Money (L’Argent) by Zola

Money (L’Argent) by Emile Zola

“In love as as in speculation there is much filth; in love also, people think only of their own gratification; yet without love there would be no life, and the world would come to an end.”
― Émile Zola, L’Argent

 

Ok, for awhile now I’ve been working my way through Zola’s Rougon-Marquat 20 novel series of French life in the Second Empire – Reading them not in the order that they were written, but in the recommended reading order.

Money (L’Argent) is the eighteenth book written, but it is a sequel to La Curée, the 3rd book in the recommended order, so I read Money as the fourth. It has the same cast of characters – a little older but definitely no wiser.

I really enjoyed the book. It is a tale of rivers of money, oceans of gold, all stolen, gambled, speculated on. It is, of course, more relevant today than it was when it was written. I couldn’t help but do some re-research into the latest financial crisis and how similar the disaster was to the greed and insanity described in the novel.

In La Curée Aristide Saccard (he changed his last name from Rougon to avoid embarrassment to his powerful politician brother) rose and fell on naked ambition and audacious financial manipulations. In the sequel he finds himself broke, but with the same greed, reckless daring, and collection of equally devious connections. He sets out to turn the world on its head. The story of speculation and deceit is fascinating and engrossing and worth the careful reading it takes.

The whole adventure comes down to a final cataclysmic battle between Saccard’s bulls and the bears that oppose him. I still don’t completely understand how the bears make money – other than the destruction of Saccard and his allies – I didn’t read much about how they went about short selling for example – but I’m sure it’s in there somewhere.

So now it’s on the the next, The Dream (Le Rêve). I have already taken a look, started it, and it seems to be completely different in style and theme from the rest of the series. We’ll see.

 

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La Curée

“This was the time when the rush for the spoils filled a corner of the forest with the yelping of hounds, the cracking of whips, the flaring of torches. The appetites let loose were satisfied at last, shamelessly, amid the sound of crumbling neighbourhoods and fortunes made in six months. The city had become an orgy of gold and women.”
― Émile Zola, La Curée

La Curée (The Kill), Emile Zola

La Curée (The Kill), Emile Zola

A couple days ago I finished the next book in Zola’s Rougon Macquart series,  La Curée – or The Kill in English. It was the 2nd book written but the 3rd in the suggested reading order, which I am following.

The Kill in the title refers to the way the hunting dogs fall upon the remains after a hunt. It’s a good description of a book that describes the corrosive damage of unbridled and unprincipled greed, lust, and decadence set free in a city like Paris. During this time of France’s Second Empire Paris is being torn up and rebuilt with an unlimited opportunity for corruption and graft.

The story concerns the “career” of Aristide Saccard, the brother of Eugene Rougon who was the protagonist of the book before this, Son Excellence Eugène RougonSaccard changed his name from Rougon to avoid dragging his powerful brother down into his own scandals and to disguise the relationship between the two ambitious kinsmen.

It is a story of a certain sort of wealth – wealth born of speculation and borrowing, where the appearance of decadent affluence is more important than actual prosperity. The people in this story live in incredible luxury while having to scramble constantly to maintain the illusion, never sure where the next sous is coming from or when their creditors are going to call their debts in and ruin them.

It is also a story of promiscuity and sex – of debauchery and incest. Surprisingly racy for something written a century and a half ago. It is not pornographic in the modern sense – the actually moment is never described exactly, but there is no doubt about what is going on. It contains pages of description that skirt a little bit around… and that makes it even more effective.

“Endless love and voluptuous appetite pervaded this stifling nave in which settled the ardent sap of the tropics. Renée was wrapped in the powerful bridals of the earth that gave birth to these dark growths, these colossal stamina; and the acrid birth-throes of this hotbed, of this forest growth, of this mass of vegetation aglow with the entrails that nourished it, surrounded her with disturbing odours. At her feet was the steaming tank, its tepid water thickened by the sap from the floating roots, enveloping her shoulders with a mantle of heavy vapours, forming a mist that warmed her skin like the touch of a hand moist with desire. Overhead she could smell the palm trees, whose tall leaves shook down their aroma. And more than the stifling heat, more than the brilliant light, more than the great dazzling flowers, like faces laughing or grimacing between the leaves, it was the odours that overwhelmed her. An indescribable perfume, potent, exciting, composed of a thousand different perfumes, hung about her; human exudation, the breath of women, the scent of hair; and breezes sweet and swooningly faint were blended with breezes coarse and pestilential, laden with poison. But amid this strange music of odours, the dominant melody that constantly returned, stifling the sweetness of the vanilla and the orchids’ pungency, was the penetrating, sensual smell of flesh, the smell of lovemaking escaping in the early morning from the bedroom of newlyweds.”
― Émile Zola, La Curée

Strong stuff. A portrait of a time not unlike our own. Despite the fact there is no character in the book that could be described as sympathetic and the downfall of poor Renée is obvious from the start (though she does have a lot of wicked fun along the way) the book is still worth the read.

