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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.

Take a walk on the money side

May 3, 2011 24 comments

Money by Martin Amis. (1981) 394 pages.

Maybe money is the great conspiracy, the great fiction. The great addiction too: we’re all addicted and we can’t break the habit now. There’s not even anything very twentieth century about it, except the disposition. You can’t kick it, that junk, even if you want to. You can’t get the money monkey off your back.  

Last year, I read Dead Babies and Money was a recommendation. As I regretted no to have read Dead Babies in English, I bought Money in the original. A mistake maybe, but more about this later. Now, the book.

 John Self is the narrator. He’s 35, single, lives a relationship based on a sex-versus-money trade with a hot and venal woman named Selina. He’s a Londoner publicist who’s about to shoot a movie in America. He’s famous for trashy commercials advertising junk food and he turned his personal expertise in pornography into a juicy business. Some of his commercials were even censored. His idea of a script has been bought by Fielding Goodney, an American middleman who’s in charge with finding money and actors to shoot the movie. John flies back and forth from London to New York to meet with Fielding and play his part in the project.

We follow him in meetings, choosing the actors and reading the script of the film. Amis vividly pictures the insecurity of actors, their eccentric way of life, their need to be loved and worshipped. Each actor has specificities and wants to take advantage of them in the film. Each actor tries to influence the scenario in order to put forward their strength and hide their weaknesses. John spends his time in diplomatic missions to make these egotistic personalities work together.

Caduta Massi is the ageing actress with no children but show-off motherly instincts. Lorne Guyland is the model of the ageing actor who still wants to play sexy parts and insists on shooting nudity scenes.

Butch Beausoleil is the typical young actress who claims she has more brains than you imagine but is stupid anyway. She’s the kind of girl who says she already had two abortions this year but doesn’t know how she got knocked up this time as she was convinced to be sterile.

Spunk Davis is the perfect illustration of the star-to-be coming from a poor neighbourhood, reborn Christian, at first full of principles.  

Back to our narrator. John Self, what kind of name is that? A John Doe replaced by Self for selfish, self-centred? Or is it a I’m-just-myself claim, like a slogan for a commercial? His way of life is a hodgepodge of pornography, booze and laziness. He’s so deep into pornography and paid sex that I wonder if his name deserves a capital letter. He’s materialistic (he loves money), violent (he casually explains he has just quit hitting women), misogynistic (women are sex toys), vulgar (porn magazines are the only ones he reads) and illiterate (ah the glorious passage about Animal Farm!!). He’s everything but a catch.

He only cares about money. All his relationships are based upon money. It’s his safety zone. No problem with that, he thinks, you know where you are. So he thought. His father taught him that. Martina Twain is his only relationship not based on money. She challenges him, buys him books and only meets him if he’s sober. She has an inherited wealth; she oozes money but doesn’t find it fascinating as she’s never been short of money. I wonder what Martina sees in John Self. A puppy, a child who needs her help? Or does she just have the classic attraction of women for bad boys and the also very classic temptation to reform the said bad boy?  

John’s childhood memories are scattered in the novel, generally after a hammering hangover. His mother died of melancholy, like a heroin of a Romantic novel. She was American and never got used to Great-Britain. John was shipped in New Jersey to live with his aunt when his mother died. Then she shipped him back to London, where everything seemed smaller. His father is a jerk who runs a pub. He’s a gambler and also into pornography. Money is his religion too; once when he was broke, he billed John for the money he spent on his education. With these two parents, what chance did John have to escape self-loathing, violence and love of money? Not a lot, right? After all this, the reader starts to sympathise with John despite his flaws. 

Through John’s eyes, we also visit New York before Giuliani, the New-York of the Velvet Underground. His business partner Fielding has him slumming in all kinds of neighbourhoods. He walks a lot in NY, it’s a city to explore on foot. His description of LA is also spot on as far as walk is concerned:

The only way to get across the road is to be born there. All the ped-xing signs say DON’T WALK, all of them, all the time. That is the message, the content of Los Angeles, don’t walk. Stay inside. Don’t walk. Drive. Don’t walk. Run! I tried the cabs. No use. The cabbies are all Saturnians who aren’t even sure whether this is a right planet or a left planet. The first thing you have to do, every trip, is teach them how to drive.

In New York, he watches strip dancers, goes into sex shops, drinks heavily. The night is longer than in London where pubs closed at 11pm at the time, if I’m correct. He runs on coffee, booze, handjobs, pornography, fags and greasy junk food. He drinks himself dead, passes out and doesn’t remember which day it is or what he did of his night.  

Beware spoilers: skip the following paragraph if you haven’t read the book.

I thought the plot a little weak sometimes. I had guessed that Selina was sleeping with Ossie and I was disappointed to have guessed right. I’m also disappointed by the ending, a little too moral for me. John Self sorts of feel better without money and has found a Georgina who loves him for who he is? Isn’t this a little too conventional?

I was suspicious when reading, wondering where John Self had met this Fielding. The plot of his movie sounded far from fascinating. I thought the money poured over his head a little too easily and an alarm bell rang in my mind when I saw John signing contracts without reading them. I was suspicious but I hadn’t guessed it was a swindle. Like John, I saw the clues but misinterpreted them. Well, that’s the story of our lives; we run into clues but misinterpret them and make ill-founded decisions.

