Zola’s take on stock exchanges

L’Argent by Emile Zola. 1891 The English translation I used for the quotes is by Vizetelly.

L’Argent was our Book Club choice for April (I know, I’m late) and we all loved it.

Et la Bourse, grise et morne, se détachait, dans la mélancolie de la catastrophe, qui, depuis un mois, la laissait déserte, ouverte aux quatre vents du ciel, pareille à une halle qu’une disette a vidée. C’était l’épidémie fatale, périodique, dont les ravages balayent le marché tous les dix à quinze ans, les vendredis noirs, ainsi qu’on les nomme, semant le sol de décombres. Il faut des années pour que la confiance renaisse, pour que les grandes maisons de banque se reconstruisent, jusqu’au jour où, la passion du jeu ravivée peu à peu, flambant et recommençant l’aventure, amène une nouvelle crise, effondre tout, dans un nouveau désastre. And against this cloud the Bourse stood out grey and gloomy in the melancholiness born of the catastrophe which, for a month past, had left it deserted, open to the four winds of heaven, like some market which famine has emptied. Once again had the inevitable, periodical epidemic come—the epidemic which sweeps through it every ten or fifteen years—the Black Fridays, as the speculators say, which strew the soil with ruins. Years are needed for confidence to be restored, for the great financial houses to be built up anew, and time goes slowly by until the passion for gambling, gradually reviving, flames up once more and repeats the adventure, when there comes another crisis, and the downfall of everything in a fresh disaster.

I promise Zola wrote this and not a contemporary journalist. It’s a quote from Money, one of the last books of the Rougon-Macquart series. It was published in 1891, just before La Débâcle.

In this volume, we are in 1864 and we find Aristide Saccard again, one of the main characters of La Curée (The Kill). My post about The Kill was entitled Hunting high and low for money, pleasure or power. Well, Aristide Saccard hasn’t changed much. At the beginning of the novel, he is defeated, living rather poorly in an apartment in the hotel of the Princess D’Orviedo. She inherited a colossal fortune from her dead husband who didn’t earn it honestly. She’s expiating his faults by using his money for charities. Saccard works for one of her charity, the Institute of Work and runs it rather well. In the same hotel live a brother and a sister, M. Hamelin and Madame Caroline. They are also impoverished and try to make ends meet. Hamelin is an engineer and when he describes to Saccard all the great projects he could be starting in Asia Minor, Saccard sees an opportunity to start a new business, a bank. The three friends discuss the projects and Saccard relies on Hamelin’s ideas to promote his new company and new way of earning money.

Basically, the book relates the rise and fall of the Banque Universelle, created by Saccard with financial partners. It shows the madness of the stock exchange, the way people are corrupted by money easily earned on betting on the right stock and selling them at the right time.

The strength of the novel is the large net of secondary characters who serve one purpose: to show all kinds of unhealthy relationships with money and prove how it can turn honest people into despicable beings. All the characters in Money are involved with money at a level or another.

The main one is Saccard who appears like a megalomaniac, enjoys money for itself, for the power it gives him. He’s addicted to money. He’s full of energy, is afraid of nothing, is busy inventing scheme after scheme to reach his goal. At some point, he seems crazy. At the same time, you can’t despise him totally because he is hard working, full of enthusiasm but his ideas of grandeur are totally disproportionate. He has an appetite for life, for power and for all kinds of pleasures. Zola compared him to Napoleon: a man with lethal ideas or projects beyond imagination, someone who is a real leader, adored by people and at the same time leading his troops to death and desolation.  Saccard is shown as a Napoleonic businessman. Zola describes his fall with lots of military comparisons and they enforce the image of Saccard as a Napoleon of finance.

Les cours, de chute en chute, tombèrent à 1 500, à 1 200, à 900. Il n’y avait plus d’acheteurs, la plaine restait rase, jonchée de cadavres.  The quotations, from fall to fall, dropped to one thousand five hundred, one thousand two hundred, nine hundred francs. There were no more buyers ; none were left standing ; the ground was strewn with corpses.

When I read the French original, I cannot help thinking about Hugo’s poem L’Expiation about the battle of Waterloo. (Waterloo ! Waterloo ! Waterloo ! morne plaine !

Along with Saccard’s business, Zola portrays the business circles in Paris and especially the ones gravitating around the stock exchange, la Bourse. He describes the development of a new type of capitalism around banks and Sociétés Anonymes (Plc or AG). He depicts the workings of the Bourse, the behavior of investors, the optimists, the pessimists, the ones for who silence is gold. Zola shows the reader how enriched bourgeois, using impoverished nobility for their name are the new masters of the Bourse. He details rotten business practices, the manipulation of stock value and how people make money out of speculation. He always compares it to gambling.

