It is amazing to see how certain nineteenth century phenomena, such as Émile Zola’s novel L’Argent (“Money”), eerily echo with our own times. The novel has fundamentalist evangelical Christianity, international financial chicanery, anti-Semitism, the signs of full-blown “casino capitalism” convulsing the whole of society, global technical innovations. The historical background as all this unfolds is explosive and complex.
L’Argent is the eighteenth novel in the Rougon-Macquart series by Émile Zola. It was serialized in the periodical Gil Blas beginning in November 1890, before being published in novel form by Charpentier et Fasquelle in March 1891.
The novel focuses on the financial world of the Second French Empire as embodied in the Paris Bourse and exemplified by the fictional character of Aristide Saccard. Zola’s intent was to show the terrible effects of speculation and fraudulent company promotion, the culpable negligence of company directors, and the impotency of contemporary financial laws. (Think of Dodd-Frank in our time and how insiders have “noiselessly” dismantled it.)
The novel takes place in 1864-1869, beginning a few months after the death of Saccard’s second wife Renée (see La Curée). Saccard is bankrupt and an outcast among the Bourse financiers. Searching for a way to reestablish himself, Saccard is struck by plans developed by his upstairs neighbor, the engineer Georges Hamelin, who dreams of restoring Christianity to the Middle East through great public works: rail lines linking important cities, improved roads and transportation, renovated eastern Mediterranean ports, and fleets of modern ships to move goods around the world.
Saccard decides to institute a financial establishment to fund these projects. He is motivated primarily by the potential to make incredible amounts of money and reestablish himself on the Bourse. In addition, Saccard has an intense rivalry with his brother Eugène Rougon, a powerful Cabinet minister who refuses to help him after his bankruptcy and who is promoting a more liberal, less Catholic agenda for the Empire. Furthermore, Saccard, an intense anti-Semite, sees the enterprise as a strike against the Jewish bankers who dominate the Bourse. From the beginning, Saccard’s Banque Universelle (Universal Bank) stands on shaky ground.
In order to manipulate the price of the stock, Saccard and his colleagues in the syndicate, which he has set up to jumpstart the enterprise, buy their own stock and hide the proceeds of this illegal practice in a dummy account fronted by a straw man.
While Hamelin travels to Constantinople to lay the groundwork for their enterprise, the Banque Universelle goes from strength to strength. Stock prices soar, going from 500 francs a share to more than 3,000 francs in three years. Furthermore, Saccard buys several newspapers which serve to maintain the illusion of legitimacy, promote the Banque, excite the public, and attack Rougon.
The novel follows the fortunes of about 20 characters, cutting across all social strata, showing the effects of stock market speculation on rich and poor. The financial events of the novel are played against Saccard’s personal life. Hamelin lives with his sister Caroline, who, against her better judgment, invests in the Banque Universelle and later becomes Saccard’s mistress. Caroline learns that Saccard fathered a son, Victor, during his first days in Paris. She rescues Victor from his life of abject poverty, placing him in a charitable institution. But Victor is completely unredeemable, given over to greed, laziness, and thievery. After he attacks one of the women at the institution, he disappears into the streets, never to be seen again.
Eventually, the Banque Universelle cannot sustain itself. Saccard’s principal rival on the Bourse, the Jewish financier Gundermann, learns about Saccard’s financial trickery and attacks, losing stock upon the market, devaluing its price, and forcing Saccard to buy millions of shares to keep the price up. At the final collapse, the Banque holds one-fourth of its own shares worth 200 million francs. The fall of the Banque is felt across the entire financial world. Indeed, all of France feels the force of its collapse. The effects on the characters of L’Argent are disastrous, including complete ruin, suicide, and exile, though some of Saccard’s syndicate members escape and Gundermann experiences a windfall.
History itself is of course “bubbling along” and does not go away:
Because the financial world is closely linked with politics, L’Argent encompasses many historical events, including:
- The 1860 Druze massacre of Maronite Christians in Syria.
- France’s invasion of Mexico (1861–1867).
- The construction of the Suez Canal, opened in 1869.
- The Austro-Prussian War, including the Battle of Königgrätz at Sadová in 1866.
- The Third Italian War of Independence (1866).
- The Universal Exposition of 1867.
- The publication of Das Kapital in 1867 and the advent of Marxism.
- The 1882 collapse of the Union Générale bank.
By the end of the novel, the stage is set for the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871) and the fall of the Second Empire.
The twentieth century world and the twenty-first century one do resonate with Zola’s novel. That tells you, the student, that there are deep structures underlying endless changes.
The arrival of cars and planes, computers and lasers, internet and AI have not altered these substructures entirely and that is educational, since “then and now” thinking is part of a meta-intelligent (i.e., perspectival) education process.