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An Open Wound by Patrick Pécherot – About the Paris Commune of 1871

December 30, 2018 25 comments

An Open Wound by Patrick Pécherot (2015) Original French title: Une plaie ouverte.

*Sigh* A missed opportunity, that’s what An Open Wound is. Patrick Pécherot supposedly wrote historical crime fiction here. The setting is Paris, back and forth between the Paris Commune of 1871 and 1905. Here’s what Wikipedia sums up about the Paris Commune:

The Paris Commune was a radical socialist and revolutionary government that ruled Paris from 18 March to 28 May 1871. The Franco-Prussian War had led to the capture of Emperor Napoleon III in September 1870, the collapse of the Second French Empire, and the beginning of the Third Republic. Because Paris was under siege for four months, the Third Republic moved its capital to Tours. A hotbed of working-class radicalism, Paris was primarily defended during this time by the often politicised and radical troops of the National Guard rather than regular Army troops. Paris surrendered to the Prussians on 28 January 1871, and in February Adolphe Thiers, the new chief executive of the French national government, signed an armistice with Prussia that disarmed the Army but not the National Guard.

On 18 March, soldiers of the Commune’s National Guard killed two French army generals, and the Commune refused to accept the authority of the French government. The Commune governed Paris for two months, until it was suppressed by the regular French Army during “La semaine sanglante” (“The Bloody Week”) beginning on 21 May 1871.

Debates over the policies and outcome of the Commune had significant influence on the ideas of Karl Marx, who described it as an example of the “dictatorship of the proletariat”.

The pretext of the plot is that Dana, a participant in the Commune of Paris has been sentenced to death in absentia for a murder on the Haxo street during the Paris Commune. In 1905, Dana is still missing and no one knows where he is or if he’s still alive. Rumors say he might be in America.

Dana was part of a group of activists during the Paris Commune, a group of historical figures (Courbet, Verlaine, Louise Michel, Vallès) and fictional characters like Marceau, the man who wonders what has become of Dana.

So far, so good. Good blurb, excellent idea for a book. Its execution was a death sentence for this reader. There are so many things that went wrong for me that I abandoned it, despite a genuine interest in reading about the Paris Commune.

The layout of the book:

Different typos to help the reader know where they are: normal for relating the Paris Commune in 1871, italic for the quest in 1905 and normal with another font to write about the murder. Tedious. I wonder how it turns out in audio book. I hate this device: the writing should be good enough to make the reader understand they’re back in time or moving forward or changing of point of view. It’s a lazy way to overcome the difficulty of changing of time, place and narrator.

Losing the plot line

The investigation to discover what has become of Dana should be our main thread except that we have a hard time figuring out it’s supposed to be the plot line. Thank God for the blurb. It’s not a real and methodical investigation so, right after I finally got it was the purpose of the book, I lost sight of it.

Missing key elements on the historical events. 

The Paris Commune events are told in short paragraphs with their date, to give the reader a chronology of the movement and its fall. Fine. But, as a reader who knows next to nothing about the Paris Commune (and I’m sure I’m not the only one) I didn’t understand how it happened, who were Communards, the ones fighting against the Thiers government. Thank God for Wikipedia.

Mixing historical characters with fictional ones. 

Except for the obvious ones, I couldn’t figure out who were real participants and who were literary characters. I don’t know how much Verlaine was involved in the Paris Commune or if it’s true that his wife was one of Louise Michel’s pupil. I suppose it’s true.

The style

The last straw that broke my reader’s back was the style. At times some sort of lyrical prose overflowing with words and at other times, half sentences, almost bullet points. Add to the mix, embedded verses by Verlaine when a paragraph features the poet, like here:

Il faudrait questionner Courbet, savoir ce qu’il peint d’un modèle. Ou Verlaine. Son rêve étrange et pénétrant n’est jamais tout à fait le même ni tout à fait un autre.

Patrick Pécherot, Une plaie ouverte, p141

Je fais souvent ce rêve étrange et pénétrant

D’une femme inconnue, et que j’aime, et qui m’aime,

Et qui n’est, chaque fois, ni tout à fait la même

Ni tout à fait une autre, et m’aime et me comprend.

Paul Verlaine, Mon rêve familier.

