Saturday, March 24, 2018

Money, by Emile Zola

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Emile Zola's passionate and consummately researched denunciation of the excesses of financial speculation.

Aristide Saccard is a bankrupt financier looking to deal himself back into the finance game. He dreams big, of conquering the world. When he discovers that his upstairs neighbour, Georges Hamelin, a devout Christian, has plans to run development projects in the Middle East - rail lines, ports and roads, infrastructure to move commercial goods - it sparks an idea. Why not set up a bank to fund these plans? Saccard calls his bank the World Bank and starts issuing shares. From day one, however, Saccard is intent on manipulating share prices by all sorts of back door chicanery. Principally, the bank buys its own stock and hides the proceeds in dummy accounts.

The stock goes from strength to strength, if it could be called that, realising ridiculously high values. It's all unsustainable, of course. The demise of the bank is also helped along by the seasoned Jewish financier Gundermann, who is also a major focus of Saccard's rampant anti-semitism. As the bank crashes, many "mum and dad" investors get ruined along the way, as do the greedy and the naive. Chief among these victims is Caroline Hamelin, brother of Georges. She invests in the bank and also becomes Saccard's mistress. Intelligent and principled, she nonetheless sleepwalks into the looming disaster, lulled by the promise of easy money.

Money (L'argent in French) is the 18th novel in Zola's twenty novel Rougon-Macquart cycle. It's a story that he drives at full speed, with a dizzying array of characters. Zola uses his journalistic skills (he researched the finance industry intensively) and acute intelligence to produce a passionate denunciation of the evils of speculation, with special attention paid to the psychological effects money has on people. In short, money is like a dangerous drug, causing life threatening addiction. Money also seriously warps judgement, causing its victims to make irrational choices.

If there's a criticism that can be leveled at Money, it's that it feels like it was written quickly and with a lot of zeal. Some of the writing can seem a little repetitive and hastily thrown together. On the positive side, Money is amazingly modern in the problems it diagnoses and its core concerns (the finance industry; the psychology of the greedy and the gullible) make it almost a mirror on today's problems. Nothing much has changed in the 120 years since it was written.

Money, by Emile Zola. Published by Alma Classics. ISBN: 9781847495792 RRP: $19.99

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