M. de Norpois recommends some investments

Currently I’m reading Within a Budding Grove, by Proust. For various reasons it’s taking me a lot longer than I’d hoped. Mostly the issue is that I wasn’t able to read it on holiday as I planned. That’s a shame because Proust needs time. He’s incredibly readable, but dense too. Every sentence requires attention. The sheer volume of wit, psychological insight, sociological comment and just sheer style demands concentration. It’s a great read, but it’s not a great daily commute read.

Quite honestly I’ve no idea how I’ll write it up once I have finished it. Inadequately is probably the best answer I have. How else could it be? To write with any accuracy about the scope of this volume alone would need more words than Proust needed to write it. Still, it should be fun to make the attempt doomed as I know it will be.

It’s impossible, for me anyway, to read Proust without being sent off on hundreds of digressions and tangents. Every page sends my mind racing in different directions. This quote, almost a humorous aside in the book, like so much else sent me well beyond the page I found it on:

My father, who was trustee of this estate until I came of age, now consulted M. de Norpois with regard to a number of investments. He recommended certain stocks bearing a low rate of interest, which he considered particularly sound, notably English consols and Russian four per cents. “With absolutely first-class securities such as those,” said M. de Norpois, “even if your income from them is nothing very great you may be certain of never losing your capital.”

Recently at bookaroundthecorner’s blog there was a discussion regarding the familiarity characters in 19th and early 20th Century fiction have with the financial markets. Often they display a casual knowledge of the merits of different classes of investment that’s quite alien today. The modern middle classes don’t, can’t, discuss gilt rates over dinner unless some of them actively work in the bond markets.The middle classes of the late Victorian/Edwardian period appear much more comfortable in this territory.

My personal theory is that it’s related to the need to procure a remittance (a competence as it was once wonderfully called) which doesn’t require the beneficiary to actually engage in work. The range of occupations open to the upper middle classes and upper classes was relatively narrow. There was no real social safety net. To maintain position, particularly in old age but also during the more active years, required a source of income not dependent on a job.

In this period the only pension you had was likely that which you provided for yourself. The only illness or unemployment protection came from your investments. If you wanted to live as part of “society” you needed a source of income that didn’t tie you up when you could otherwise be calling on people and participating in the social whirl. Class and money are ever hard to separate, and while one is not the same as the other (even in America) class is hard to sustain without money and after a generation or two money tends to buy class.

The characters of the novels of this period then know financial instruments because they have to. It’s an integral part of their world. They know them because not to know them would be folly, and because their parents would have known them too. They are part of ordinary conversation because familiarity with them is key both to survival and to social position.

Today it’s very different. There isn’t the same stigma about working for a living, and the growth of the superrich has made incomes that would once have been counted wealthy now merely comfortable. The young men (and now women) of the upper middle classes who would once have lived on their competence while doing some light duties at the bar or the City now compare themselves to oligarchs, CEOs and top traders and in that company a solid competence from land and investments really doesn’t cut it anymore.

On the other hand, we do now have pension plans, occupational contribution schemes, unemployment benefit and sick leave (to varying degrees of protection according to country). Equally importantly, perhaps more so, we no longer have the stigma of debt. The characters of these great novels of the past fear debt as social catastrophe, but now it’s commonplace (consumer debt is even an underpinning of our economic model). At worst those characters could even face prison for debt. That’s unthinkable today.

The characters of these novels mostly live lives of considerable comfort but comfort stretched over an abyss. Today that comfort is less easily obtained, but the abyss too is no longer bottomless. There’s a long way one can fall, but not so far as prison and the workhouse.

That’s why I think finance is so important to pre-First World War fiction. The anticipated readers of literary fiction of the day would have needed to know such matters and so would have been interested in them. Today finance is more abstruse, less common knowledge. It is alchemy and the ways of the bond market are neither known by nor of interest to a contemporary readership.