And the language is uneven, moving from one register to the other, often using argot from I don’t know what time. 1871?

I tried to soldier on but I was at the end of my rope page 166, out of 318. I say I gave it a good shot. Like the one Dana gave to Amédée Floquin, the man he murdered? I guess I’ll never know whether he actually killed him or if he’s still alive in 1905. The style is really what made be abandon the book, it grated too much. I was still learning things about the Paris Commune (with Wikipedia on the side) but the style was too unbearable for me to finish the book.

That’s a pity. Maybe I wasn’t in the right mood, maybe I’m too demanding, I don’t know. An Open Wound won a literary prize for crime fiction, Le Prix Transfuge of the best Polar. I fail to see how this book is a polar at all but I’m not proficient in putting books in literary boxes.

The good thing about aborted read is that I got to browse through the list of books that are based upon the Paris Commune. I need to read La Débâcle by Zola, at least I know the style will be outstanding. There are poems by Victor Hugo, L’Année terrible. There’s L’Insurgé by Jules Vallès and Le Cri du peuple by Jean Vautrin, that was also made into a BD by Jacques Tardi. And Tardi is a reference in the BD world.

The Sea Wall by Marguerite Duras

July 6, 2016 35 comments

The Sea Wall by Marguerite Duras (1950) Original French title: Un barrage contre le Pacifique

DurasThe Sea Wall by Marguerite Duras is semiautobiographical novel. Duras was born in Indochina, near Saïgon in 1914. Indochina was a French colony then. She left Indochina in 1931 to come back to France.

The Sea Wall is the story of an unnamed mother (in the whole book, she’s called la mère) and her two grownup children, Joseph and Suzanne. The husband and father died a long time ago, leaving his family behind without a source of income. The mother put food on the table by playing the piano in a local cinema. She saved money to buy a concession, land allocated by the French authorities to settlers. She put all her savings in it and the land proved to be impossible to cultivate because it is flooded by the ocean every year. The local French authorities knew it. Several families had already been allocated this piece of land and each of them was evicted because they couldn’t pay their debts anymore. The Sea Wall denounces the corruption of the French civil servants sent there. They exploited the ignorance of settlers, making them pay higher than the market for bare land and then evicted the families without a second thought when they could cultivate the land and pay their debts.

DurasSo this family is stuck on their “property”. The mother is embittered by their situation. She tried to build a sea wall to contain the Pacific and make things grow behind the wall. But of course the ocean was stronger. The children are left with no future. The property is a rotten place, they are bored to death but it’s all they have. Leaving would mean abandoning the mother’s dreams. It would mean giving up. It would crush her even more. She’s a central character in the novel, a tyrannical figure who controls her universe and her children. She’s abusive, physically and verbally. Joseph is stronger than her now and she doesn’t dare touching him. But Suzanne, younger and weaker, is a prey.

They barely survive on this desolated land. The days go on and Suzanne is waiting. She’s dreaming of a car who would come with a man in it. She dreams of escaping this place through marriage. And the mother is ready to sell her for fresh cash.

When Monsieur Jo notices Suzanne and starts courting her, her mother sees a moneybag ready to spend cash on her daughter. She pilots Suzanne, ordering her around, asking her to request gifts and most of all forbidding her to sleep with Monsieur Jo without a ring on her finger.

Suzanne obeys but reluctantly. Like the girl in The Lover, she tries to distance herself from the scene. Joseph observes her dealings with Monsieur Jo, torn between jealousy, disgust and blind obedience to the mother.

They make a sick trio, really. I pitied Suzanne. She’s stuck on a dead-end property. Her beauty is her asset. She doesn’t have access to a proper education and marriage resembles more to legal prostitution than to the union of two people in love. And yet, she’s ready to settle for so little. She’s so disillusioned already.

Joseph loves hunting, loves his guns and he has a rather fusional relationship with Suzanne. It felt almost incestuous to me.

The Sea Wall is a great piece of literature on several accounts. Duras did an amazing job on characterization. The way the three main characters are depicted, the way they interact and leave some imprint on you. These are characters you don’t forget. You can picture them in the flesh.

