La terre – Earth Day

April 22, 2010

I finished Zola’s La Terre yesterday, and by happenstance, today is Earth Day.

The epic tale of farting, murderous, avaricious, randy, bestial peasants who live by tending the great Mother Earth ends on a positive note. Images of the Earth receiving her seed bookend the similar opening of the novel. Jean, the townsman turned farmer, who was ejected from the local peasant community as a human body will reject an organ transplant, is signing up to fight the Prussians. Meanwhile, far away in Paris, in another novel, Nana lies dead in palatial bedroom, a suppurating mass of flesh killed by smallpox, while outside, the crowds, in a patriotic frenzy, rally and march to the cry of “To Berlin!” The Debacle will tell what comes next, with Jean at the center of it. After the loosing fight, he will return to the earth, not the town.

In our society, awash in sentimental and falsely nostalgic images of the more “green” days of the past, celebrants of Earth Day would do well to read La Terre (The Earth). Living “in tune” with the natural cycles of the the earth is not all daisies and recycling. It is more like being clasped in a crushing embrace by forces beyond your control, barely understood, that are beautiful and mysterious, but terrifying at times as well.  The peasants adore Mother Earth, and have little use for God, the one the priest talks about, but they curse her too when she destroys their crops with hail or fails to bring forth a good harvest.

Today, we hang calendars on our walls with reproductions of paintings by Jean Francois Millet, The Gleaners being ever popular. He intended this as a realistic depicition of the poverty and back-breaking labor of women who scour harvested fields for the leavings with which to feed their families, but we find it beautfiul, bucolic, even romantic. According to The Discovery of France by Graham Robb, even his images are a mild presentation of the reality of peasant life.


Zola’s La terre & the USSR

April 20, 2010

I am closing in on the conclusion of Zola’s epic of peasant life in the 1860’s, La terre.  Mother Earth is the Good Earth, but everything else is pretty much shit.  Well, even shit ain’t so bad.

The plot recalls King Lear in that Old Fouan, the farmer who makes a gift of his land to his children in return for a pension when he can’t work it anymore ends up homeless, impoverished, and scorned by family and neighbors.  He recalls that he couldn’t wait for his own father to die either, so it’s only natural that his children want him to “peg out” as they call it.  His own sister, La Grande, a demonic crone in her eighties who at the end of life lives only for thinking up ways to make her relatives miserable, takes pleasure in slamming her door on Fouan as a sort of final “I told you so!”  But then she disowned her daughter for marrying for love, watched her granddaughter work herself to death to support her physically and mentally crippled brother, and then took the grandson in as her personal slave.  Zola is not sentimental about peasants, in case you were wondering.

During one of the less tragic episodes, there is a political election roiling the community.  There is an impromptu debate between a well-heeled factory owner and a local farmer:  the industrialist wants free trade, cheap imported grain to lower prices, make it easier for his workers to eat on low wages, and assure his profits.  The farmer wants protection to keep prices high on his grain brought to market:

The two of them, the farmer and the industrialist, the protectionist and the free-trader, stared each other in the face, one with a sly, good-humoured chuckle, the other with blunt hostility.  This was the modern form of warfare, the confrontation which faces us today, in the economic struggle for existence.

“We’ll force the peasant to feed the workers,” said Monsier Rochefontaine.

“But first of all,” insisted Hourdequin, “you must make sure that the peasant has enough to eat.”

We’ll force the peasant to feed the workers.   There’s an irony for you.  The bourgeois industrialist is looking out for the welfare of his workers, and threatening the peasant.  Flash forward sixty years to the USSR under Joe Stalin.  What do we see?  The vozhd, the great strongman, leader of the industrial workers state going to war against the peasant, the kulak. Why?  To feed the workers in the cities.  The tangled historical logic of it all!  The result was the great famine in the Ukraine, as bolshevik instruments of terror requisitioned grain at riflepoint and left the peasants to starve.  And starve they did, by the millions.

