As Zola’s The Masterpiece (reviewed here) is about art, the subject of Money is money, money, money, filthy lucre and all that. Aristide Rougon (known somewhat mysteriously as Saccard) loves the stuff. Saccard is an unscrupulous financier, rapist and fantasist who would sell his soul (again) to recapture his lost fortune and rule the Bourse (the nineteenth century French stockmarket). He lives in the house of the widowed Princess d’Orviedo, who is busy deliberately impoverishing herself by pouring her money into ludicrously luxurious and pointless charitable works…”intent on being true to the vow she had made to give all her millions back to the poor, without ever again earning a single cent, wanting all the money gained from speculation to be lost, to be drained away by poverty, like poisoned water which had to disappear”. Saccard teams up with his co-tenants, the upright, sensible and ever youthful Madame Caroline and her naïve, engineer brother Hamelin in a scheme to establish a steamboat company (with a capital of millions) which would set up exclusive shipping lines to all the ports of Africa, Spain, Italy, Greece, Egypt and Asia, to then set up another company to mine silver and iron in the “Orient” and then to build “an entire railway system running across Asia Minor from one end to the other”.
For Madame Caroline, the aim of this modest scheme and indeed, the purpose of money, is human improvement”-“Those dry technical drawings and those linear outlines came to life, full of people; it was the dream she had sometimes had of an Orient cleansed of its dirt, pulled out of its ignorance, enjoying the fertility of its soil, the charm of its sky, with all the refinement of science. She had already seen such a miracle in Port Said, which in so few years had pushed out on to a bare beach, first sheds to shelter the few workers at the start of the excavation, then the city of two thousand souls and next the city of ten thousand souls, houses, huge warehouses, an immense jetty, life and well-being stubbornly created by the human ants. And that was what she cold see rising up once more, the irresistible forward march, the social drive that rushes towards the greatest possible happiness, the urge to act, to move forward without knowing exactly where one is going, but to go more easily and in better conditions; and the globe turned upside down by the anthill rebuilding its home, and the continual work, new possibilities of enjoyment acquired, man’s power multiplied tenfold, the earth belonging to him more and more each day. Money, backing up science, created progress.”
The Princess is not the only lunatic in that house. Hamelin sees the transport network as a means to another modest result, that of ultimately establishing a papacy in Jerusalem, the Pope reigning over the Holy Land.
For Saccard, the scheme means money, money, money. Its appeal to Saccard has nothing to do with spirituality – “He had a happy knack of becoming a believer whenever his plans required it” Even Hamelin’s ultimate aim appeals because the Pope is going to need a bank (the Treasury of the Holy Sepulchre) and a banker. Better still, this final crusade will mean the triumph of Catholicism over Judaism. And why does Saccard hate Jews? Again, nothing to do with piety, rather, their fabled money-making ability.
In the meantime, the scheme needs finance to get started, so Saccard builds his Universal Bank, on a rickety substructure of shares illegally bought by the bank itself and not paid for, unnaturally sending the price up and up in a giddy spiral. Gundermann, king of the Bourse, a Jew for whom Saccard carries a specially impassioned loathing, and Saccard’s enemy Delcambre, prosecutor and ultimately Minister of Justice, keep their heads. What goes up must come down. And it does. The devastation is awful, and Zola loses his touch here, falling into Dickensian sentimentally and grafting on an unlikely brutal incident so that the nature/nurture question in which he was interested can be raised.
These days those lowest-denomination “current-affairs” tv shows intersperse their pieces on ill-fitting bras, fat kids and disability pension cheats with items about battlers who, after a lifetime of the most careful scrimping and saving, throw all caution to the wind five minutes after retirement and gamble their nest egg away in mad speculation. There is a couple like that in Money. Madame Maugendre goes from haranguing her husband for dealing in shares to berating him for his fiscal timidity. The Maugendres’ descent into addictive share-trading is affectingly realised by Zola and goes to show that human nature never changes.
In this novel, financial machinations are likened to engineering projects or wars. There is an exciting “battle” in the Bourse and, after the crash, ” the unknown dead, the victims with no name and no history especially filled Madame’s Caroline’s heart with infinite pity. They were legion, scattered in remote thickets and overgrown ditches, dead or wounded bodies breathing their last in anguish behind every tree trunk.” Zola raises several dichotomies – the grasping buyer of debts, Busch and his tubercular, innocent Marxist brother, Sigismond – Saccard and his respectable senator brother – the virtuous Madame Jordan and, well, every other woman in the book – luxury and penury – love and money.
Zola is without doubt a great writer. He rarely misses (although it is difficult to picture the nose of one character which “suggests passion”). Money is overheated like the market Saccard creates, licentious, gory and perceptive. Although this is the eighteenth book in Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series, it stands alone. Most entertaining (except for readers offended by anti-Semitism). J’accuse!