Thursday, August 7, 2014
Money - Emile Zola
I don't know a huge amount about Zola having read no further than Wikipedia where I gather he was principally a novelist who made some money from journalism, but from reading 'Money' I absolutely came away with a sense of him as a journalist first and foremost. It felt like reading an extended feature in a Sunday paper (albeit a significantly extended feature) I guess this is naturalism in action. Wikipedia also told me that the Rougon-Macquart novels don't need to be read in any particular order as they all stand alone but 'Money' is a direct sequel to 'The Kill' and in this case I think it does matter that they're read in the right order.
In 'The Kill' we see the rise and fall of Saccard as a property speculator along with the effects of decedent self indulgence on his wife. Saccard is undoubtedly a villain in that piece and there's no shortage of moral judgement from Zola. In 'Money' the cycle is repeated, it opens with Saccard a broken man greeted with something just short of contempt by his peers on the Bourse, follows his rise as a banker, and then inevitable fall again after he artificially inflates the value of shares creating a bubble which has to burst. When it does burst ruin is total and all encompassing for many more than Saccard, and yet somehow he's not quite the villain in this piece. There is occasionally something magnificent in his irresponsibility and passion, certainly in the breadth of his vision, and this time some of his actions are - if not motivated purely by kindness - at least charitable in their effect. Zola also uses the financial setting to examine antisemitic feeling.
The plot of 'The Kill' was driven by the fate of Saccard's wife Renee, a weak woman utterly corrupted by her contact with Saccard. 'Money' isn't plot driven in the same way, the female protagonist is Madame Caroline, a strong good woman who becomes Saccard's mistress almost against her own will, certainly against her better judgement. She is an example to the reader of how even the best if us can get caught up in a temporary madness, but in the end her experience is nothing more than an episode in her life; one that leaves her essentially unaltered. In the end 'Money' hardly has any plot to speak of. Saccard's failure is inevitable, that he will take others with him just as inevitable, it's also certain that he'll be the instrument of his own downfall but where the book excels is in bringing the shock exchange to life. Saccard's great battles in the Bourse as he attempts to bring off various coups or avoid disaster are utterly gripping - almost white knuckle stuff. I had to look up what short selling was and found myself utterly (far more so than I might have expected) fascinated by all the ways share prices are manipulated. On top of the technical details are extraordinarily vivid descriptions right down to the patina of dirt on the walls and smoke in the air which further bring these scenes to life.
Just as in 'The Kill' there's a strong sense if moral outrage against crazy gambling complete with the images of previously hard working responsible citizens bought low by this vice (doubtless to die in terrible poverty somewhere) which is all in the best Victorian tradition. Mocking aside though the human suffering portrayed feels real and in turn drew real emotion from me as the reader. The more so because reading Zola has so far been a very visual experience for me, he constantly calls paintings to mind - in this case very English works by the likes of William Powell Frith (I'm thinking Derby day or the railway station) or Augustus Egg's Past and Present.
Saccard's great faults in this book are his volatility and ambition. He always wants more, bigger, faster. More opulence, greater excesses, bigger successes, and always immediately. His bête noir is the Jewish banker Gundermann, apparently based on Rothschild, Gundermann is logical, cold, ascetic, and in the end bound to win. The risks he takes are reasonable, backed by almost unlimited wealth and in every way he's the antithesis of Saccard who in turn has a fanatical hatred of Jews and their perceived mastery of money. The relationship between the two men is a neat examination of prejudice, very interesting to read, and adds another layer of complexity to an already richly textured book.