Meanwhile, back on the plain of Beauce, France, the peasants shovel their steaming piles of manure onto the fields – from filth comes life, a theme that appears in the strangest places in Zola – and marvel that in Paris, this valuable nutrient is totally wasted in the sewers!  Hugo began a chapter-long discussion of the Paris sewers in his novel Les miserables with the declaration:

Paris throws five millions a year into the sea. And this without metaphor. How, and in what manner? day and night. With what object? without any object. With what thought? without thinking of it. For what return? for nothing. By means of what organ? by means of its intestine. What is its intestine? its sewer . . . Science, after long experiment, now knows that the most fertilizing and the most effective of manures is that of man . . . A sewer is a mistake.

The peasants move on, as their parents did, and their parents did, and theirs, back for centuries.  No need to move too quickly.

And as I was waiting at the corner to cross the street next to the World Trade Center site, right where the giant trucks move in and out of a sliding gate, a husky woman in construction worker’s clothes announced that a dump truck was ready to come out – the pedestrians would all have to wait.  “I’ve got another one coming out!” she shouted at the top of her loud voice.  I thought, that’s not the voice of a peasant.  Why would a peasant yell with such energy just to announce something she announces several times a day, day in, day out, year in, year out?  Something that’s such a routine part of the job.  Why waste the energy?  No, that’s the voice of an American worker, filled with comittment to her job, maybe with optimism and pride in her role.  I thought, “I’m with the peasant!”  Maybe I’m just reading too damn much…


Le rouge et le noir

April 16, 2010

When I first read The Red and the Black by the pseudonymous Stendhal, I immediately wanted to form a Julien Sorel fan club.  Send me a few bucks, and you can join and receive a hand made button like the one shown above – I wear it proudly – for your lapel.

Julien is the child of a brutish and crafty peasant who runs a local saw mill, discussed in my recent post on peasants.  He idolizes Napoleon, and fumes at his inability to find a ladder out of the provincial pit of sloth and stupidity into which he has been born.  He is smart though, and is made tutor to the local bourgeois family of note, a family with a very beautiful mistress.  He promptly decides that seducing her is his only chance to advance himself.

Julien is cold, calculating, touchy, arrogant, insensitive and incredibly blockheaded.  He is also very good looking, but his deep sense of insecurity and inferiority, born of his low social station, prevent him from fully understanding or exploiting the effect he has on others, especially women.  He frequently appears to them as simply strange, unpredictable, even bizarre.  He is a strange sort of romantic hero.

Strange also in that his romantic nature is fixed on social climbing, even as he aches for love.  He can’t get love from Madame de Rênal, his employer, even though she is utterly infatuated by him, because he only uses people, as his father used him to make money.  He is passionate, and torn apart internally by his conflicts; he is the romantic hero of the superman – Napoleon – and the cursed burnout – Rimbaud or James Dean.

Eventually, he makes his way to Paris, where he works as a secretary to the Marquis de la Mole.  The Marquis’ young daughter, Mathilde, is a real piece of work herself.  Haughty, beautiful, intelligent, and suffering from the crushing boredom of post-1830 society in which nothing of interest can be said because it might be controversial, she is the natural aristocratic complement to Julien.  She is intrigued by this upstart plebeian – at least he is interesting. After considerable erotic knife-play, they become lovers.

Eric Auerbach, in his magisterial work of scholarship, MimesisThe Representation of Reality in Western Literature, devotes a chapter to the novel, naming it In the Hotel de la Mole after the title of chapter 34.  He dissects Stendhal’s brilliant depiction of the stifling and suffocating enforced conventionality, of manners, of dress, of thought, amongst the noble and bourgeois elite.  I practically gasp for air when I read the scenes of Julien suffering through an evening of chit chat in the de la Mole’s drawing room, the object of amused condescension of the more at-home guests.

Julien comes to a bad end, Mathilde is pregnant with his child, and she keeps his head as a keepsake.  There is so much in this novel, so many fantastic scenes, such crazy passion and psychological insight, such merciless realism, that I read it again and again with the passing years.

In 1996, Michiko Kakutani of the NYTimes published this clever parody and rap hommage to the novel:

THE RED AND THE BLACK (with apologies to L. L. Cool J and other rap artists):

Now I’ve got a tale I wanna tell.
It’s how I romanced these chicks and
got sent to hell.
My tag’s Sorel
And I’m one bad dude,
Master manipulator, young
Machiavelle.

