the institution, he disappears into the streets, never to be seen again.

Eventually, the Banque Universelle cannot sustain itself. Saccard’s principal rival on the Bourse, the Jewish financier Gundermann, learns about Saccard’s financial trickery and attacks, loosing stock upon the market, devaluing its price, and forcing Saccard to buy millions of shares to keep the price up. At the final collapse, the Banque holds one-fourth of its own shares worth 200 million francs. The fall of the Banque is felt across the entire financial world. Indeed, all of France feels the force of its collapse. The effects on the characters of L’argent are disastrous, including complete ruin, suicide, and exile, though some of Saccard’s syndicate members escape and Gundermann experiences a windfall. Saccard and Hamelin are sentenced to five years in prison. Through the intervention of Rougon, who doesn’t want a brother in jail, their sentences are commuted and they are forced to leave France. Saccard goes to Belgium, and the novel ends with Caroline preparing to follow her brother to Rome.

Historical background

Because the financial world is closely linked with politics, L’argent encompasses many historical events, including:

By the end of the novel, the stage is set for the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) and the fall of the Second Empire.

Relation to the Other Rougon-Macquart Novels

Zola’s plan for the Rougon-Macquart novels was to show how heredity and environment worked on members of one family over the course of the Second Empire. All of the descendants of Adelaïde Fouque (Tante Dide), Saccard’s grandmother, demonstrate what today would be called obsessive-compulsive behaviors to varying degrees. Saccard is obsessed with money and the building of wealth, to which everything in his life holds second place. In Le docteur Pascal, Zola describes the influence of heredity on Saccard as an “adjection” in which the natures of his avaricious parents are commingled.

Two other members of the Rougon-Macquart family also appear in L’argent: Saccard’s sons Maxime (b. 1840) and Victor (b. 1853). If his father’s obsession is with building wealth, Maxime’s obsession is with keeping it. A widower, Maxime (who played a central role in La curée) lives alone in opulence he does not share. In Le docteur Pascal, Maxime is described as prematurely aged, afraid of pleasure and indeed of all life, devoid of emotion, and cold, characteristics introduced in L’argent. Maxime is described as a “dissemination” of characteristics, having the moral prepotency of his father and the pampered egotism of his mother (Saccard’s first wife).

Victor, on the other hand, brought up in squalor, is the furthest extreme Zola illustrates of the Rougon family’s degeneracy. Like his great-grandmother Tante Dide, Victor suffers from neuralgic attacks. Unlike Jacques Lantier (his second cousin, see La bête humaine), he is unable to control his criminal impulses, and his disappearance into the streets of Paris is no surprise. Victor is described as a “fusion” of the lowest characteristics of his parents (his mother was a prostitute).

In Le docteur Pascal (set in 1872), Zola tells us that Saccard returns to Paris, institutes a newspaper, and is again making piles of money.

Rougon is the protagonist of Son Excellence Eugène Rougon, the events of which predate L’argent. Saccard’s daughter Clotilde (b. 1847) is the main female character in Le docteur Pascal.

La Curée

La Curée
Author Émile Zola
Country France
Language French
Series Les Rougon-Macquart
Genre(s) Novel
Publication date 1872
Preceded by La Fortune des Rougon
Followed by Le Ventre de Paris

La Curée (1871-2; English: The Kill) is the second novel in Émile Zola‘s twenty-volume series Les Rougon-Macquart. It deals with property speculation and the lives of the extremely wealthy Nouveau riche class of the Second Empire, against the backdrop of Baron Haussmann‘s reconstruction of Paris in the 1850s and 1860s.

Vastly different from its predecessor and prequel La Fortune des Rougon, La Curée – literally the portion of the game thrown to the dogs after a hunt, usually translated as The Kill – is a tightly-focused character study centred on three distinctive personalities: Aristide Rougon (renamed “Saccard“)–the youngest son of the ruthless and calculating peasant Pierre Rougon and the bourgeois Félicité (by whom he is much spoiled), both of them Bonapartistes and consumed by a desire for wealth–, Aristide’s young second wife Renée (his first dying not long after their move from provincial Plassans to Paris), and Maxime, Aristide’s foppish son from his first marriage.

The novel was first translated (translator unknown) very poorly and with many bowdlerizations and reissued by Henry Vizetelly in the 1880s and 1890s under the title The Rush for the Spoil, with an introduction by George Moore. A superior translation was undertaken by the poet and critic Alexander Texeira de Mattos, first published in a limited edition of 300 deluxe copies in 1895. This translation, titled The Kill, became the standard English text of the novel for over a century. In 2004, two new English editions were published, translated by Arthur Goldhammer (Modern Library) and Brian Nelson (Oxford World’s Classics); both translations were received with acclaim.