The descriptions of Indochina are also fantastic. The landscapes, the people, Saïgon. It’s so vivid. She mentions the Indo-Chinese and their way of living. They’re dirty poor, with a lot of children who hardly survive. The climate is unforgiving and the land is not rich enough to feed all these humans.

I found the descriptions of the workings of the colony fascinating. On the one hand, I wondered at the mother’s naïveté. How could she think about becoming a farmer without a single hint of how to do it? She was a primary school teacher and then a pianist, for heaven’s sake! How could she be stupid enough to think she could build a sea wall without construction skills? On the other hand, I was horrified to see how men from the French administration took advantage of her. She might have been a silly fool but they were the con men who made her buy this concession.

The Sea Wall was published in 1950 during the Indochina war. (1946-1954) Her novel was nominated for the Goncourt prize but it was given to Paul Colin for Les jeux sauvages. I’ve never heard of this book or this writer. Time made its choice. The Sea Wall is excellent literature, one of my best read of the year, one I highly recommend if you haven’t read it yet.

For another review, have a look at Guy’s outstanding take on this gem of literature.

PS: As you can see it from the second cover of the novel, The Sea Wall was recently made into a film. I haven’t seen it, so I can’t tell you whether it’s good or not. I’m just surprised to see Isabelle Huppert cast as the mother. She looks thin and regal on this picture. And the mother is worn out. I could picture Yolande Moreau playing the mother. She has the physique and the intensity to incarnate this character. I suppose Yolande Moreau is less bankable than Isabelle Huppert. So, after being a redheaded Madame Bovary (a heresy in itself), she’s now a classy woman from the colonies in lieu of a woman who’s at the end of her rope. Sad.

 

White Dog by Romain Gary

May 8, 2014 42 comments

White Dog by Romain Gary 1969 French version: Chien Blanc.

 If evil things were done only by evil men, the world would be an admirable place.

Gary_CentenaireToday is the 8th of May and Romain Gary would have been one-hundred-year old. For the centenary of his birth, I decided to read the English version of Chien Blanc. The title is literally translated into White Dog but that’s where the literal translation stops. I mean it when I say the English version and not the translation. White Dog has been self-translated by Romain Gary and he took the liberty to change passages, split one chapter in two, change references that were too French, add ones that were more American. From what I’ve seen, and sadly I don’t have time to compare more thoroughly the two texts, the global text is close enough to be the same book but not enough to be called a translation. He just adapted his speech to his American public to better reach out to them.

So what’s it all about? White Dog is a fictional non-fiction book, meaning that it’s a memoir without a journalistic aim at accuracy. Maybe there’s a genre for that, I don’t know. White Dog is focused on the year 1968 in Gary’s life. It’s the year Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy got killed, the one of the Spring of Prague, the one of the student revolution in France and in other countries too.

The book opens in Los Angeles. Romain Gary lives in Beverly Hills with his wife Jean Seberg while she’s making a movie. Their son Diego Alexandre is six. Romain Gary is an animal lover and specifically a dog person –White Dog is dedicated to his dog Sandy—so when a lost German shepherd lands on his door and seems lost, he takes him in and names him Barka. (“little father” in Russian). A few days later, he realises that Batka is a white dog, a dog that has been trained in a Southern State to attack black people. Gary decides to bring him to Jack Carruthers’ zoo, he wants him to reform Batka. Unfortunatelyn it’s easier said than done.

At the time, Jean Seberg is a fervent militant of the fight to civil rights for black people in America. She gets more and more involved with different groups of black activists, giving them money and support. Gary watches all this with wariness. Her naïve involvement in that cause puts forward their differences: he’s French, she’s American, he’s 24 years older than her and his lucidity, political sharpness and experience in the French Foreign Office make him analyse the situation with more accuracy. She doesn’t want to understand his point of view. White Dog shows how their different vision, not on the rightness of the cause, but on the nature of the black political movement, drives them apart. In White Dog, Gary lets the world know how much he loves his wife, as you can see in this passage, even if they’ll get a divorce in 1970, :

We part, and I walk back home wondering how my America is doing, if Sandy and the cats look after her, if she misses me, if those exquisite features under the short-cropped hair are sad or serene, and if those sweet peepers still look at the world and people with the same belief in something than can never be world or people, and which has always had so much to do with prayers…I miss my America very much.