Grew up in the sticks, where there ain’t no glory.
Had to make my name, no matter
how gory.
Got me a job as a kinda tutor.
Met the kids’ ma and became her suitor.
Mrs. R., she fell for me hard,
I made her my toy,
I’m one bad boy.

Got me a job in the far-off city.
Met a rich girl who was pretty pretty.
She was a doormat, I had a format.
We were gonna get hitched
I was gonna be rich.
Till old Mrs. R. played her
role as snitch.

She sold me out as a nasty cad.
So I tried to fade her, but I
got had.
They found me guilty and
now I’m dead.

Stupid Mathilde went and
buried my head.
Old Mrs. R. heard the news
and fell.
Now she’s off-line too,
as you can tell.
Like I said before, I’m a
master manipulator, the
new Machiavelle.


Sharp dealing peasants

April 16, 2010

Peasant is often used as an insult, the meaning being that they are a stupid, dull, and foolish lot.  Of course, they managed to survive for centuries under conditions that were far from comfortable, so obviously, they know a thing or two about life.  I happen to have a weak spot for novels, it seems they are all French, that feature sharp dealing by peasants, and I am reading one now, La Terre, by Zola.  The archetypal literary scene of peasant-dealing is for me, however, from The Red and the Black, by Stendhal, which is one of my all-time favorite books.

Julien Sorel is the young son of a successful peasant who runs a lumber business in the hills.  Old Sorel beats his son, and despises him as a useless, arrogant, and snotty layabout, always shirking work, slight of build, addicted to reading useless books of Napoleonic history.  Through the offices of a local priest who notes the boy’s intellect, Monsieur Rênal, a local big bourgeois, decides to hire the boy as a tutor for his children, so Rênal goes to settle terms with the father.  The old man, grasping that his son is valuable to these people, and sensing there is money to be made from him, makes a deal on wages and boarding, but when the time comes to seal the agreement, he stalls Monsieur Rênal (italics original).

“Oh, very well!” said Sorel in a drawling tone, “then there’s only one thing for us still to settle:  the money you are to give him.”

“What!” M. De Rênal indignantly exclaimed, “we agreed upon that yesterday:  I give three hundred francs; I consider that plenty, if not too much.”

“That was your offer, I do not deny it, ” said old Sorel, speaking even more slowly; then, by a stroke of genius which will astonish only those who do not know the Franc-Comtois peasant, he added, looking M. de Rênal steadily in the face:  “We can do better elsewhere.”

I have the original French passage here:

– Eh bien! dit Sorel d’un ton de voix traînard, il ne reste donc plus qu’à nous mettre d’accord sur une seule chose: l’argent que vous lui donnerez.

– Comment! s’écria M. de Rênal indigné, nous sommes d’accord depuis hier: je donne trois cents francs; je crois que c’est beaucoup, et peut-être trop.

– C’était votre offre, je ne le nie point, dit le vieux Sorel, parlant encore plus lentement; et, par un effort de génie qui n’étonnera que ceux qui ne connaissent pas les paysans francs-comtois, il ajouta, en regardant fixement M. de Rênal: Nous trouvons mieux ailleurs .

Truly, a memorable moment in literary representations of the peasantry!  They survive against Nature, not always nurturing, and in a social realm that relegates them to the bottom of the heap.  Sentimentality is a luxury, and even family feeling often gives way to calculation.  Relations between father and son are often disrupted by lunges for the economic jugular.

In La Terre, the old farmer, Fouan, decides he can’t keep up his land anymore, love it as he does.  He and his wife decide to make a legal gift of it to their children on agreement that the children will pay the old couple an annual stipend on which they can live.  The two sons comprise a scheming rascal and an utterly dissolute drunkard, known locally as Jesus Christ because of his resemblance to images of the Saviour.  The daughter is an intelligent woman married to a hard working farmer, and she fears being diddled out of her share by her brothers.  The sons resent not getting the land outright:  they suspect that Old Fouan has a stash of money he can live on easily without their payments, and that he is just plain stingy.  At any rate, the two sons are constantly delinquent with their payments, especially Jesus Christ.

