Zola’s Money, the 18th in his 20 novel Rougon-Macquart series, centered on the Paris Stock Exchange, the Bourse, is as relevant and topical today in its detailed exposition of money markets as when it was first published in 1861.
The novel describes the spectacular rise and fall of the Universal Bank, established by the enigmatic and morally dubious Saccard (a Rougon by birth who has changed his name to avoid association with past scandal). Alongside providing riches beyond imagination to its founders, the bank sets out with loftier ambitions: to ameliorate the suffering of the poor; bring progress and civilization to the Middle East; and even to conquer the Jews by installing the Pope in Jerusalem (the translator is at pains to point out the anti-Semitic sentiments expressed in the novel belong to the characters and are not shared by Zola). However, from the beginning the bank is built on shaky foundations as regulations are flouted, the press manipulated and dividends paid to shareholders based on speculated rather than accumulated wealth. The banks manipulation of its share price to keep it ever rising soon prove unsustainable, enabling its enemies to swoop like vultures as soon as rumours of liquidity problems begin to surface.
In Money, Zola shows how speculation in the money markets creates a current of artificial optimism that sweeps along even the most industrious and thriftiest in society, turning them into dangerous gamblers where enough wealth is somehow never quite enough whilst there is still the prospect of even greater future gains. It also powerfully depicts the forceful and indiscriminate tidal wave of real human misery unleashed when the financial bubble does finally burst. The novel also examines Marxist ideals of a more equal distribution of wealth, but still concludes that cyclical patterns of boom and bust are likely to continue as men seek money in their vain attempts to shape destiny and become Master of the Universe.
The book in the photograph, published in 1894 by Chatto & Windus, is a first edition of the English translation by Ernest Alfred Vizetelly, an English author and journalist who was also a personal friend of Zola.
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