After finishing Zola’s novel, Money (L’Argent), one name comes to mind – Enron. It’s the same story! Saccard, the infatuated market manipulator is Ken Lay, or maybe his more intelligent cronys who did the real work. The hysterical run up of the market to fantastic stock prices, the fraud, the cooked books, the government winking and looking the other way, the grand infrastructure projects, and the inevitable crash that brings the house of cards to a pile of paper, and reduces thousands of people, many of them ordinary workers, to penniless, shell-shocked victims.
The book contains a few scenes in which Sigisimond, a fanatical Marxist, dying of consumption, and racing to commit to paper his world-saving vision for the New Society, converses with Saccard, the rapcious capitalist, and other characters. He is clearly delusional and religious in his socialist faith – Zola was a liberal, but no revolutionary utopian – a sort of cockeyed, would-be Christ besotted with the Enlightenment. Saccard just can’t get a purchase on his ideas – they seem to be speaking in different tongues. The book ends, however, with this Sigisimond dying after relating his celestial vision to a more sympathetic figure, Madame Caroline.
Caroline’s brother was Saccard’s chief engineer, and truly believed in the mission of his Universal Bank. Brother and sister deplored the financial chicanery, but eventually went along. They sold early, before the crash, but gave away their profits out of guilt. The brother is convicted along with Saccard in the post-crash scandal, although he was actually not culpable.
Caroline is a voice of conscience throughout the novel, but she loves Saccard! Their affair is broken off when he moves onto more glamorous and richer women, but he retains feelings for her. Why does she love this shark, this brigand, this fraud, this man who will ruin so many? Because…he is passionate, he does truly believe in his schemes, he is a life force.
At the end, Caroline meditates on money, that filthy stuff that corrupts and destroys, and which drives Saccard and others to do prodigious things. Saccard understands her misgivings, but he has an answer: money is like the dung heap, and from that manure springs…LIFE. It’s like sex, you see, it may be dirty, but without it, there is no love, and no life. What an interesting combination of ideas!
Et Mme Caroline était gaie malgré tout avec son visage toujours jeune, sous sa couronne de cheveux blancs, comme si elle se fût rajeunie à chaque avril, dans la vieillesse de la terre. Et, au souvenir de honte que lui causait sa liaison avec Saccard, elle songeait à l’effroyable ordure dont on a également sali l’amour. Pourquoi donc faire porter à l’argent la peine des saletés et des crimes dont il est la cause? L’amour est-il moins souillé, lui qui crée la vie? [conclusion of L'Argent]
My very inexpert translation:
Madame Caroline was gay despite herself, her face was looking young beneath her crown of white hair, and she was rejevenated as each April brings life to the old earth. And, recalling the shame she felt about her affair with Scaccard, she thought of the awful dung heap that is like the soiled elements of love. Why should one put all the blame and dark crimes on money? Love, is it any less sullied? Love, that creates life?