Saturday, October 16, 2010

Emile Zola - 'Money'

For those of you new to Zen Thrown Down, my latest reading project is the twenty novel Rougon-Macquart cycle by 19th Century French realist Emile Zola. As I finish each book, I'm posting a review on the blog. Money is the fourth novel in the Rougon-Macquart cycle (counting in the order Zola wished them to be read), and it picks up the story of Aristide Saccard some years after Zola's prior novel, The Kill. Saccard is seeking to rebuild his fortunes through a legitimate concern called the Universal Bank. However, his true nature soon emerges.

As a novel about investment fraud and corporate irresponsibility, Money is amazingly topical for today. While the novel is set in France during the Second Empire period (circa 1860), it takes no imagination at all to read it as a dissection of the psychology behind the Enron scandal and the banking crisis that recently sent the planet's economy into a tailspin. One thing made clear by Money is that the financial sector has not changed an iota from Zola's time and the same crimes are (and will be) committed over and over without any effort to curb them. The parallels to our time are so plentiful that it's hard sometimes to believe this novel was written over a hundred years ago. The crash that occurs as a result of Saccard's chicanery bankrupts and destroys thousands of everyday people while the perpetrators of the scam get a slap on the wrist and walk away wealthy, exactly the way these scandals have played out in recent years.

Anyway, to focus on the novel. The plotting is fairly strong and the characterization is solid. Saccard is the Rougon-Macquart character dealt with in the novel. However, we also see Maxime again, are introduced to Saccard's illegitimate and criminal son Victor, while Eugene Rougon plays a role in the background. While Zola introduces a vast panorama of characters, as in The Kill many of them are little more than names and functions. He also uses quite a bit of exposition rather than dialogue to drive the plot, which can slow down the pacing at times. Even so, I loved the detailed, inside view of the French stock exchange (the Bourse): from the wunderkinds of finance (Gundermann) to the upstart frauds (Saccard and his pals), from the financial types whose morals go gray to the common people mad with the idea of making fortunes like the day-traders of recent years, from the crooked journalists paid to publish PR for Saccard's bank under the guise of objective reporting to the vultures and bottom feeders ready to pounce and devour any money the victims of the crash manage to hold onto. All in all, it's a fascinating glimpse into the past while clearly showing us the present!

A master of the Realist school, Zola nevertheless draws some conclusions about humanity and society from his tale. That he does this without becoming sanctimonious or obvious (as with Dickens and many English realists) is a credit to his talents as a writer. Of course, Zola's observations are hardly the stuff to make his bleak novel do down any easier. By comparing Saccard and his 'greed is good' view of the financial world with Sigismond's Marxist castles in the sky, Zola seems to paint both views as lunatic. Nor does he allow us to blame capitalism for the crash and destruction, because through the character of Caroline we see both the good and the evil Saccard has wrought. The cold, hard truth Zola seems to drive at in the final pages of Money is that such crashes and human predation are part and parcel of life. Human nature makes such destruction a requirement for progress. This is a very bleak view of humanity and society and, while one would like to refute it, the fact that 100 years later the same crimes are being committed suggests Zola's cynical view of humanity is more accurate than is comfortable for fans of 'the human spirit'.

A fascinating read!

No comments: