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August 10, 2012

Historical Echoes: Zola’s L’Argent: A Portrait of a Corrupt Financial World

Amy Farber, New York Fed Research Library

Elements of finance and banking have found their way into novels for a long time (see one list of sites about such fiction). However, in 1891, a novel was published in France that was principally about the Paris Bourse (stock exchange) and a bank (Banque Universelle) created for less than wholesome reasons, mired in corruption, and eventually destroyed. The novel was L’Argent (Money) by the influential French writer Émile Zola. The events portrayed in the novel are based on actual events in the French Bourse and the short history of an actual bank, the Union Générale. This bank was created in 1876, failed in 1882, and was at the heart of a somewhat religion-based battle within the French financial world. The failure of the Union Générale triggered the Paris Bourse Crash of 1882.

The novel was translated into English twice, in 1891 and 1894. In the preface to the second edition of the second translation, translator Ernest Vizetelly discusses the importance of reexamining the problems within the financial world and the need for more legislation and oversight. The publication of the book in English is “well timed,” he observes,

for the rottenness of our financial world has become such a crying scandal, and the inefficiency of our company laws has been so fully demonstrated, that the absolute urgency of reform can no longer be denied.
A work, therefore, which exposes the evils of “speculation,” which shows the company promoter on the war-path, and the “guinea-pig” basking at his ease, which demonstrates how the public is fooled and ruined by the brigands of Finance, is evidently a work for the times, even though it deal with the Paris Bourse instead of with the London market.

Note that neither the author nor the translator is against public companies or the stock market per se—just corruption.

The novel was made into a film in 1928 (the story is updated to take place in that time period). It is a classic of silent film and was filmed in part at the Paris Bourse. One version available on the web has English subtitles (Part 1, the first of four parts).

The novel was reprinted in 2007. How prescient!

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York or the Federal Reserve System. Any errors or omissions are the responsibility of the author.

Amy Farber is a research librarian in the Research Services Function of the New York Fed’s Research and Statistics Group.

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