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18 Comments

Filed under 19th Century Literature, French Literature, In Search of Lost Time, Modernist Fiction, Personal posts, Proust, Marcel

18 responses to “M. de Norpois recommends some investments

  1. I agree, writing about Proust is daunting and frustrating as you could write many many posts and just scratch over the surface. The only thing I aimed at when I wrote about him was to give to a potential reader the impulse to read In Search of Lost Time too.

    That post about investments is interesting. We discussed this when I read La Cousine Bette by Balzac and I partly agree with you. It’s going to be interesting to hear other voices as you attract more readers than me.

    I agree on the want of a “competence” (I didn’t know that word) and on the need to have a regular income that wouldn’t end. I’ve always heard of France as a country where “rentiers” are a model. I’m discovering that there’s no English equivalent: a “rentier” is someone who lives on their competence. I agree, upper classes needed a regular flow of cash without dirtying their hands. And ruin was a great fear as it also meant the loss of social position and possibly prison.

    But I don’t think they’re only looking for security for their old days. Otherwise, we’d hear more of investing in lands and buildings. Here, we’re talking about investing in financial instruments, shares and bonds.
    In France, the laws regarding economy changed a lot with the Revolution (end of the corporations in 1791) and with the First Empire (Code de Commerce in 1807 and Code Civil in 1804) Wikipedia confirms what I thought: the French law about SA (LLC) and shares date back to that time. I think it shows the beginning of capitalism as we know it now. To me, stockmarkets are the companions of the industrial revolution. There were many new activities that were booming and requiring cash to expand. Plus, there were the colonies and money to invest overseas. I wonder if that wasn’t just fashionable, modern. (think of the dotcom bubble in the 1990s) That’s the first point.

    The second one is about the banking system. When I read Balzac, the financial instruments used were mostly to provide the characters with fresh cash. To me, it shows that the banking system wasn’t effective in the early 19thC. It developed later in the 19thC. They knew these instruments as we know the rules about credit and overdrafts. I should read L’Argent by Zola, I’m sure it’s interesting.

    The third point would be that like today, they were greedy. They wanted to earn a lot of money without working and it could be more profitable than lands and buildings. Fortunes grew in new activities.

    I also think that the frontier between wealth and poverty is easy to cross in our societies as well. Think about Enron’s former employees. They had everything in their company: their savings, their pension plan, their health security system. The social net wasn’t that effective. We have a feeling of security but it’s far from perfect. The net is more or less effective according to the country, that’s certain.
    I’m not sure that today’s upper classes are that lost when it comes to investing on stock markets. Sure, complicated instruments aren’t available to everyone. But you can do things by yourself on the Internet and buy/sell shares, bonds and UCITS at home.

    Btw, when Proust makes Norpois recommend Russian 4%, he makes fun of him. Indeed, as you may know, French people lent money to Russia and the debt was cancelled by the Bolcheviks in 1918. Millions of small investors lost their savings. After the Law scandal in the 18thC, this one and the disaster of Eurotunnel, French people are rather careful when it comes to putting money on the stockmarkets.

    PS: All this is only my opinion. I’m not an economist.
    PPS : Are there such references to investments in British classics from that time? I haven’t read enough of them to know.

  2. Sorry, my comment is HUGE.

  3. A fascinating post, Max — perhaps even better than a book review.

    The English version of this dilemma, of course, is the whole notion of primogeniture and entailment — played out recently on television in Downton Abbey so well. Although some of us remember Upstairs, Downstairs even better. And Waugh did seem to address the issue as well.

    But I think you catch a continental aspect with Proust that is lacking in most English literature — the idea of managing “funds” so that you can maintain a lifestyle, without actually doing anything. I am giving nothing away when I say that as you venture further into Proust you are going to find that this is harder than you might think.

    I don’t think American literature has any counterpart — you have the Gatsby’s descending into destruction on one hand and the expansionists (Augie March comes to mind) on the other.