And then there is La Grande, the old crone, Fouan’s sister, eighty years old, tough as hickory, single, independent, who regards Fouan as a complete idiot for doing the gift.  She knows what children are like when money’s involved.  She sits in on a confrontation between Fouan and his sons, watching with utter, but silent disgust as Fouan demands the money owed him from one, only to forgive the payment owed by Jesus Christ, and in fact, letting him walk off with some of his brother’s money.  That one is the favorite of the mother!  La Grande declares, “You asked for it!  Don’t ever come asking me for even a penny!!”  She screeches like a harpie or an ingnored prophetess in a Greek myth.

Finally, there are the two later novels, by Pagnol, Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring, better known here through their film adaptations.  These tell the story of the Soubeyran clan in southern France, where land is valuable, but water is the final arbiter of wealth, for without a well, land is worthless.  In this story, the battle for water, takes on a mythic cast, followed through several generations, with a hidden cache of gold as the final prize.  This is not social realism, but it is brutal enough.  In the end, the peasants’ grasping after water and wealth is frustrated by ironic twists of fate, complete with a local crippled prophet out of Oedipus, who declares the truth of the curse that floats over a town stricken by a dried up spring.


Madame Bovary – Chabrol

February 20, 2010

In a post several years ago, I commented negatively on Claude Chabrol’s take on Madame Bovary, saying it was too faithful to the book to be interesting.  It seemed a slow-paced, Masterpiece Theater sort of treatment.  On watching it again, I’m not so sure.

A lot of reviewers felt as I did, and the film is not rated among Chabrol’s finest.  Yes, Isabelle Huppert is too old for the character, and her light hair and freckles are not Emma at all, but she’s lovely.  More interesting, is the complaint I read in many places that she, and the film, are too cold, controlled, lacking the sentimental passion of Emma, the passion that destroys her.

Certainly the film is restrained. Consider the scene in which Emma meets her old (Platonic) flame, Léon, in the Rouen cathedral, and he takes her for a ride in a hired cab.  He tells the driver to drive through the streets of the town,  and the citizens of the fair city are left to puzzle over this meandering cab that occasionally rocks back and forth rather wildly.  Inside, rapturous lovemaking.  The action is described in an almost cinematic way, yet the film gives us just this, with one brief glimpse of passion:

Not much for a literary passage that surely inspired the passionate sex-in-the-backseat scene of that masterpiece, Titanic.  The sculptural group on the right in the image above is a nice touch, though.

Still, I think Chabrol is on to something here.  The crucial thing about the novel is the control of tone – a touchstone of Flaubert’s writing.  Emma is shallow and sentimental, and a prey to passion, but it’s childish passion.  On the other hand, she’s an adult, a woman who is trapped in a dull marriage in a dull town in a dull epoch, and it’s not her fault.  Another woman who is the victim of men, and she knows it.  In the film, she comments frequently on things men might do that a woman has no chance of doing.  She sees her situation clearly, and she wants to rebel against it, yet she is fiercely restrained by her own ingrained sense of social propriety. [Compare to Flaubert’s other sentimental “hero,” Frederic Moreau.]  She was never a wanton bohemian or heedless character, at least not at first.  She must calculate – as a woman, she is always being watched.  In that sense, Huppert’s portrayal is just right.

Emma’s passionate nature is displayed before her marriage.  She has no hesitation at sucking her pricked finger despite the presence of Charles, the doctor.  Later, when their marriage is in the offing, she drinks a liquer with more than the normal relish, sticking her tongue into the glass to get the last drop.  After marriage, as her boredom and disposable income grow, her clothes get more and more elaborate.

On the left, Charles Bovary, the oafish husband.  On the right, Homais, the pharmacist, the man of reason.  His tiresome and superficial political, scientific, and philosophical patter are an ironic counterpoint throughout much of the story.  Even when you share his opinions about the clergy, the gentry, the capitalists, you want to throttle him to shut him up.  His stupid grasping for acclaim leads him to stampede Charles into a foolish and disastrous operation on a well young man who happens to have a club foot that needs “correcting.”

Is Charles the hero of the novel?  In a way, he is.  Only he has genuine, sincere, and deep emotional responses to his situation.  He is not the sharpest tool in the shed, but he truly loves Emma, though he can’t make her happy with that.