The book is split in three parts, the first one describing Gary’s efforts to have Barka reformed, the second detailing his stay in Washington DC during riots and his views on the “black problem” in America and the last one picturing Mai 68 in Paris and the student riots.

White Dog is one of Gary’s best books. He’s everywhere in these pages and it helps understanding the novels he wrote. He describes how he liked to spend time in a python’s cage in Carruthers’ zoo and that leads us to Gros Câlin. When he wants to be anywhere else but with himself, he thinks of Outer Mongolia, like Lenny in The Ski Bum. His relationship with Jean Seberg gave us the one between Jacques and Laura in Your Ticket Is No Longer Valid. White Dog shows his inner struggles, his need to write off his problems by writing them down in a book. It pictures a man with strong beliefs, ready to stand to his ground even if his ideas are out of fashion. I love that passage about Stupidity.

The black-white situation in America has its roots in the core of almost all human predicaments, deep down within something it is high time to recognise as the greatest spiritual force of all time: Stupidity. One of the most baffling paradoxes of history is that all our intelligence and even our genius have never succeeded in solving a problem when pitched against Stupidity, where the very nature of the problem is, precisely, what intelligence should find particularly easy to handle. Stupidity has a tremendous advantage over genius and intellect: it is above logic, above argument, it has no need for evidence, facts, reasoning, it is unshakable, beyond doubt, supremely self-confident, it always knows all the answers, it looks at the world with a knowing smile, it has a fantastic capacity for survival, it is the greatest force known to man. Whenever intelligence manages to prevail, when victory seems already secured, immortal Stupidity suddenly rears its ugly mug and takes over. The latest typical example is the murder of the “spring of Prague” in the name of “correct Marxist thinking”.

Gary_White_DogHe’s an uncompromising moderate. He sees violence as being violence, not a means to defend a cause. He’s disgusted with the so-called good deeds done by the Hollywood circles. He’s appalled to see an old black friend turn into a vindictive and unrealistic activist. He’s a strange mix of a strong will not to give up in human nature and an ingrained cynicism gathered through the years, in spite of him.

His style is brilliant. Funnily, I could hear the French under the English. It doesn’t have the same ring as the passages of French literature translated into English I’ve read. When it’s done by a native translator, the general feeling is that it is an English text. Here, I can hear that English is an acquired language for a French native (or almost) speaker. I spotted mistakes Francophones tend to make when they speak English and turns of sentences that sound like a Frenchman speaking English. It made me smile.

It is risky to re-read a book you have loved when you were young. Will it be as brilliant as the first time? So far, all the Garys I’ve re-read have passed the test of years with flying colours. This one is no exception. It’s thought-provoking, witty and lovely at the same time. Gary has a knack with words and his style shines through and through, even if he’s not aiming at beauty or poetry:

I drive through Coldwater Canyon with enough stones in my heart to build a few more cathedrals.

I’m happy I picked this one for Gary’s centenary. It’s him as a man and him as a novelist too. The mix is potent. Highly recommended, the kind of book your want to share with your friends right away.

PS: I have tons of quotes and I can’t share them all but here’s a last one:

All this must have been happening in a wonderful smell of roses. Whenever I leave Jean alone, I am immediately replaced by bouquets of roses. Dozens of them come to fill the void, all with visiting cards, and I have estimated at various times that my flower value is about a dozen roses per pound. It is flattering and very satisfying to know that as soon as you leave your gorgeous wife alone, an impressive number of people rush to the florist’s in the admirable hope of replacing with roses your sweet-smelling self.

PPS: Another thing: White Dog has been made into a film by Samuel Fuller in 1982. You might have seen it.

Is what Zola describes in Money accurate?

May 17, 2013 10 comments

L’argent by Emile Zola. 1891. (Money).

Disclaimer: I have probably made mistakes on the business terms I use in this post. I had to check them in the dictionary and it can be perilous. Moreover, there are spoilers in this billet but I’m not sure it would really ruin the suspense of the book for someone who hasn’t read it.

As I mentioned in my previous entry about Money by Zola, I was engrossed by the business details described in the book and I wanted to research a little bit the laws for banking in the Second Empire. I’ve had trouble finding sources but I eventually found information on Wikipedia and stumbled across a very useful essay.