  4. Rentier is interestingly enough the word used in English too, suggesting the concept may have been imported.

    It’s certainly not just about retirement. My argument was that it was partly that, but also partly a social safety net (unemployment and sickness benefit effectively) and a mechanism for avoiding having to indulge in trade/work which could damage social position.

    I hadn’t got that point about Norpois. Thanks for that. There really is so much in Proust, it’s impossible to catch it all.

    It does come up I think in English literature, but not quite in such a pronounced way. But then talking about money is vulgar in English society so to an extent it couldn’t come up in quite the same way. In the US I think there was less stigma in actually working for a living…

    Sorry for the slow reply, and huge comments incidentally are always welcome here.

    Kevin, in England I think the general view was that income should come from land (hence the importance of primogeniture and entailment as you note), and as I mention above it was of course vulgar to discuss it. Waugh is good on this. I don’t sadly recall Upstairs, Downstairs and I missed Downton (I’m not a Fellowes fan though I heard it was pretty good) so I’ve missed the tv treatments of the topic.

    I’m glad it’s a theme that develops. It’s a fascinating one.

  5. According to what I know about English literature (and that’s not much), the model of a rentier is more that of a gentleman running an estate in the country and spending the “season” in London. However, some people must have put money in industries as well. But probably talking about the estate was socially acceptable wheareas the other investments were vulgar.
    What do you think?

    Talking about money is vulgar in French society too. (Catholic country) It’s still vulgar to talk about your own money (how much you earn and how much you own or how much you paid for your house…) but it’s acceptable to talk about investments in general. That’s why Americans shock French people sometimes because they talk more openly about their wealth.

    I think that working for your living is in the US DNA. It’s a country built by immigrants. People are proud to be rich after working hard.

  6. Fascinating. I read this under Penguin’s ludicrous title “Shadow of Young Girls in Flower” (was there ever a more unsuccessful attempt to capture an idiom in translation). I have now read three volumes but somehow doubt that I will ever read the other three.

    You have certainly opened up an interesting angle on the era. Perhaps today, most non-wealthy people are faced with such a homogenised money market that there is little point in discussing financial markets because they are all so similar. Only the wealthy can find investments that vary by more than one or two percentage points. We are just fodder to financial institutions who treat us with contempt unless we are billionaires.

    Anthony Trollope’s The Way we Live Now, and perhaps Dicken’s Martin Chuzzlewit are the only English books I can think of with significant references to money markets

  7. Tom,
    I think the title “In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower” better than “Within a Budding Grove”. It’s the exact translation of the French and in French, “A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleur” isn’t an idiom. Proust invented it. Girls are more important than groves in that book.

  8. I would say that talking about one’s estate is acceptable in a way that talking about one’s investments would not be, but it’s a tricky area and of course depends in part on who the conversation is with.

    There’s an order of vulgarity isn’t there? From most to least: one’s salary/bonus (very vulgar); one’s investment income (moderately vulgar); one’s land holdings (only really vulgar if you talk directly about how much you make from them).

    None of which applies in the US. Probably as you say because too many people there have had to create their own money after arriving as immigrants. That said, among the higher echelons of society there it’s probably not that difficult. I suspect Wharton’s milieu didn’t chat about income too much either. Money to them would be like air, one simply has it and if suddenly one doesn’t it’s a tragedy that one likely won’t recover from.

    In the Shadow etc. may be a good literal translation, but it does sound very odd. Does it sound odd in French too then? The grove is of course a very veiled reference to girls, but possibly too veiled.

    There’s a point there Tom I admit, today if someone invests it’s most likely via a pension fund or market tracker. What’s to discuss there? I should read Trollope. He’s out of fashion, but remembered I suspect for a reason.

    Why won’t you go on to the other three? Too much commitment for the likely reward?

  9. “There’s an order of vulgarity isn’t there? From most to least: one’s salary/bonus (very vulgar); one’s investment income (moderately vulgar); one’s land holdings (only really vulgar if you talk directly about how much you make from them).”
    Yes. But in France, avoid all of them. From my business lunches experience, safe topics are sport, children and hobbies as long as it’s not reading high brow literature. That’s why I have to endure endless conversations about football and golf.