Emma is tempted by the local notary’s assistant, Léon, a callow and romantic young man who is obviously in love with her.  She seeks spiritual help from the local priest in one of the most powerful passages of the novel.  The priest is absolutely tonedeaf to what ails her.  She has fine clothes, food, fire to warm her – the notion that she could be gravely suffering is totally alien to his mind and he shoos her away to deal with the urchins who must learn their stultifying catechism.  “What is a Christian?”  “One who is born and baptized!”  A fine verbal irony, pointing out the total lack of Christian love that comes Emma’s way in the church.

There’s not much to do if you live in a small French town in 1840, but the local aristocrat gives a grand ball and invites the Bovarys since Charles cured his abscess.   The waltz is absolutely dizzying, especially for a relative novice.  Emma says it was the most beautiful day of her life, and she daydreams about it endlessly.  At least the local draper, always willing to sell on credit, has some beautiful fabrics to show her to occupy her mind.

Rodolphe, a local gentleman and ladykiller shows up just as the town gets to host the annual country fair, a real boost for the place!  He seduces Emma with a steady torrent of romantic cliches and appealing hurt and angst.  Taking a window seat to the official proceedings, his words are intercut with prize awards for pigs, manure, and cows.  The bullshit is flying hot and heavy, and Emma is powerless to resist.  At last, someone who understands her!


They have a passionate love affair, but Rodolphe drops her because she’s becoming inconvenient.  Emma is shaken, but eventually picks up in earnest with Léon, leading to the cab ride and three days of bliss in an hotel room in Rouen.  She throws caution to the wind, and she actually scares her lover a bit, she’s so intense.  Her clothes get sharper and sharper, and the friendly merchant always has fancy stuff to sell on credit.  Finally he comes up with some promissory notes to sign and tells her to keep all the cash for now.  She can pay him pack later.  You can see the thought balloon above her head, filled with lists of things to buy.

It had to end.  The bills come due.  The bailiffs come to take back all the stuff in the house.  Notices are posted in the square – dishonor and utter humiliation await her, unless she can get 3,000 francs fast!  Won’t the draper help her out with a stay of a few days?  Her hand on his knee gets no results – he cares for francs, not fucking.  Was she really willing to do that with him? She is appalled at his insinuations, and at herself?

Of course, Rodolphe, he will help her!  He must help her!  She runs across the fields to his mansion – so difficult to do in the female costume of the day.  Standing outside his bedroom door, she is out of breath and desparate, but composes herself.

She opens the door.  “Oh, it’s you!”  There she is, in the mirror, smaller than the man of course.  She is only what she is in mens’ eyes.  Maybe she can rekindle their old love – they will run away together, of course.  She is so beautiful!

Building castles in the air is fine, but there is the matter of those 3,000 francs.  Rodolphe sees how it is, and he’s having none of it.  Cooly he tells her, “I don’t have it.” Surrounded by the accessories of wealth, in a mansion, on an estate, Emma finds it hard to believe him.  The awful truth dawns on her.  Nobody cares, nobody loves her.  She is alone.

She escapes by poisoning herself.  Charles loves her.


Eugénie Grandet

February 10, 2010

This little tale from Balzac’s scenes of provincial life is one of my favorites, having a simple plot anchored by a character of monumental greed and miserliness, Old Grandet.  He has amassed a fortune in land, farms, shares, and wooden casks of gold coins that he loves to gaze upon, but he lives like a simple workman with not a centime to his name.  His good wife and lovely daughter, Eugénie, are completely dominated by his tyrannical personality.  Eugenie has never known any other life, and hardly dreams that one is possible, let alone that she is an heiress to millions.

Into this small town darkness flashes the meteoric path of Charles, Grandet’s nephew, whose father killed himself to escape the shame of bankruptcy.  Charles visits his relations in Saumur at his father’s direction, not knowing why, and learns the awful truth from his uncle.  He is a rich, spoiled, foppish dandy, but he is truly despairing when he learns of his father’s end, and he resolves to remake his fortune in the West Indies.  But first, through a few secret interviews, he and Eugénie fall in love.  To help him on his way, Eugénie gives him her entire life savings, a bag of gold coins, resolving to wait for him forever, blissfully enslaved to the only true love she has ever known.

