No Room for Losers

Michael Wood

  • Proust and His Banker: In Search of Time Squandered by Gian Balsamo
    South Carolina, 272 pp, £37.50, May 2017, ISBN 978 1 61117 736 7

The title of Gian Balsamo’s intriguing book is staid enough: Proust and His Banker. The subtitle – ‘In Search of Time Squandered’ – promises all kinds of adventures and invites us to toy with various riddles. When is an opportunity cost – a favourite term with Balsamo – not an opportunity cost? Perhaps when the opportunity turns out to be a disaster, or was never an opportunity in the first place. I find myself thinking too of the oxymoron, not fully declared or inevitable but certainly lurking, in the term ‘exotic securities’ – a phrase Rubén Gallo, in Proust’s Latin Americans (2014), uses of Proust’s Mexican investments.

The French language is morally and economically rather slack (or generous) about time and money. You don’t spend time, you pass it (and it passes), and it’s hard even to think of a parallel for ‘squander’. Gaspiller comes closest but it’s more like ‘fritter’ than ‘splash’. You can waste time in French, but the verb perdre on its own won’t distinguish between waste and loss, as Proust himself explains in one letter to his banker: temps perdu is time gone, not necessarily wasted, as his correspondent wants to think. Even the Italian sprecare, which unequivocally means ‘to waste’, doesn’t have the reckless allure of ‘squander’, and there is a nice opportunity bonus for Balsamo in this, since an earlier version of his book was called Alla ricerca del tempo sprecato. The new work, however, is ‘not a simple revision or English version’ of that text ‘but the substantial completion of an interrupted project’.

The project is ‘to patch up the … gap’ in the standard biographies of Proust by telling in detail a story they offer in various compressed forms: that of Proust’s relationship with Lionel Hauser, a distant cousin (they first met when they were children) who was his financial adviser between 1908 and 1922, the year Proust died. Their correspondence consists of 357 letters, and Balsamo tells the full tale of the ups and downs of their relationship, the financial secrets Proust kept from Hauser, the scoldings he received regarding his profligacy, a major quarrel and a final reconciliation. Proust was a rich man – in 1908 he had the 2008 equivalent of $7 million in assets and a yearly income of $280,000 – who almost became poor, ‘ruined’ as he said, and then climbed back towards safety, in part thanks to Hauser’s labours and in part thanks to his own incredible luck with shares he had more or less forgotten about.

Balsamo is sensitive and subtle about the different tones the two men take in their letters and what is at stake for each, and even his romantic, redemptive theory of finance and art, implausible and circular in its simpler formulations, has its virtues as a launching point for other questions. Can the relation between Proust and Hauser have been an ‘idyll’, if they were at one point so ‘nasty’ and ‘furious’ with each other? No, but Balsamo’s dislike of the dark doesn’t mean we can’t linger there. Can we really take financial and medical distress as secret artistic benefits? Of course we can, but the artist must have been recognised as successful – in which case anything he did or didn’t do might count as an opportunity cost.

Ghislain de Diesbach, one of Proust’s biographers, says the writer saw the world of finance as a fairy-tale realm. This is how Balsamo sees it too: finance for him is a matter not merely of markets but also of magical, non-fiscal results. You just have to do the accounts imaginatively, or as Balsamo puts it, understand ‘the symbiosis between art and finance’.

The interest of Balsamo’s picture lies not in the obvious contrast between the dreaming artist and his practical adviser, but in the mythical comparison between the artist as practical in his wild way and the adviser as failed tamer of this wild wisdom. One wonderfully tangled sentence perfectly captures the attraction and the confusion of Balsamo’s perspective: ‘Hauser had no access to the hindsight that supports our appreciation of Proust as, if you will, a far-sighted squanderer.’ Hindsight is the only true guarantee of the virtues of hindsight, but the retrospective gift of far-sightedness allows Balsamo to represent both teams, to keep the actual squandering and the lavish ultimate profit in play. The only problem with the view is that it leaves no room for losers or for chance; for real opportunities missed.

To the notion of squander, essential because of the drama and fun of the idea, Balsamo opposes that of the deep, permanent resource that apparent squander might offer. ‘Time and money (and good health as well) were mere assets to Proust to be sacrificed to the success of his artwork’; there is an ‘economy of waste’; ‘waste was the renewable resource that kept on giving.’ Schematically, squander is Balsamo’s conception of the banker’s term for what his client, his ‘scatterbrained friend’ is doing, and Hauser does write of Proust’s ‘perfect recklessness’. But Balsamo himself is also willing to talk of Proust’s ‘manic conduct’, ‘liberal squandering’, ‘reckless investments’ and ‘squandered money’, even without resorting to metaphor or magic.

Then he corrects himself. ‘Lost, but not squandered’ is what he says of Proust’s health, adding ‘this is a distinction that Hauser might have been unable, or unwilling by all means, to grasp.’ ‘Proust was quite the opposite of a hopeless businessman and a reckless investor.’ Proust ‘turned economic costs into artistic opportunities’; made ‘every excessive expense, every incongruous cost, every hazardous risk, every acrobatic speculation … into an incomparable form of creative capital’. It’s true that Balsamo has to fiddle the finances a bit to get this story to work. Part of his argument is that Proust’s investments were not all bad in market terms, since they were driven by ‘a sort of intuition … that was ingenious in its longer-term results, not only artistic but financial’, but his main claim includes not only a far from inevitable artistic success but immense royalties. Proust ‘sacrificed … in a paradoxical, financially savvy sense, his personal fortune – savvy in this sense, that this sacrifice, or should I say this wager of his material wealth was bound to enrich several generations of heirs and publishers’. Bound to? Well, yes, even apart from the pun. That’s what happens when you convert hindsight into ancient far-sightedness.

You also lose most of the error and pain of a lived life, but fortunately we can find those in the letters themselves, and indeed in Proust’s novel, and Balsamo does have a wonderful reading of the relationship between squander and art which contradicts almost everything else he says. In one of his letters to Hauser, Proust quotes Hippocrates’ aphorism ‘Ars longa, vita brevis.’ In place of the usual sage interpretation (‘Art is long and life is short’), Balsamo suggests it meant something much more dramatic and genuinely sacrificial: ‘The composition of his … artwork had imposed upon him a self-destructive lifestyle.’ Not compensation then (‘Life is short but art is long’) but up-front, unguaranteed payment: Art is long (maybe) only if you make your life short.