The underlying question was: is Zola accurate in his descriptions of the financial circles at the time or when he depicts of the speculation? The answer is yes. I’m not saying that he got all the details right, I don’t have time to check that thoroughly. From what I’ve read, I think he picked details in different episodes that occurred from 1850 until the time he wrote the novel and painted an accurate overall picture.

Why a volume about banking?

I’ve read that the 1850-1860s were the years of big changes in the banking world. Most of today’s French banks were founded at the time. With the development of railroad, steel industries and other industries requiring large funds to be launched, it appeared that the circulation of money wasn’t satisfactory. Before the Second Empire, banks were run by families upon their own fortune and they were responsible of the debts of the bank on their own money. In Great-Britain, the banking system had already gone through important changes (first “modern” bank in 1834) and the business circles in Paris wanted to do the same in France. In 1863, just a year before the story of Saccard starts, the regulation for founding a Société Anonyme (a Plc) became more flexible. As long as the capital wasn’t over 25 million Francs, you didn’t need a State authorization to found the bank. With a Société Anonyme, the shareholders of the company are no longer obliged to reimburse the losses on their own fortune. It’s not a surprise that the Banque Universelle starts with 25 million francs; Saccard doesn’t need a clearance from the government, and thus from his brother, the powerful Rougon, to start his bank.

Was the Société Anonyme of the 1860s very different from today’s?

I was very interested in the information Zola gives on the articles of incorporation of the Banque Universelle. Some regulations already existed but no controls were done and the rules were breached. For example, just as today, all shares must be subscribed to complete an increase in capital; a company isn’t allowed to own their own stock, the shares must be paid at least up to 25% at the moment of the subscription. (And, I guessed, the rest of the cash needed to be paid within 4 years.) This hasn’t changed. I thought the Board of Directors had too many members for proper governance. How do you run a company with a Board of 20 people? There was already a control of the accounts, done by two auditors.

Et il n’y avait plus qu’à élire les deux commissaires censeurs, chargés de présenter à l’assemblée un rapport sur le bilan et de contrôler ainsi les comptes fournis par les administrateurs : fonction délicate autant qu’inutile, pour laquelle Saccard avait désigné un sieur Rousseau et un sieur Lavignière, le premier complètement inféodé au second, celui-ci grand, blond, très poli, approuvant toujours, dévoré de l’envie d’entrer plus tard dans le conseil, lorsqu’on serait content de ses services. It then only remained for them to elect the two auditors, whose duty it would be to examine and report on the balance sheets and in this way check the accounts supplied by the management—functions, at once delicate and useless, for which Saccard had designated a certain Sieur Kousseau and a Sieur Lavignière, the first completely under the influence of the second, who was a tall, fair-haired fellow with very polite manners and a disposition to approve of everything, being consumed with a desire to become a member of the board when the latter, later on, should express satisfaction with his services.

Although the English word is auditor, it is clear in French (commissaires censeurs) that these two persons don’t have the same independence and the same right to investigate as today’s commissaires aux comptes. (also auditors). When I was reading, the structure of the 1864 Société Anonyme sounded familiar; there are more controls today and more regulations but the general framework is the same. The controls are more efficient, even if they aren’t perfect.

Saccard and the white collar crimes committed in Money.

A few weeks before reading Money, I attended a fascinating conference by a commissaire detached from the police force to the service of the AMF, the French SEC. He was presenting all the criminal offences a CFO could commit and well, Saccard made them all: bankruptcy, paper dividends, fraudulent financial statements, insider trading. He also explained how the AMF monitors stock exchanges to detect abnormal changes in stock market prices, sometimes leading to an investigation. Any time a big event is announced for a company (a merger for example), the AMF checks out the stock market price on the few days or weeks before the announcement. There is no such control in Money. The financial circles perfectly know that the stock market prices are manipulated. Big investors use the Bourse to fight personal battles and ruin companies. Investors also play for their own profit. The battle between bulls and bears at the Bourse really occurred in these years, causing havoc in the economy.