Charles sails away, and Grandet finds out about Eugénie’s absolutely foolish, blasphemous action with her gold.  Initially, he punishes her by locking her in her room on a diet of bread and water.  The mother’s health fails, the town gossips, and the two top families scheme to get their sons married to Eugénie.  Charles grows rich trading slaves, and becomes corrupt and miserly – Eugénie is orphaned.  Charles returns to France and feels obligated to write Eugénie a “Dear Jane” letter so he can proceed to marry into a decrepit but prestigious noble family with a clear conscience.  Eugénie marries one of the sons, but insists that she remain a virgin, and lives a life of humility, austerity, and generous charity.  Her husband never gets to enjoy his wife’s wealth; he dies young.  Charles is shocked to learn that the pretty cousin he jilted, the one who lives in poverty in the country, is far more wealthy than he – he calculated wrong!

Such is the plot – another French tale of sharp provincial dealing and financial chicanery – of which Balzac is a master.  It is the character and psychology of Old Grandet that makes it an epic of obsession and sexual repression.  Grandet seems hardly human, a mass of granite, and completely devoid of feelings.  He drives hard bargains always, and only shows delight and humor when he manages a particularly crafty financial triumph.  He has a wen, a cyst or wart, on his nose that is his principle indicator of internal passion – it becomes inflamed and pulsating when he is agitated or angry.  The symbolism is obvious.

Eugénie, his daughter, is a beautiful young woman who is practically living the life of a nun, married, in bondage, to her father and his gold.  He gives her gifts of coins on special occasions, but his gifts come with strings.  He asks now and then to view the coins with her -“Go and bring your coins, girlie. Looking at them warms me up.”  His use of the diminuitive is unsettling – Eugénie is a fully grown and lovely woman.  The coins give him heat and life: money is always something supernatural in Balzac, and here it is the life-sexual force itself.    There is nothing else for Old Grandet.  Locked in his office, gazing at his barrels of gold, Grandet is like a boy ashamed of his sexual longing, hiding himself away with his favorite girlie magazines.  At one point, he exclaims: “You ought to kiss me on the eyelids for telling you the secrets and mysteries of the life and death of money.  Really, coins live and swarm like men’ they come and go and sweat and multiply.”  Such are the facts of life according to Monsieur Grandet. Swarming, multiplying, sweating…only gold lives.  It’s the only sex education Eugénie gets.

When Eugénie gives Charles her coins, he gives her a golden casket of his mother’s in return, to hold for him in trust, promising to repay her the value of her coins.  Eugénie and her mother, who sympathizes with her, delight in looking at the box, rehearsing their memories of the handsome cousin, now far away.  Upon learning of this exchange, Old Grandet leaps upon the casket “like a tiger” and begins clawing it, almost destroying it to get some goldwork that he can sell to recoup her idiotic squandering of her treasure.  Eugénie tries to stop him, shouting that the cask is neither hers nor his, it is only held in trust against Charles’ return and repayment of the  loan of her coins.  Grandet shoves her aside, hurting her, and cries, “Why were you looking at it if it was given you in trust?  Looking is worse than touching.”

Ah, yes, the looking!  His gloating over his coins has an element of sexual looking, voyeurism.  This is more explicit when, after punishing his daughter with house arrest, he fumes and walks in his garden, but can’t resist looking at her as she mournfully brushes her hair at her windowsill.  His gaze is filled with anger, love, paternal and avaricious, and sexual?  The scene made me think of this painting by Thomas Hart Benton and the story of Susanna and the Elders – young women wronged by crude, dirty old men.  When Eugénie tries to evade his requests to see her gold in order to forestall revealing what she did with it, Old Grandet wheedles:  “Listen, Eugénie, you must give me your gold.  You won’t refuse your old daddy, will you girlie, eh?” sounding like a increasingly frustrated pedophile with a recalcitrant intended victim.

Eugénie, disappointed in love, agrees to marry only to procure a service from her notary-suitor that will rescue the honor of that cad, Charles, and with the stipulation that she remain a virgin.  Her fate reminds me of Zeus impregnating Danae with a rain of golden coins – another woman done wrong by gold.


Enron and the dung heap…

January 20, 2010

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?


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