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In Search of Futures Past

How Marcel Proust’s finances affected his writing.

In In Search of Lost Time, just after describing his appearance, the first thing Marcel Proust introduces about Charles Swann is the confusion surrounding the young man’s socioeconomic class. Swann’s father was a stockbroker, but Swann lived on the Quai d’Orléans in the center of Paris, which, although expensive, is also what the Narrator’s grandmother calls an “ignominious” place to live. He also collects paintings, which might either be perceived as a bourgeois or nouveau riche hobby depending on his approach. “But are you a connoisseur?” the grandmother asks, trying to suss out Swann’s complicated class identity.“I ask for your own sake, because you’re likely to let the dealers unload some awful daubs on you.”

Proust himself was relatively wealthy. By his mid-30s, he was worth, as adjusted for inflation, about $7 million (~4.9 million pounds) with an annual income of $280,000 (~195,000 pounds). He inherited all of it. He never made money through anything but writing and playing the stock market, neither of which ended up being particularly remunerative until his writing found success near the end of his life. His financial decisions were, even for an heir with an artistic temperament, particularly reckless and, ultimately, almost unconscionably lucky.

Between 1913 and 1915 he saw his fortune more than halved after being unable to fulfill his obligations on a variety of dubious futures contracts. His fortunes continued to slide, and it appeared he might have his entire net worth knocked out if it weren’t for the First World War, which forced the London and Paris stock exchanges to close. But it was his principle financial advisor, Lionel Hauser, who most consistently saved his skin and, over their fourteen-year relationship, became privy to a different side of the novelist. Without Hauser—his financial counsel, his savvy uncoupling of Proust’s futures contracts, his advice on when to be more risk-averse—Proust would have, in Gian Balsamo’s opinion, “certainly have ruined himself… an impoverished hypochondriac, [he] would have seen his chances to finish his seven-volume novel fade away.” The stakes of Proust’s finances to literary history were exceptional.

Balsamo, a financial data scientist and a professor of literature, has written Proust and His Banker: In Search of Time Squandered in order to “patch up the… gap” found in other biographies of Proust. Using around 350 letters between Proust and Hauser, records from the Rothschild Archive (Proust also had a Rothschild Bank account), and financial data from a miscellany of other letters to and from Proust, Balsamo attempts to reveal not only his relationship with Hauser but also the way in which his economic decisions tended to reflect his artistic ones.

“[Hauser] told Proust that his economic downfall was the result of his artistic talents,” writes Balsamo. Proust, it seemed, couldn’t have one without the other: he needed money for the time and comfort needed for a life of writing, but he also needed to be frequently ruined or near-ruined in order to write many of his plots and narrative conceits. Proust once claimed he had “no imagination” and had to live every experience he depicted in his novels. He translated his mostly miserable romantic life into narrative threads, just as he did with his investment decisions and outcomes, sometimes seeming almost to seek out bad romances and poor financial decisions just to be able to better write about them.

In The Fugitive, for instance, the sixth volume in In Search of Lost Time, the Narrator holidays in Venice just before the First World War. He has made risky investments “to have more money to spend with Albertine,” with whom he’s fallen in love (Proust was ever-drawn to working-class lovers; Albertine is based off of Proust’s relationship with his sometimes-chauffeur Alfred Agostinelli). The Narrator learns his finances are in a free-fall, and he decides to “sell everything,” eventually owning “barely one fifth of the wealth that [he] had inherited from [his] grandmother.” It’s almost exactly the same financial situation as what the real Proust faced just before World War I.

Proust’s parents fretted about his ability to shepherd his finances, and he was thus proud to have linked up with Hauser, a distant cousin whom he’d met in childhood. But Proust, even if he wasn’t adept at them, was far more interested in staying atop his finances than he’s usually given credit for. He closely followed the financial columns in Le Figaroand the Journal des débats, tended to keep most of his money in his more risk-averse Rothschild account, and wrote publically about the stock market, often after taking serious financial hits. (In Le Figaro, he would sometimes write about finance in the style of other French authors, most famously writing about the stock market in the voice of Gustave Flaubert.)

Balsamo is not a trained historian, and the entire premise of Proust and His Bankeris predicated on a 20/20 retrospection that assumes Proust’s financial decisions—sometimes clever, more often haphazard—were always going to benefit his art. But had Proust made the same financial decisions and died never having written a decent book, these decisions wouldn’t have been as crucial—it’s only an opportunity cost if the opportunity is eventually seized. A greater recognition of how Proust and Hauser felt about his financial decisions before they knew he was to be a literary icon would be a welcome addition.

Balsamo does well to combine literary criticism with cold-hard numbers, charts, and graphs. The creative and the administrative intersect daily for artists, but most biographers pay little attention to tax-paying or stock-trading, when these are exactly the kind of quotidian duties that comprise a personal life, even if they tend to be less glamorous.

For Proust, it was just this kind of unglamorous time, alone in his room, his fortunes rising and falling, his health always suspect, that led to his masterpieces. He needed to spend money and “waste” time in order to write about time passed. Balsamo calls it “time squandered” in his title while Proust called it “lost time” in his. In either case, time is not a zero-sum game—it is not a binary between “wasted” or “used.” Proust didn’t publish his first novel until he was 42, and he didn’t become famous until around age 48, when he won the Goncourt Prize. (And he died just three years after that.) Indeed, for almost his entire life, Proust passed his time doing almost nothing of “productive” value. Is this what it means to really be an artist? To push aside productivity in the name of time and experience?

It’s impossible to really know of course, but one suspects that even if Proust were to have been financially ruined and forced to get a day job, he would’ve still created at least one fantastic scene out of it. Oscar Wilde claimed, “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.” But for Proust, it was never so. He wrote what he lived. He was lucky to have money, but what it paid for was ultimately priceless: time—to spend, to pass, to use, to waste.

This essay originally appeared in The Times Literary Supplement.

Cover image: “The Circle of the rue Royale,” by James Tissot, 1868, Musée d’Orsay, Paris

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