Earlier I said John played his part in the project. It should have been read literally as it was a setup, a show. His car is a Fiasco, the perfect name for his ride through life. He has played by rules he never knew existed and drove himself out of the road. Isn’t it what happens when you’re an outsider in the world of money? Or did he just play recklessly like during his chess game with Martin Amis?

If you have skipped the previous paragraph, you can resume reading now.

Martin Amis has a gift to encapsulate the flavour, the scent of a time. He’s smart and lucid, as I expect a real artist to be. In 1981, he felt the turnaround of the 80es and how money, sex, junk food, the want of fame would invade our societies. He also understood that language would become less formal. 30 years later, we have junk food everywhere, even in France. People are overweighed from fatty food. Pornography is an industry, porn stars are known from the public now. People spill out their lives in lousy talk-shows; I always wonder how they look their baker in the eyes after that.

John Self personalizes how the 80s pushed vulgarity and illiteracy on the front of the stage, a trend that never changed since and reaches its apogee in today’s reality shows. They encompass everything: money, sex and fame at any cost, including humiliation if need be. The more stupid and illiterate you are, the best chances you have to be invited in dumb TV shows. And everything has to be a show for people with limited concentration capacities. Politics is a show and it started in the 80s, with publicists working for politicians. Polls make decisions instead of politicians.

The Western Alliance is in poor shape, I’m told. Well what do you expect? They’ve got an actor and we’ve got a chick. More riots in Liverpool, Birmingham, Manchester, the inner cities left to rot or burn. Sorry, boys, but the PM has PMT.

The show goes on with the narration: John Self talks to the readers, feels their looks on him. He’s performing a show too. He’s watching us watching him. The whole novel is constructed around boomeranged looks. The reader looks at John who looks at John the reader. Martin Amis observes John who observes Martin Amis.

Some sentences are constructed in a sort of vache-qui-rit pattern, they spiral, like here in this description of London:

The car and I crawled cursing up the street to my flat. You just cannot park round here any more. Even on a Sunday afternoon you just cannot park here any more. You can doublepark on people: people can doublepark on you. Cars are doubling while houses are halving. House divide, into two, into four, into sixteen. If a landlord or a developer comes across a decent-sized room he turns it into a labyrinth, a Chinese puzzle. The bell-button grills in the flakey porches look like the dashboards of ancient spaceships. Rooms divide, rooms multiply. Houses split – houses are tripleparked. People are doubling also, dividing, splitting. In double trouble we split out losses. No wonder we’re bouncing off the walls.

I saw the designs repeated in the novel: the observation of the weather and the sky in particular, the Polish uprising led by Lech Walesa, the wedding of Charles and Diana, John’s aching tooth, the economic crisis in Great-Britain. They were a kind of Ariadne’s clew along the novel. Like in Dead Babies, Amis lets you know he’s pulling the strings of the story. He puts up a good show of him as a writer too. It isn’t serious; it’s more a way to enlighten the reader, to make him aware that writers manipulate them. You don’t forget that what you’re reading isn’t true; you’re reading someone’s work of art. And in work of art, there the word “work”. Never forget that, Amis seems to say.

Two strange things happened while I was reading Money, as if the style of the novel had backfired on me. Firstly, I read most of it during the weak William and Kate got married, an event difficult to avoid, even in France. I don’t want to think what it must have been in Great-Britain. I was hearing of this wedding a lot everywhere –TV, covers of magazines, people talking in shops…– and at the same time I was reading John Self hearing a lot about Charles and Diana’s wedding in cabs, shops, TV and covers of magazines. The novelist Martin Amis entered into his character’s life and his character entered into mine. It was as if the mirror effects he had designed in his book had sprung into my everyday life as an ultimate way to involve his reader into the story. Weird and powerful.

Secondly, I was reading Money and at the same time writing the post on Witches’ Sabbath. I couldn’t help seeing similarities between Maurice Sachs and John Self, between a real man and a fictional character too, like Amis/Self in Money. Again, the frontier between reality and fiction was blurred. Sachs’s life permeated into my reading and his worn-out tone interfered with my vision of John Self. Instead of laughing at/with John, I found him sad. I already thought that Dead Babies was sad.

After all, what do I think about this book? I tell you my friend, this wasn’t an easy read. No, Money wasn’t an easy read. I was often bored and I can’t define why. Perhaps the two effects I just described spoiled the book for me. Perhaps the difficulty of the language prevented me from enjoying the fun, although I really laughed sometimes. I certainly missed tons of references and play-on-words. You might have to be British to fully appreciate it. Amis is really talented; his descriptions of people and situations are often funny.

Then it hit me: stress – perhaps I need stress! Perhaps a good dose of stress is just what I’m crying out for. I need bereavement, blackmail, earthquake, leprosy, injury, penury… I think I’ll try stress. Where can you buy some?

Or

His head looked like a fudge sundae – I swear to God, he could have put a spoon in his ear and a maraschino cherry on his crown and looked no worse.

Hilarious, isn’t it? I know I’m talking about a major, nasty and funny book and I won’t contest this assertion. Yet, I didn’t have a lot of pleasure reading it.

PS : For Guy’s review, click here

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