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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 tells the reader about Charles Swann is of the confusion surrounding the young man’s socio-economic class. Swann’s father was a stockbroker, but Swann lived on the Quai d’Orléans in the centre of Paris, which, although expensive, is also what the narrator’s grandmother calls an “ignominious” place to live. He collects paintings, which might be perceived as either a bourgeois or a nouveau-riche hobby depending on his approach. “But are you a connoisseur?” the grandmother asks, trying to work 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-thirties, he was worth, as adjusted for inflation, about £4.9 million ($7 million) with an annual income of £195,000 ($280,000). He inherited all of it. He never made money through anything but writing and playing the stock market, neither of which was 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, reckless and, ultimately, almost unconscionably lucky.

Between 1913 and 1915 Proust saw his fortune more than halved when he was unable to fulfil 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 hadn’t been for the war, which forced the London and Paris stock exchanges to close. But it was his principal financial adviser, 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, 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 could not have been higher.

Read the rest of this essay at The Times Literary Supplement.

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

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