    Does “A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs” sound weird in French?
    I suppose it does. Not to me because it has become familiar and it lost its oddity. The phrase isn’t common, it’s pure literary invention. It’s not the kind of phrase or image you would use in everyday conversation. It’s Proust’s mind.
    It holds everything from the book :
    - “shadow” for his position as an observer in addition to being a side participant. “Shadow” for being sick and a pale shadow compared to Saint Loup,
    - “girls” for Gilberte and the girls in Balbec,
    - “in flower” for the spring of his life, his sexuality awakening with Gilberte, the prostitures and later in Balbec, for the description of landscapes in Balbec in the spring and in the summer, for the promenades with Mme de Villeparsis in the country, for his thoughts about Elstir’s paintings (I hope you’ll post about that, I couldn’t write anything about it, I lack the vocabulary and the art knowledge)

    It’s a wonderful title. Odd, unusual but wonderful.

  10. My only land holding is my house, so I’m pretty safe from those discussions. Work conversation in the UK covers two topics: sport and children. Hobbies don’t really get a pass. Unfortunately I don’t follow any sports and don’t have children. It’s occasionally an issue, though not a serious one thankfully.

    Nice detail on the title. Thanks for that.

  11. Congratulations on a great post. I am about half way through Swann’s Way and shan’t be attempting anything approaching a formal review. Nor can I imagine picking and expanding upon a theme, as what I get so far is a blur of impressions. I am very envious of your mind “racing in different directions” as mine seems pleasantly, but not illuminatingly, cocooned.

    I am anticipating a break when I finishSwann’s Way, but in the meantime I will take your incidental advice, and read both more slowly and with more attention to detail.

    Good luck with your project, in both the reading and the writing. The outlook for your final write-up looks promising on the strength of your first sortie.

  12. Swann’s Way was great. I wrote it up here (it’s under the Proust, Marcel category) but you probably won’t want to read that while you’re still reading the book.

    They’re impossible to write up really. I’m now making good progress again on the second and there’s so much in it that any writeup will be hopelessly partial. All I’ll really aim to do I suspect is share my enthusiasm and encourage others to read it (as Bookaround mentions above, her posts on Proust are fascinating by the way).

    I’m sorry not to have been commenting on your Russian reading so far. It’s been very interesting, but I’ve been catching up on posts recently and haven’t been able to comment on several that came up while I was largely offline. It’s an extraordinary project. I’m quite jealous. I note on your summing up post you talk about how the body of work combines to a greater whole, and how it’s made you think more about some issues facing us today. What greater argument for relevancy could there be?

    Perhaps next year for me. Proust will be taking me a while yet…

  13. Not your first Proust post then? I don’t know how I missed the first one, but I will look it up at the appropriate juncture. I have seen Bookaround’s posts, and they were fascinating, but gave me some terrible qualms about which translation to choose! Fortunately fate intervened through the offices of a charity shop and Montcrieff it is.

    My commenting record recently has been abysmal. I’m grateful to anyone who doesn’t show me up by being able to read, write, and comment simultaneously, all before breakfast and without breaking a sweat. The Russian reading felt like a unique experience, but the appeal lay largely in the contradictory qualities of scale and containment. If that makes sense. I guess you could say that Proust has similar characteristics.

    Apropos of nothing, I met Pechorin (so to speak) several times on my Russian travels. Which felt like a small revelation in itself!

  14. That’s the translation I’m on. It can be a mixed blessing having an awareness of them. On the one hand it helps one avoid truly bad translations. On the other it can lead, and has sometimes for me, to translation paralysis where one spends so long worrying about the right translation it gets in the way of just reading the book.

    You’ve not read A Hero of Our Time yet have you? I look forward to your thoughts on that. Guy Savage at His Futile Preoccupations has written a lot, as you probably know, on Russian literature. Worth checking out if you haven’t.

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