16 January 2009

What Am I? Madoff Money?

Reenactment of a scene from French literature

Spending the past days in the U.S. has enlightened me on several fine points of the Bernard Madoff Scandal, beginning with the correct pronunciation of his name, which no Frenchman seems to know. (We’ve been saying, “mah-DOFF.”) Yet the more I learn, the more French the scandal seems to be, and I realize now that this is because I just finished reading the novelization of the Madoff story — namely, Emile Zola’s L’Argent (Money), first published in 1891.

In Zola’s novel, the protagonist, a cheerful scoundrel named Aristide Saccard, sets up what he calls the “Universal Bank.” This, he hopes, will become a bank for all Christians, and he succeeds in attracting the investments of lots of Catholic charities, while donating generously to others, and pleading with the Pope for an official sanction. (Saccard’s desire to do good is sincere, albeit shallow; it’s tempered by his sense of Catholic charities as a great place to pick up wealthy women.) Saccard’s ambitions are too great, and he launches several other businesses with funds from his bank: a railroad, engineering projects, a kind of commercial Crusade in the Middle East. In order to keep his board and investors happy, he winds up launching a sort of Ponzi scheme, and it works — until a Jewish banker swiftly ruins him. Zola based many of his characters on real-life and immediately recognizable figures: Saccard finds his roots in a banker named Eugène Bontoux, and his Jewish nemesis, Gundermann, is clearly based on a Rothschild.*

It’s Zola’s genius that, even as we gawp and giggle at Saccard’s audacity, we witness and pity the destruction he leaves in his wake. Well-meaning people are taken in not necessarily from greed but from need, and through faith; they are ruined as a result.

Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme differs in certain particulars from that of Aristide Saccard, notably in the reversal of religious affiliations, yet the basics are all right there in the pages of Zola. American commentators have been tut-tutting lately that courses in elementary economics and finance ought to be required of high-school and college students, to prevent us from getting fooled again. Why aren’t we insisting, too, that economics students read more novels? They’d learn a great deal.

*Please note that Saccard’s anti-Semitism is one of his signal character flaws; Zola’s own views on the subject have evolved already, and at the time of writing L’Argent, he is only a few years away from his famous defense of Alfred Dreyfus.

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