Plot summary

La Curée

A career in property speculation is born

The book opens with scenes of astonishing opulence, beginning with Renée and Maxime lazing in a luxurious horse-drawn carriage, very slowly leaving a Parisian park (the Bois de Boulogne) in the 19th century-equivalent of a traffic jam. It is made clear very early on that these are staggeringly wealthy characters not subject to the cares and difficulties faced by the everyday public; they arrive back at their enormous mansion and spend hours being dressed by their legions of servants prior to hosting a banquet attended by some of the richest and most powerful people in Paris. There seems to be almost no continuity between this scene and the end of the previous novel, until the second chapter begins and Zola reveals that this opulent scene takes place almost fourteen years after the end of the first book. Zola then rewinds time to pick up the story practically minutes after La Fortune ended.

Following Eugene Rougon‘s rise to political power in Paris as mentioned in La Fortune, his younger brother Aristide – featured in the first novel as a talentless journalist, a comic character unable to commit unequivocally to the imperial cause and thus left out in the cold when the rewards were being handed out – decides to follow Eugene to Paris to help himself to the wealth and power he now believes to be his birthright. Eugene promises to help Aristide achieve these things on the condition that he stay out of his way, and change his surname to avoid the possibility of bad publicity from Aristide’s escapades rubbing off on Eugene and damaging his political chances.

Aristide chooses the surname Saccard, and Eugene gets him a seemingly mundane job at the city planning permission office. The renamed Saccard soon realises that, far from the disappointment he thought the job would be, he is actually in a position to gain insider information on the houses and other buildings that are to be demolished to build Paris’ bold new system of boulevards and wide avenues. Knowing that the owners of these properties ordered to be demolished by the city government were compensated handsomely, Saccard contrives to borrow some money in order to start buying up these properties before their doomed status becomes public knowledge, and then raking in the compensation for massive profits.

Saccard is at first unable to make much headway because he cannot lay his hands on the money to make his initial investments, but then his wife falls victim to a terminal illness. Even while she lies dying in the next room, Saccard – in a brilliantly written scene of breathtaking callousness – is already making arrangements to marry a rich country girl, Renée, who is pregnant with the child of a local labourer and whose family wishes to avoid any scandal by offering a huge dowry to any man who will marry her and claim the baby as his own. Saccard accepts this role, and his career in property speculation is born. He sends his youngest daughter back home to Plassans in the south of France, and packs his older son Maxime off to a Parisian boarding school; we meet Maxime again when he leaves school several years later and meets his new stepmother Renée, who is only a couple of years older than he is.

The flashback complete, the rest of the novel takes place after Saccard has made his enormous fortune, against the backdrop of his luxurious mansion and his astounding profligacy, and is concerned with a three-cornered plot of sexual and political intrigue. Renée and Maxime begin a semi-incestuous love affair, which Saccard suspects but appears to tolerate, perhaps due to the almost purely commercial nature of his marriage to Renée in the first place; at the same time, Saccard is trying to get Renée to part with the deeds to her ancestral family home, which would be worth millions to him but which she refuses to give up. The novel continues in this vein with the tensions continuing to mount, and culminates in a series of bitter observations by Zola on the hypocrisy and immorality of the nouveau riche.

A near-penniless journalist at the time of writing La Curée, Zola himself had no experience whatsoever of the scenes he describes in the novel. In order to counter this lack of first-hand knowledge he toured a large number of stately homes and gardens around France, taking copious notes on subjects like architecture, ladies’ and men’s fashions, jewellery, garden layouts, greenhouse plants (a very erotically-charged seduction scene takes place in Saccard’s cavernous hothouse), carriages, mannerisms, servantsliveries and so on; these notes (many volumes of which are preserved amongst the novelist’s papers) were time well spent, as many contemporary reviewers and observers praised the novel for its realism.

Roger Vadim updated the setting to modern-day Paris in a movie adaptation by Jean Cau, starring Jane Fonda, Michel Piccoli and Peter McEnery, in 1966. The film was released in English-speaking markets as The Game is Over.

Les Rougon-Macquart by Émile Zola
La Fortune des RougonLa CuréeLe Ventre de ParisLa Conquête de PlassansLa Faute de l’Abbé MouretSon Excellence Eugène RougonL’AssommoirUne Page d’amourNanaPot-BouilleAu Bonheur des DamesLa Joie de vivreGerminalL’ŒuvreLa TerreLe RêveLa Bête humaineL’ArgentLa DébâcleLe Docteur Pascal

Key themes

Primary characters

  • Aristide (Rougon) Saccard, speculator
  • Renée Saccard, wife of Aristide Saccard
  • Maxime Rougon, dandy
  • Angèle Rougon, entremetteuse
  • Eugène Rougon, politician
  • Madame Lauwerens, entremetteuse
  • Louise, fiancée of Maxime, hunchback
  • Suzanne Haffner & Adeline d’Espanet, Renée’s best friends, also a lesbian couple

Critical works

Les Rougon-Macquart by Émile Zola

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