The side characters are vivid too and Zola uses them to show how the madness of speculation, of easy money that corrupts people. It’s Dejoie, who buys stocks of the Banque Universelle to earn the 6000 francs he needs to pay for his daughter’s dowry. When the stock exchange price rises, he could sell and get his 6000 francs but he wants more. It’s the Maugendres who disowned their daughter because she married a poor writer and who’d rather play on the stock market than help her financially. It’s women who use prostitution to earn more.

Aside from the Bourse, Zola portrays the dirty market of bad debts and of devaluated stocks. Busch is our man and here is his business:

Mais, outre l’usure et tout un commerce caché sur les bijoux et les pierres précieuses, il s’occupait particulièrement de l’achat des créances. C’était là ce qui emplissait son cabinet à en faire craquer les murs, ce qui le lançait dans Paris, aux quatre coins, flairant, guettant, avec des intelligences dans tous les mondes. Dès qu’il apprenait une faillite, il accourait, rôdait autour du syndic, finissait par acheter tout ce dont on ne pouvait rien tirer de bon immédiatement. Il surveillait les études de notaire, attendait les ouvertures de successions difficiles, assistait aux adjudications des créances désespérées. Lui-même publiait des annonces, attirait les créanciers impatients qui aimaient mieux toucher quelques sous tout de suite que de courir le risque de poursuivre leurs débiteurs. Et, de ces sources multiples, du papier arrivait, de véritables hottées, le tas sans cesse accru d’un chiffonnier de la dette : billets impayés, traités inexécutés, reconnaissances restées vaines, engagements non tenus. Puis, là-dedans, commençait le triage, le coup de fourchette dans cet arlequin gâté, ce qui demandait un flair spécial, très délicat. Dans cette mer de créanciers disparus ou insolvables, il fallait faire un choix, pour ne pas trop éparpiller son effort. En principe, il professait que toute créance, même la plus compromise, peut redevenir bonne, et il avait une série de dossiers admirablement classés, auxquels correspondait un répertoire des noms, qu’il relisait de temps à autre, pour s’entretenir la mémoire. In addition also to usury and a secret traffic in jewels and precious stones, he particularly occupied himself with the purchase of ‘bad debts.’ This it was that filled his office with old paper to overflowing, this it was that sent him forth to the four corners of Paris, sniffing and watching, with connections in all circles of society. As soon as he heard of a failure, he hurried off, prowled around the liquidator, and ended by buying up everything which could not immediately be realised. He kept a watch on the notaries’ offices, looked out for inheritances difficult of settlement, and attended the ; sales of hopeless claims. He himself published advertisements, in this wise attracting impatient creditors who preferred to get a few coppers down rather than run the risk of prosecuting their debtors. And from all these manifold sources this chiffonnier of bad debts derived supply upon supply of paper, huge basketfuls, an ever-increasing pile of unpaid notes of hand, unfulfilled agreements, unredeemed acknowledgments !of liability, unkept engagements of every kind. Then a sorting-out became necessary, a fork had to be thrust into this mess of broken victuals, a special and very delicate scent being required in the operation. To avoid waste of effort, it was necessary to make a choice in this ocean of debtors, who were either insolvent or had disappeared. In principle, Busch asserted that every claim, even the most seemingly hopeless, may some day become valuable again ; and he had a series of portfolios, admirably classified, to which corresponded an index of names, which he read over from time to time to refresh his memory.

A charming profession, isn’t it? This man is merciless when he tracks down old debts and the additional expenses reach incredible amounts. I haven’t checked, but I bet these professionals really existed. This questions the access to credit: these debts were a way to have credit somewhere, when we basically rely on banks for this now.

Zola tries to balance his judgment. On the one hand, even evil characters have a good side. Busch is also a very kind brother attending to his ill relative like a mother hen. Saccard was perfectly honest when he ran the Institute of Work. On the other hand, the generous characters aren’t as good as it seems.  The Princess d’Orviedo gives her fortune away but the useless luxury she puts in her charities is to be criticized too. She gives her money away more for herself, because this money is dirty, than to really improve the beneficiaries’ life. She could do more if the investments were more efficient.

Madame Caroline is the only character who seems to keep her moral compass but she is also momentarily blinded by Saccard. He’s hard to resist. She’s seduced but can keep to her promises when she has decided something. She’s the only one who’s interested in life for itself and who has a healthy relationship with money. She enjoys it when she has some but wouldn’t give up her principles for more. If her income decreases, she adjusts her way of living.