I was able to find a modern translation and I wonder how much different the bowdlerized contemporaneous English version was (the English weren’t as open to salacious and shocking prose as the French) – but I still have a lot of books to go in the series.

So next it is on to  L’Argent (Money) – one of the last books in the series written, but the next in the recommended order as it is a direct sequel to La Curée.

 

Son Excellence Eugène Rougon

“He [Eugène Rougon] believed exclusively in himself; where another saw reasons, Rougon possessed convictions; he subordinated everything to the incessant aggrandisement of his own ego. Despite being utterly devoid of real self-indulgence, he nevertheless indulged in secret orgies of supreme power.”
― Émile Zola, His Excellency

Virginia Oldoini, Countess of Castiglione, real life basis for Clorinde Balbi, from the book His Excellency, by Emile Zola

I just finished another book in Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle. This one was Son Excellence Eugène Rougon (His Excellency, in English). This was the sixth book written, but the second one in the recommended order – that I am following. The book was excellent (even though I was reading an inferior translation) although I didn’t enjoy it as much as the first book The Fortune of the Rougons.

The book is a finely-drawn portrait of the highest reaches of power during France’s Second Empire. It follows the rise and fall and rise and fall and rise of Eugène Rougon – a power mad politician and one of the branches of the Rougon trunk of the Rougon-Macquart family that spreads across the twenty novels. Rougon has a diverse crew of hangers-on that depend on his influence for their ill-gotten gains – but are more than ready to throw him under the bus at any time.

His main rival is Clorinde Balbi – a young, beautiful ambitious woman that is forced to depend on her own skills and machinations – all behind the scenes – to advance her own cause and bring her revenge upon Rougon – who rejects her and marries her off to one of his friends. She is by far the most interesting character in the novel – a woman before her time doing the best she can. Still, the novel is more of a portrait of an age and place than a gripping story – its one weakness is that none of the characters are really worth caring about. I am glad I read it, though – it does a great job of transporting the reader to an exotic time and place – one that in its corruption and grubbing for power is still frighteningly familiar.

I finished the book on vacation, on a Caribbean cruise. The last few pages were turned (more accurately clicked – I was reading on a Kindle) lounging on a remote uncrowded deck, while the turquoise waves rumbled past. Reading on vacation seems like a waste of precious leisure time, but I enjoy it immensely. What could be better than being in one exotic location (on a ship at sea) and being transported to another – Paris in the Second Empire?

Now, on the the next, La Curée (The Kill). This one looks especially good.

Daily Writing Tip 3 of 100, To Get Started, Write One True Sentence

For one hundred days, I’m going to post a writing tip each day. I have a whole bookshelf full of writing books and I want to do some reading and increased studying of this valuable resource. This will help me keep track of anything I’ve learned, and help motivate me to keep going. If anyone has a favorite tip of their own to add, contact me. I’d love to put it up here.

Today’s tip – To get started, write one true sentence

Source – Earnest Hemmingway, from A Moveable Feast

Sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written.

Like a lot of people, I finally made it around to read A Moveable Feast after the attacks in Paris. I have loved Hemmingway’s fiction, especially his short stories, for a long time. I have always admired his economy of words more than anything. The idea of a memoir about the halcyon days in Paris between the wars always felt too precious for my taste, so I didn’t read it until recently. I was wrong.

Among other things, there is so much good writing advice in A Moveable Feast. The pages spell out in detail Hemmingway’s method of writing, including his habit of writing in cafes.

And a few hints… like this one today.

Short Story Day Twenty-Eight – Pretty Boy

28. Pretty Boy
Richard Ford
http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2005/jun/25/originalwriting.fiction5

This is day Twenty-eight of my Month of Short Stories – a story a day for June.

The cover of Richard Ford's novel - The Sportswriter.

The cover of Richard Ford’s novel – The Sportswriter.

