A Meditation, perhaps un peu risquée, about Marcel Proust’s Charles Swann – character and Mr. Swann’s possible High Finance involvement
Mme Cottard: “Et à tout moment elle [Mlle Odette de Crécy] demandait: “Qu’est-ce qu’il [Charles Swann] peut faire en ce moment? Si seulement il travaillait un peu! C’est malheureux, un garçon si doué, qu’il soit si paresseux.” (Marcel Proust: Du Côté De Chez Swann, Librairie Générale Française, 1992, p. 423)
The Canon of Western literature has regaled us with a sizable collection of fictitious personalities who have either chosen the financial industry as their professional mainstay or who have supported their lavish life-style in large measure through the proceeds of (earlier or current) money market activities. Balzac’s Baron de Nucingen is one of those characters, as is Flaubert’s M. Dambreuse, Zola’s Aristide Saccard, Dreiser’s Frank Cowperwood, Dicken’s Mr. Merdle, Trollop’s Augustus Melmotte, DeLillo’s Eric Packer, Tom Wolfe’s Sherman McCoy, Musil’s Leo Fischel, Bernhard’s Georg Murau and Easton Ellis’ Patrick Bateman to name perhaps the most important of them.
Usually these fictitious bankers/traders/financiers are not portrayed as very likeable human beings. Authors mostly prefer them to be consumed with desires for wealth, splendor, debauchery and extravagance. Dishonesty and deceit therefore are often times part of the standard tool set of these characters. And sometimes they do not even shy away from crime and murder in order to pursue their goals.
Not always though are these financier-personalities presented as appalling individuals. Occasionally they even serve as positive, inspirational role models both to the author and the hero of the literary piece itself. Thomas Bernhard’s Uncle Georg in “Ausloeschung” (Extinction) is a case in point here. Not only does that Uncle Georg muster the courage to physically, emotionally and intellectually distance himself from the loaded, crypto-fascist provinciality of his Austrian family background, but his very different, sophisticated investor life-style also helps his nephew Franz-Josef to realize that an intelligent approach to money market speculation may well constitute a viable basis for a life devoted to philosophical reflection and erudition.
Such uplifting examples of financial market personalities in literature are, however, far and few in between. Clearly, the finance industry itself is quite a bit to blame for the negative press it has received in the upper echelons of Western art. The abuses, the digressions and the mistakes it is responsible for, not just in the 19th and early 20th century but to this day (see, for instance, the bloated and misguided current Trump bubble and/or the earlier subprime travesty), are substantial and considerable.
Despite all the distortions though which have been produced by the likes of Wall Street, the moral track record of the industry has a few more shades to it than high Western fiction generally has us believe. And thankfully enough some literary giants, sometimes against their original intentions, acknowledge this. Marcel Proust is one of them. His famous Charles Swann Jr. – character which is elaborated most prominently in the first volume (“Du Côté de chez Swann”) of Proust’s seven-part series “In Search of Lost Time” (1913 – 1927), isn’t just an example of a superbly refined, high-class intellectual, but he is also the archetype of a charming and cherished, world-savvy interlocutor/counselor to the high and mighty, the sort of which you usually only find (or used to find) in the most hand-picked circles of Diplomacy and High Finance. (Members of the distinguished aristocracy would clearly also qualify as being charming and superbly refined. Their above-market status, however, is a constant inconvenience to the realism of their judgments, particularly in international matters. (see WWI, for instance)
Now it is true, of course, that Proust does not cast Mr. Swann as an active financial market player. Nor can it be denied that Mr. Proust’s narrator does not tend to harbor very favorable views about bankers and financiers as such. But the fact that Mr. Proust prefers to describe M Swann as a non-income generating
socialite and art connoisseur, ( – probably to demonstrate the intrinsic moral value of refined idleness against a narrow-minded Saint-Simonian (Claude-Henri’s (the grand-nephew) not Louis de Rouvroy’s (the uncle)) market philosophy – ) , should not deter us from presuming that Charles may well have been a much more important contributor to high finance decision making than M. Proust himself may have suspected.
Obviously, we must not forget that investment banking in the late 19th and early 20th century was even more of an Old Boys-networking activity than it is nowadays. In fact, the concept of “investment banking” did not exist back then. There were, hence, no professional analysts, no boutique funds, no CMEs and no day traders at that time. Instead it was at exquisite luncheons at the Jockey Club or the Elysée that major financial decisions (like, say, the opening up of new credit facilities to the Ottoman Empire, or the financing of projects like the Suez Canal construction) got first sounded out and informally prepared.
The regular and continued tête-à-tête-exchanges which Charles Swann therefore entertained with key shakers and movers (General de Froberville (Du Côté .. p.374 ff), the future King of England, Edward VII, (p 58), the French National Assembly President d’Audiffret-Pasquier (p. 67), the French Police Commissioner (Le Préfet de Police) and the President of the Republic, M. Grévy himself (p.264)) may well have been much more “productive” than Odette de Crécy, Mme Cottard, James Tissot, or even Marcel Proust himself realized. (see quote above and see also Marcel Proust: La Prisonnière, in À la recherche du temps perdu, Paris, Gallimard (Pléiade), 1954, tome III, p. 200).
