Money is the 18th (of 20) in Zola's Rougon-Macquart series of novels, a 'Natural and Social History of a Family under the Second Empire' in France. This brilliant novel follows the fortunes of Aristide Rougon, known as Saccard, as he pursues his way through the French financial institutions, with a grand scheme to build a bank (the Universal Bank) and speculate on the stock market. A power house of a novel with a great cast of characters typical of Zola. Saccard enjoys great appetites in life, money being the main one and as he builds his bank and makes an incredible fortune on the stock market for his share holders, taking in all classes of people, from the most humble and poor, to the rich. But as the share prices for the Universal soar to untold of highs not all is as it should be, shady goings on mean that the eventual crash of the bank and the schemes and undertakings in the Middle East leave all involved a lot worse of than when they began. As with all the Zola novels in the Rougon-Macquart series that I have read this is highly recommended, Zola's brilliant descriptions of people, places and events mean that one is engrossed from beginning to end and it is nicely (as are all OWC books) annotated, showing that some events and people are based in part on real people and events and some even mirror recent events - what goes around, comes around. Anyone who loves reading (especially 19th c novels) and has yet to try Zola, please give him a go. Recommended titles are; L'Assommoir (the dram shop); Nana; Germinal; La Bete Humaine. All excellent, but I started with L'Assommoir and recommend that as as good a novel to start with as any.
I was reading this on a train when a friend spotted me and said "That's a bit highbrow isn't it?" which illustrates a problem with Zola's work in that for some reason it is seen as "heavy" or maybe "worthy" which scares off readers. Well I don't do "highbrow" but I do enjoy well written character driven novels that illustrate their time with elegance, wit and a fair degree of tension. Well known as being "realistic" novels Zola's Rougon-Macquart series basically tell the story of mid-19th century France through the doings of a disparate and often dissolute extended family. This volume deals mainly with banking and politics and has many echoes which still reverberate today and in many ways is quite prescient of today's various crises. And it's not heavy! It's remarkably easy to read as it happens, largely through the excellent translation courtesy of Valerie Minogue (no relation I assume) and it's a definite YES from me...
Émile Zola was a truly great writer, and as you would expect, this novel, part of the Les Rougon-Macquart series of books is well worth reading and is still very much relevant. We only have to look at the financial crisis and scandals of this century alone to see that things have not got any better overall.
One of the best practitioners of Naturalism so here we are transported to Paris in the 1860s. Aristide Saccard is back on the scene after his rise and fall in the novel ‘The Kill’. Here he is once again plotting to become the number one person to come to, the king of money, and a power to be reckoned with. Here then, after meeting brother and sister Georges and Caroline Hamelin, who are neighbours, so a vision of the brother gives impetus to Saccard. There is definitely something very ambitious about the creation of the World Bank, which is to finance vast projects in the Middle East, and even set the Pope up in Jerusalem with funds, thus putting him in at the heart of Christian religion.
Of course though this is Saccard, someone who we all know likes to cut corners and do things his own way. Thus as the bank is created and shares are being issued so things are not as they should be behind the scenes, with a bit of fraud, skimming off the top and other nefarious deeds going on – although not all by Saccard. Thus we see a bubble being built, with unrealistic expectations and share prices reaching unbelievable heights. With our main character, so we see how his anti-Semitism doesn’t help things, and we all know that bubbles are liable to burst.
It takes Gundermann the Jewish financier to start putting things in to place to start a bubble burst, but as we see even he and other bankers have to try and step in to try to prevent an even deeper collapse and depression. With a whole host of characters so we see how people from all walks of life are affected, as well as other characters out to make money off of others through any means possible.
I really enjoyed here reading of the old days when the stock exchanges were not all computerised and people were running to and fro with messages and buying and selling. This book really captures that and brings it to life, which for a lot of younger people will be something completely new to read about. Taking in many themes as well as historical events this is well thought out and researched and is as is usual with this author certainly worth reading and reminds us all of the importance of firmly regulated markets and financial controls, as well as the power of greed.
What is perhaps most disturbing about Émile Zola’s 1891 novel charting the forensic ups and downs of the Paris bourse and the resulting social upheaval caused is the feeling that I’d come across this tale before. Well I had, of course, having read the novel before, but outside of that, Money predates (and foretells) the likes of Michael Lewis’ The Big Short (or maybe that should be ‘The Life And Times Of Fred The Shred…’) by over a century, leaving one with an inevitable feeling of déjà vu. And, whilst Money may lack the often devastating emotive power of novels such as Germinal and L’Assommoir, as well as perhaps focusing rather too much on the intricacies of the mechanics of 19th century financial instruments, the relative novelty of the subject matter here, plus the drawing of a number of compelling (and inevitably tragic) characters here, notably the megalomaniac financier Saccard and the sympathetic bystander Madame Caroline, pushes the novel towards a top rating. As ever, Zola is uncompromising in his portrayal of the potentially fatal frailties (greed, gullibility, the herd instinct, etc) of the human condition and the devastating impact of unintended consequences and, even though one assumes the author’s sympathies lie with his lone character (the ‘idealist’ Sigismond) trying to ‘buck the trend’, we’re left with the unavoidable conclusion that history will continue to repeat itself.
Here are two short extracts from two different books. The first: "A vehicle, going through the gutter as it drove up, almost spattered him. Massias leaped out, even before the driver had stopped, and darted up the steps in one bound, breathlessly carrying some client's last order". The second: "[A vehicle], driven at several times the city speed limit, abruptly stopped in front of the entrance, its tires emitting the sound of pigs being slaughtered. A visibly demented athletic man in his thirties, his face flushed red, emerged and ran up the steps as if he were chased by a tiger".
The first comes from Zola's novel "Money", published in 1891, and describes the arrival of a broker at the Paris Bourse. The second comes from Nicholas Nassim Taleb's (more or less) non-fiction book "Fooled by Randomness", first published in 2004, and describes the arrival of a broker at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. On witnessing that arrival, Taleb says he was hit with what the French call a "coup de foudre" (a sudden intense and obsessive infatuation that strikes like lightning). “This is for me!” Taleb thought enthusiastically—he could not help comparing the exciting life of a trader on the exchange to the alternative lives that could present themselves to him in academia or business, for example.
It is (presumably) a coincidence that the two extracts are so similar but I made the comparison because the Zola novel still retains its freshness and relevance, even a century after it was written.
On the other hand, it must be said that Zola clearly does not share Taleb's enthusiasm for the financial business, not at all. Zola's attitude to the business had more in common with the attitude of modern whistle-blowers, e.g. Michael Lewis, in his non-fiction books such as "Flash boys", "Liar's poker" and "The Big Short".