I’m currently having a go at reading Les Rougon-Macquart, Emile Zola’s 20-volume novel sequence, tracing the ‘natural and social history of a family under the Second Empire’. Zola wanted it to embody his vision of a scientific creativity, a naturalist fiction that would demonstrate the effects of heredity and society in several generations of a family living through the bloated and corrupt Second Empire of Louis-Napoleon.
Some of the books tell rather small, delicate stories. The most famous of them are based in some major sector of French society in the 1850s and 1860s. Among mineowrkers (Germinal), the drinking dens of the Goutte d’Or (L’Assommoir), a department store (Au Bonheur Des Dames), among the Impressionists (L’Oeuvre), the railways (La Bête Humaine), the markets (Le Ventre de Paris), in the theatre (Nana), and the world of high finance (L’Argent).
The latter is often paired with its predecessor, La Curée, translated as The Kill. This is set during the transformation of Paris under the prefecture of Baron Haussmann and focuses on the twin corruptions of sex and money. The play’s villainous anti-hero is Aristide Saccard, who fraudulently builds up a massive firm speculating in property and financial instruments.
Zola is extraordinary at showing us, Foucault-like, a history of the present. That is, he shows us our own world being built. Au Bonheur des Dames (The Ladies Paradise) is particularly striking for showing the growth of what I still recognise as the contemporary attitude to consumerism.
But read this passage from La Curée and ask if it doesn’t remind you precisely of the decade we’ve just lived through:
[Aristide] had a way of enumerating his riches that bewildered his listeners and prevented them from seeing the truth. His Provençal accent grew more pronounced: with his short phrases and nervous gesture he let off fireworks in which millions shot up like rockets and ended by dazzling the most incredulous. These frenetic performances were mainly responsible for his reputation as a lucky speculator. In truth, no one knew whether he had any solid capital assets. His various partners, who were necessarily acquainted with his position as regards themselves, explained his colossal fortune by believing in his absolute luck in other speculations, those in which they had no share. He spent money madly; the flow from his cash-box continued, though the sources of that stream of gold had not yet been discovered. It was pure folly, a frenzy of money, handfuls of louis flung out of the windows, the safe emptied every evening to its last sou, filling up again during the night, no one knew how, and never supplying such large sums as when Saccard pretended to have lost the keys.
Zola, Émile. The Kill. Trans. Brian Nelson. World's Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004, p. 113.