Obviously, there can be little doubt that Charles must have had, what is nowadays being labeled as “street cred” in the relevant financial circles. His father had been an established and successful member of the financial community; Charles himself had received a prestigious education; he had international experience, and his personal charm and elegance made him a natural in diplomatic and aristocratic settings. Above all though, he had at his disposition the sort of analytical mind that an institutional investor would nowadays naturally expect from its bond market strategist or structured finance specialist.
To get a take on Mr. Swann’s speculative astuteness just witness his later Napoléon III -Forcheville analogy (Du Côté …., p. 427) which he comes up with after a day of intense reasoning that then leads him to intuitively anticipate the imminence of a “nuit noire”, complete with “sirens going of”, “houses being on flames” and “people running in despair”. In other words, a forecast of major turmoil and market collapse is shaping up at that point in Swann’s mind that not only echoes the brutal breakdown France and the French economy experienced in the aftermath of the 1871 defeat against Prussia but which also suggests an unease with respect to possible future WW1-type disasters which could happen due to shocking narcissistic aberrations in the national and international arena.
Unfortunately most literary critics, artists and poets have only little if any understanding of the kind of sociopolitical analysis high finance strategists need to employ when doing their jobs. Poets all too often are likely to presume that such financial market analysis is first and foremost an economic number-crunching business that is driven by greed and profiteering and that has next to nothing to do with an artistic sense of balance and consistency or the subtle capability for psychological, political and philosophical interpretation. This may well be the reason why most artistic descriptions of financial players tend to be expansive in elaborating their character flaws but pretty short on detail as to their actual work. American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman, for instance, although pursuing a supposedly “productive”, well-paid daytime job, spends most of his time in the office soliciting pain killers from his secretary, assessing the wardrobe of his colleagues and arranging lunch or dinner meetings with his love interests or other high net worth drug addicts. Cosmopolis’ Eric Packer, on the other hand, is more concerned with his haircut than with actual asset management. (In fact, the only pieces of first-tier Western fiction that Noah denkt™ is aware of which actually detail some money market activities are Zola’s The Kill, Balzac’s Eugenie Grandet and Dreiser’s The Financier. Michael Lewis (ML), Andrew Ross-Sorkin, Stanley Weiser and others have meanwhile provided some relief in this respect. It remains to be seen though whether their work will eventually be viewed as Canonical-grade.)
Whatever, though, the shortcomings of Canonical literature with respect to High Finance may be, there is little doubt in our mind that Charles Swann Jr was a much more value-adding contributor to financial and economic growth than Mr. Bateman was. And that assertion of ours is true even if Mr. Swann himself may eventually have become just as disenchanted with the mediocrity of his Rothschild/Upper Class peers as Mr. Bateman became, perhaps, after experiencing the cynical cruelty of his ‘Liar’s Poker’ (ML) investment bank bosses. At least, Charles never lost his belief in the merit of human decency and intellectual/artistic curiosity and thereby avoided the decline into violence and destruction, Mr. Bateman ultimately suffered. Whether it is Charles’ erudition, his near-aristocratic sense of identity and/or his financial independence that is to be invoked as the overriding explanation for his moral resilience in the face of an increasingly vulgar capitalist reality (for the latter see also the Balbec chapter in À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs) remains to be seen. The “Du Côté de chez Swann” – Proust, after all, is only at the beginning of uncovering that new emerging bourgeois vulgarity.
The more important question, therefore, with respect to Mr. Swann isn’t, at this point, whether Charles is an uplifting example of a high finance contributor because he most likely is. The real question much rather is whether his prolonged obsession with Odette de Crécy does somewhat diminish the respect we should have for the perspicacity of his investigative, value-driven mind. Obviously, an argument could be made that his two-year-long (1879-1881) infatuation for Odette speaks ill of his capability to cut losses and untangle himself from prior investment mistakes.
We must not forget, however, that his personality is that of an analyst, and not that of a fund manager. As an analyst his job is more about getting to the bottom of a socio-psychological conundrum than it is about maximizing assets. In other words, to help fund managers adequately deal with their possible investment exposure to psychological misfits like Kaiser Wilhelm II, Napoléon III or Trump I, it would be Charles’ job not to shy away from studying, experiencing and de-constructing such personalities but to get intimately involved with them instead.
And this is precisely what he, Mr. Charles Swann Jr. of “Swann’s Way”, does in the Odette case. It is our opinion that his obsession with Mlle de Crécy is way less erotic and sexual than it is sociological in nature. Her emotional rudeness fascinates him, the weird, perhaps Trumpian-like spell this psychological deficiency can project on him and others, rightly so, obsesses him, and he unequivocally accepts his analyst duty to study this narcissist aberration until its destructive, game-changing potential has been fully mapped (see his Napoléon III- Nuit Noir-Revelation) and flashed out by him (“faire sonner bien haut”, À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, Ed. Gallimard 1987, p4).
In other words, his all-consuming devotion to the Odette and (Non-)Associates-issue does not diminish our appreciation for the astuteness of his mind, it much rather does the opposite. And any High Finance Industry that is worth its salt should be proud to have such a fine systemic risk and social change researcher serving it, – regardless of whether his advice is being offered on a free-lance, pro bono basis or not.