Money, the scandals at the Bourse and the collapse of the Union Générale in 1882

According to Wikipedia, the climate around banks was really the one described in Money. A Jules Mirès used the press to manipulate the opinion and attract investments on certain stock. The press was linked to the business circles in unethical ways. In Money, Saccard buys a newspaper and advertises a lot about the profits and the activity of the Banque Universelle. An Achille Fould who wasn’t on speaking terms with his brother, used his position as a minister to fight against the liberalization asked by the business circles. Saccard isn’t on speaking terms with Rougon, who is still in the government. Rougon takes the opportunity to kill Saccard when he has the chance.

The Union Générale was a Catholic bank founded in 1878 by Eugène Bontoux. It went bankrupt in 1882, it lasted four years, like the Banque Universelle in Money. The pope’s secretary was involved in the capital, it invested in North Africa and in Egypt. In Money, the Banque Universelle, a similar name to Union Générale, is close to Catholic investors. Saccard and Hamelin want the Banque Universelle to help settle the pope back in Jerusalem and meanwhile it invests in Turkey and Lebanon.

The value of the Union Générale grows until January 1882 when it collapsed. It came from an overcapitalization of the company, bad governance as the company owned their own shares and from a deadly fight between bulls and bears. Many small investors were involved through brokers and lost their fortunes. It generated a violent recession with social consequences. It’s exactly what happens in Money. Bontoux fled to Spain; Saccard immigrates to Holland. At the time, the opinion reacted strongly to this scandal because of the speculation that happened, the involvement of clergymen in the capital of the bank. It inspired Zola who had the genius to link the speculation on properties in the wake of the transformation of Paris by Haussmann to the speculation on stock markets. Saccard is the link as he is a participant in both frenzies. It shows an atmosphere of thirst for money that was, from what I read, a reality in those years.

Money and the anti-Semitism

Money was published before the Dreyfus Affair started and we all know what role Zola played in it. Zola already describes the rampant anti-Semitism of the business circles, especially in the bank industry. I was ill-at-ease when I read Saccard’s outbursts against Jewish bankers. Sadly, it appears it was accurate; Catholic bankers made a point to fight against Jewish ones. The roots for the Dreyfus Affair are there and it confirms what Proust depicts in In Search of Lost Time. It grows slowly but strongly; it shows that Vichy could happen because there were strong roots for anti-Semitism before the war.

The little research I’ve done proves that Zola is accurate in the description of the events, of the climate of that time. I found Money fascinating because it’s really the creation of modern capitalism. I have to say I’m not satisfied with this billet because I would have liked to dig a little bit more. I don’t have time for this, unfortunately. So it goes.

Zola’s take on stock exchanges

May 5, 2013 30 comments

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.

Hunting high and low for money, pleasure or power

March 29, 2012 27 comments

La Curée by Emile Zola 1872   English title: The Kill

La Curée is our Book Club’s choice for March. It is the second volume of the Rougon Macquart cycle. Zola’s aim was to draw the ups and downs of a French extended family during the Second Empire. (1852-1870). In this volume, Eugène Rougon is a rising politician when his brother Aristide moves to Paris to become rich. Eugène manages to have him hired at the Hôtel de Ville, which means he’s a civil servant for the city of Paris. Aristide starts a new life then and changes his surname for Saccard.

Eugène and Aristide also have a sister, Sidonie, a spinster who runs an apparently honest shop, as a façade for her more shady business; she lives upon discreet services to rich persons who confide in her and rely on her for some of their dirty dealings. Knowing many secrets, she manages to marry Aristide to Renée, the pregnant daughter of a respectable and rich bourgeois. Aristide has been on the lookout for a juicy opportunity to launch a business. When he marries Renée, he has just discovered he could make a fortune on speculating on the houses and lands the Hôtel de Ville will have to buy out to current owners to change Paris according to the Baron Haussmann’s plans.

It works. Saccard is now awfully rich and lives as a parvenu. René, who had a miscarriage, launches herself into a life of pleasure made of soirees, gowns, jewelry and lovers. She befriends with Maxime, Saccard’s son from his first marriage. They are close comrades, sharing their love lives, hanging out together like too young men and they have no secrets for each other. One night, they have sex, putting an end to their friendship. And while Maxime sees it as an agreeable fling, Renée is more and more involved emotionally.

