Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Money (L’Argent) by Emile Zola

White-collar crime in 19th century France
This novel follows the exploits of Aristide Saccard, a financial wheeler-dealer in Second Empire Paris. His former wealth wiped away by investment schemes gone bad, Saccard looks for his next big windfall. Luckily, he meets a neighbor, Hamelin, an engineer with grand designs to develop railroads, mines, dams, and shipping companies in the Middle East. The engineer and the financial wizard join forces to make both their dreams come true. Saccard founds the Universal Bank to fund Hamelin’s projects, and it becomes all the rage in the Paris Bourse (stock market). While Hamelin’s intentions are noble, Saccard’s primary interest in the venture is personal financial gain and self-aggrandizement. In order to push up his company’s value, he manipulates figures illegally and lies to his investors.

Saccard is a personification of the greed and opportunism rampant in France at the time, and his unwise investors personify that period’s growing mania for financial speculation. It’s amazing how relevant the book is to this day. The Universal Bank could just as well be named Enron or Worldcom, and foreign investment in the Middle East is certainly a current concern. Another issue that Zola tackles in this book is anti-Semitism. Though Zola himself was not an anti-Semite, he makes Saccard a hater of Jews in order to depict the mind-set of many Parisians at that time. One of the functions of Saccard’s Universal Bank is to create a repository of Catholic money to rival the Jewish-owned banks, an actual goal of some Parisian businessmen of the time. Regardless of the historical social commentary, one can enjoy this novel purely for its intricately-drawn characters and its insights into human nature. I would caution that some of the financial strategy can be a little difficult for people (like me) who are not fully versed in the world of stocks and bonds.

This book is the 18th book in Zola’s twenty-novel Rougon-Macquart series. Zola first introduced us to the character Aristide Saccard back in the second volume of the series, La Curée. L’Argent (a.k.a. Money) is a much better book than La Curée (a.k.a. The Kill), and it is not necessary to read that prior volume in order to understand or enjoy this book. By Zola standards I would not call this novel a masterpiece, but it’s an excellent novel and deserves to be read.

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