Lots of elements in this novel were depressing because things haven’t changed that much since Zola. The behaviours he describes still exist. Crashes like Enron look a lot like the crash of the Banque Universelle and their outcome is alike with major consequences for shareholders and the whole market. Small people lose their fortune, but aren’t they responsible for stupidly believing that making so much money without doing anything was sustainable? If Money rings true, it’s because the foundation of all this is greed. The alternative is represented in the book by Busch’s brother Sigismond. He’s a thinker and an idealist who dreams of a Marxist society. Zola depicts him as a idealist. The society he dreams of cannot be implemented because it is based on the absence of greed and greed is part of the human nature. It’s doomed to failure.

Money also prepares the reader to La Débâcle. The political events mentioned here and there remind the reader that a war is in the air. The crash at the Bourse (a real one occurred in 1867, probably resulting in the new Corporate Law of July 24th, 1867) is described as a battle field and prefigures the agony of the regime.

Money is an excellent novel. I was really interested in the business and legal elements it includes and will come back to them in another entry. Highly recommended.

Discover Guy’s excellent take on this novel here.

  1. May 6, 2013 at 1:05 am

    I was surprised by how modern this novel seemed, but then I suppose when it comes to Money, nothing really changes. I’m happy to hear that you liked this one so much. Saccard is a well drawn character. I could place him in today’s world, coming out from prison.

    Like

    • May 6, 2013 at 8:23 pm

      You pointed out this book to me, actually.
      The modernity comes from the money aspects but also from the thoughts about the stock exchange. I saw on Wikipedia that there were crashes on the stick exchanged in 1837, 1847,
      Apparently, L’Argent is based upon the collapse of the crash of the Union Générale.

      L’Union générale, fondée en 1875 à Lyon par un groupe de banquiers catholiques et monarchistes, sombre après seulement 7 ans d’existence. Le cardinal Jacobini, secrétaire du pape, a investi 335649 francs dans la nouvelle banque. Paul Eugène Bontoux, ex-chef de service licencié200 par Rothschild, prend sa direction en 1878. Ancien patron des chemins de fer autrichiens, il a perdu sa fortune à la Bourse de Vienne en 1873201. Il multiplie les acquisitions en Europe centrale, Afrique du Nord et Égypte, puis fonde la “Société lyonnaise des eaux et de l’éclairage”, tout en spéculant par le rachat de ses propres actions. La Bourse s’envole mais le doute grandit. Un « match » acrimonieux démarre: les « baissiers », réunis autour de Rothschild contre les « haussiers », menés par le Crédit lyonnais d’Henri Germain200.
      Les différents affrontements de la conquête du Tonkin

      Les premiers l’emportent : début janvier 1882, l’action est divisée par deux en quinze jours, c’est le « krach de l’Union générale », en défaut de paiement, qui disparaît. Condamné à cinq ans de prison, Paul Eugène Bontoux fuit en Espagne. S’ensuit une crise industrielle, avec en 1884 la grande grève des mineurs d’Anzin. Émile Zola s’en inspire pour deux romans : Germinal (1885) et L’Argent (1891)

      They didn’t have an internet bubble at the time but it was railroad, electricity, the beginning of telecommunications…

      It’s all in French but I’m sure you can understand it. Let me know if you need help. http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Histoire_des_bourses_de_valeurs

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      • May 9, 2013 at 2:23 am

        You haven’t read Trollope’s The Way we Live Now have you? If not, it would be a good companion piece. It’s very long though.

        If you wanted sometime, we could do a readalong. I just started Is he Popenjoy? which will take some time to get through

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        • May 9, 2013 at 6:36 pm

          The only Troloppe I’ve read is Miss McKenzie. I need to be on holiday to read such long books in English. French is hardly an option as most of his books haven’t been translated.Which is an oddity I can’t explain. I could understand OOP but not untranslated (does that word exist?)
          Ok for a readalong, it should be fun. I just need enough time before we decide to post about the book.

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          • May 10, 2013 at 12:17 am

            The trollope I’m currently reading will take me a while, but we could another later in the year if interested

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            • May 10, 2013 at 9:14 pm

              Let’s say we post something by the end of September if that’s ok with you. Can you pick the book?

              Like

  2. May 6, 2013 at 1:18 am

    I should read this (I’ve got it somewhere): I love Zola and I love books about the madness of c19th capitalism. – No, nothing’s much changed: there are just more rules these days for speculators to ignore.

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    • May 6, 2013 at 8:25 pm

      I really recommend it. Yes, there are more rules but also more technical means to go around them with complicated products and in any case, you can’t avoid speculation.
      The regulation is always behind the actors on the market.