The title of the book, La Curée, refers to the moment when dogs kill the animal they are hunting. The hunt is the underlying theme of the novel.

The hunt is in Saccard chasing money, cornering people to have them into his schemes. He noses out Paris when he arrives, in an attempt to smell a source of wealth. He is on the watch for any opportunity at the Hôtel de Ville, hidden, waiting for the right moment to catch hold of his chance for wealth. Nothing can stop him once he has smelled money. He’s alternatively the hunter and the fox. He hunts down people when he needs them; his creditors can hunt him down any time his risky financial schemes fail. The master of the hunt is Eugène, who holds the whistle and can socially kill Saccard at the first faux pas or whenever he wants to end the game.

The hunt is in Renée, relentlessly pursuing pleasure. She too has two roles, the hunter and the bait. Maxime is her prey, she doesn’t hesitate to corner him. Saccard uses her as bait in his hunt for money. He takes advantage of her stunning beauty and of her social skills to attract people in his salons and push forward his business deals. Renée is a great character, abandoning herself to her senses, surrendering to her carnal desires, behaving on instinct.

The hunt is in Madame Sidonie, chasing after comprising information and useful secrets. Confidences are her weapon; she can be unleashed on someone on demand.

The hunt is also in the society. It’s the portrait of a time when the politicians, the nouveaux riches are sent like hounds on the old Paris, tearing it down, putting it to pieces, selling it to the wolves. It’s a strong criticism of the Second Empire. I’m not saying that Zola is inaccurate but the reader must remember that he was a fierce republican; that he wrote under another regime which loathed the previous one. I was interested in Saccard’s shady dealings, the mechanism used to increase the values of the properties bought back by the city to cut what we now know as the Grands Boulevards. I also thought about Les Liaisons Dangereuses. All this sex, this debauchery, the alliance between Maxime and Renée, like Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil. It has a whiff of decadence and all oozes vulgarity, which can be heard in the protagonists’ name, Saccard. In French, the suffix “ard” (pronounce “ar”) is negative, underlying vulgarity.

I’d forgotten how descriptive Zola’s prose is and I thought it lacked dialogues sometimes. He talks to all our senses, describing the lights, the scents, the air, the fabrics, the sounds. I saw languid paintings by Manet or Ingres. The vivid descriptions of the atmosphere match with the characters’ feelings, especially Renée’s. The episode of the promenade in the Bois de Boulogne is a masterpiece. Renée is the only one who really questions her life, touches its limits. She suffers from ennui, knows her life is shallow. She’s a remarkable feminine character, as fascinating as Nana, far more interesting than Madame Bovary. If you still hesitate about reading La Curée, I recommend that you read Guy’s excellent review here. Like him, I wonder why this heroin isn’t more famous; she has everything to be a great literary character. Is it because the sex is rather explicit? Did that prevent to book from reaching high school classes?

Books in English about France in the Nineteenth Century

January 19, 2012 17 comments

When I read La France à la Belle Epoque by Michel Winock, some of you regretted that this book wasn’t translated into English.

When I read What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew by Daniel Pool, that wonderful book about everyday life in the nineteenth century England, I said I’d like to read one about France. As I’m rather persistent when I want something –some might even say stubborn– I dropped by the Musée Carnavalet in Paris in order to check the books they could have about everyday life in France in the nineteenth century. It turns out that I didn’t find anything interesting in French but I discovered three books in English you might want to investigate:

– The Pride of Place. Local memories and political culture in nineteenth century France by Stéphane GersonThis one seemed interesting as it develops everything about politics and as the 19thC was a troubled period in our history, it could be useful.

– The World of the Paris Café. Sociability Among the French Working Class. 1789-1914 by W. Scott Haine. I browsed through this one and it takes cafés as a pretext to explain French way of living. I might be worth reading too.

– To Be a Citizen. The Political Culture of the Early French Third Republic by James R Lehning. This one overlaps with the Winock I’ve read. I saw chapters about the role of teachers and school in transforming any child into a French citizen. I mentioned it in my review here.

I checked out, they’re all available on Amazon. Of course, I haven’t read them, so I can’t be sure they’re good. But I think you’re all grown up and perfectly able to decide whether you want to read a book or not.

Cheers,

Emma


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