One day, a while back… I remember I was at a crossroads, but I don’t remember what that was. Some sort of ridiculous existential panic. In adjusting my way of looking at the world, I decided to change what I was reading. That’s the sort of pitiful thing that I do. So I sat down with a fistful of recommended novels lists, and after a bit of seeking and thinking, I came up with The Sportswriter, by Richard Ford. I’m ashamed to admit that one reason was a strange, and probably perverse, fascination with the book’s cover.

So I bought the book and its much-ballyhooed sequel – Independence Day, and read them (the third novel in the Frank Bascome trilogy, The Lay of the Land, had not been published yet) in one gulp. I wasn’t sure what to think of the books…. They were very, very well-written – but I simply couldn’t get myself to care enough about Frank Bascome. I felt sorry for him – for the loss of his child – but his drowning in angst by simply living out the life of a New Jersey family man, sans family, wasn’t interesting enough. There didn’t seem to be enough there there.

Then, after a couple years, I stumbled across Richard Ford’s short stories… which were another deal altogether. More specifically, I read the collection Rock Springs. I found there was some meat on these bones. The stories in Rock Springs put Richard Ford in the category of Dirty Realism (this term was coined by Bill Buford of Granta – he said, “Dirty realism is the fiction of a new generation of American authors. They write about the belly-side of contemporary life – a deserted husband, an unwed mother, a car thief, a pickpocket, a drug addict – but they write about it with a disturbing detachment, at times verging on comedy. Understated, ironic, sometimes savage, but insistently compassionate, these stories constitute a new voice in fiction.”) – along with Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolff, Frederick Barthleme, Cormac McCarthy… and others. These are all writers I love and I was glad to find another one to read.

I read more about Richard Ford’s life – which I at first assumed was an Eastern, academic upbringing – to find he was born in Jackson, Mississippi, and lived a lot of places, including New Orleans (I think a person has to spend at least some time in New Orleans or he can’t fully understand humanity).

…..

Hmmmm…. That’s odd. While I was putting this together, I discoved that the story is in two parts and I had only read the first.

Here’s the second – Pretty Boy Part Two

Give me a few minutes to finish it up and I’ll get back to you.

…….

Ok, that was interesting. I think I liked the story better with the second half missing. There is a bit of action in the second half – but the characters are wooden and, in the end, it signifies nothing, or at least nothing much.

As a matter of fact, I wish I hadn’t read that second part. I think I’ll forget about it.

And so, he granted himself the year for his new money to take him someplace good. He told the two nice studious girls he’d been seeing since college that he was going away and maybe wouldn’t be back so soon. They each expressed regret. One drove him to the airport and kissed him goodbye. His family made no complaint.

In Paris, it was autumn, and he found a tiny, clean flat through a friend who knew a woman who did such things. It was light but noisy, so he was often out. He attended a beginners’ conversation class at the American Library, visited the American bookshop near where he rented in Rue Cassette. He read (for some reason) Thorstein Veblen and Karl Popper, but seemed to meet no one French. He declined dinner with the young business types from his class. He tried to speak, but found that if he spoke French to French men, they would answer him in English, which they wanted to practice.

—–Richard Ford, Pretty Boy

What I learned this week, May 25, 2012

We all hate wasting the ketchup that sticks in the bottle. Finally, at MIT, scientists have designed an FDA-approved, nonstick coating called InstaGlide that solves the problem. This is truly the best of all possible worlds.


It seems like there is nothing on to watch… so all you have to do is check another one off of this list:

The 50 Best Movies on Netflix Instant Streaming



Bicycling Magazine ranked Dallas as

The Worst Cycling City in America

There are a lot of people working on this… and the suburbs are better than Dallas itself… (I live in Richardson and it was chosen locally the best Dallas neighborhood for bicycling) but there is still the heat and all those giant pickup trucks. The problem isn’t that, though – it’s the beauracracy.

It’s official: Dallas is still the (one and only) worst city for bicycling in the entire country

Conversely, Dallas was cited as one of America’s worst cycling cities for the second time since 2008 for creating almost no new cycling infrastructure even after its adoption of a bicycle master plan. Cycling advocates in Dallas, who were vocal in their frustration with the city’s progression, expressed hope that the “worst” designation will serve as a catalyst for a faster, more concentrated bike-friendly movement.



Art is the big door, but real life is a lot of small doors that you must pass through to create something new



“Baby,” I said. “I’m a genius but nobody knows it but me.”

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