      Like

  3. May 6, 2013 at 11:06 am

    Seems to be a very interesting read. So far I know only La Bête humaine and Thérèse Raquin, but I read them both ages ago… I reckon that I’ll pick a novel by Zola from my shelves soon. Thanks for the great review, Emma!

    Like

    • May 6, 2013 at 8:26 pm

      Lucky you: you still have lots of great Zolas to read.
      This one is very interesting, on an historical point of view. It deserves to be better known.

      Like

  4. May 6, 2013 at 7:39 pm

    A fascinating post. The world does not change as much as we think it does. English writer Anthony Trollope also covered similar ground. I need to read more of the great French classics but like British classics they are so long!

    Like

    • May 6, 2013 at 8:35 pm

      French classics from the 19thC aren’t as long as their British counterpart. We don’t have the Victorian form of huge books in three volumes. (I don’t remember the name for it but Guy knows)
      According to a French paperback edition, L’Argent is 544 pages long. A little more than half a Trollope.

      Like

      • May 8, 2013 at 4:32 pm

        Dumas wrote trilogies, didn’t he? And Hugo didn’t write short novels, either!

        Like

        • May 9, 2013 at 6:29 pm

          Oops?! I tend to think Balzac-Flaubert-Maupassant-Zola when I think about French novels of the 19th C.
          I prefer Hugo as a poet or a playwright. I don’t care much about his novels.
          And yes, it’s unforgivable to forget Dumas’ marvelous chunksters.

          Like

  5. May 7, 2013 at 5:22 am

    Triple decker. 544 pages is actually pretty close to a triple decker, just about the same length as Barchester Towers and Doctor Thorne. It’s the 20 part serialized English novels that head toward 800 or 900 pages. And there are lots of those.

    Do you get the idea that Zola knows what he is talking about? Sorry, that is your next post, isn’t it? Never mind, I can wait.

    Like

    • May 7, 2013 at 6:30 am

      I thought they were more towards the 900 pages. Triple decker, thanks, that’s what I was looking for. Where does this name come from? I can’t help Imagining triple deckers in omnibus editions read in an airplane and it makes me derail from my train of thoughts.

      Was Zola accurate? I’m not sure I can answer that. I’ve been looking for information about company law, banking law in the Second Empire but haven’t found anything yet. I asked a friend of mine who’s a lawyer. She looked up in professional databases and couldn’t find anything beyond a mention to the July 24th 1867 new law for corporation. I’ll try to write something anyway and I was to figure out on paper how all these increase in capital worked.
      That said, reading the Wikipedia article about the history of stick exchanges, I’d say Zola pictured a rather synthetic portrait all the stock exchange crisis. Curiously, this article doesn’t have a counterpart in English. Usually, I read Wikipedia in French and then click on the English button to have it in English.

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  6. May 7, 2013 at 7:59 am

    I was thinking the whole time while reading this – how depressing that nothing has chnaged much and then I saw you mention this as well.
    I still remember all the guys dressed in dark grey in the quartier de la bourse in Paris. Not black or dark blue, dark grey. All of them.
    I want to get back to Zola as well but not with this. That’s for later.

    Like

    • May 9, 2013 at 6:19 pm

      There were several stock exchange crisis in the 19th century but I’m not sure the consequences were so global.
      In the novel, everything happens in the neighborhood around the Bourse, St Lazard station and the “capital” streets around it. (rue de Londres,…)
      Lots of banks are in La Defense now or near Gare de Lyon.

      Like

  7. Brian Joseph
    May 8, 2013 at 3:39 pm

    Indeed as you point out there are certain things that have not changed that much. I am reading some histories on the Roman Empire and some of this stuff was going on even that far back.

    Like

    • May 9, 2013 at 6:24 pm

      I didn’t know it dated back to the Romans,but I’m not that surprised. They seem to have invented everything. What are you reading?

      When I started reading Money, I was so stunned by some passages that I felt the need to read them aloud to my husband. They could have come today’s newspaper if journalists could write like Zola.

      Like

  8. May 9, 2013 at 12:24 pm

    *insert usual comment about intending to read more French classics*

    Mind you, you still haven’t come back to me with my new Balzac Humbug book 😉

    Like

    • May 9, 2013 at 6:39 pm

      One day you’ll find time to read one of them.

      I thought I had told you it was Eugénie Grandet. I must have forgotten then.

      Like

      • May 10, 2013 at 5:38 am

        No worries – ‘Eugénie Grandet’ it is 🙂 Merci beaucoup!

        Like

        • May 10, 2013 at 9:15 pm

          Looking forward to your review.

          Like

  1. May 17, 2013 at 11:14 pm
  2. December 27, 2013 at 12:07 am
  3. February 16, 2014 at 5:45 pm
  4. January 24, 2016 at 1:05 pm

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