(Four Questions Concerning) Money Matters
Money tends to be a difficult, or unsexy, subject to talk about. Is it also difficult to write about?
It is indeed considered bad form – or worse, bad manners – to talk about money. But with money it is no different than with other subjects in literature. As writer one should know what one is talking about. The modern novel emerges when dough becomes a problem. The first broad storytellers after Novalis’ blue flower fantasies or Scott’s chivalry romances turned their attention from exceptional personages to people who could in fact have been the reader’s neighbour. Hugo, Balzac and Dickens – or Trollope and Fontane a few decades later – wanted to understand human beings within their social context. That wasn’t possible without simultaneously regarding them as a homo economicus – as an economic agent, that is, whose reality is shaped by numbers as much as by letters. Later, things would be brought to a head, resulting in naturalistic class analyses and prole-literary depictions of the ascent from the basement to the upper floors, to history-materialist social realism and much else, in which economic circumstances often trump psychological intimacy. A number of writers – Colette, Irmgard Keun, Klara Johansson – showed that women’s social mobility was closely connected with financial independence. For my part I am suspicious of novels in which the protagonist’s relationship with money is barely touched upon. The characters may be made of ink and cellulose, but they hardly subsist on air.
Is it difficult to write or read about a wealthy person? (Is it primarily bad character traits which are associated with money? Such as greed, meanness or perhaps American Psycho extravagances?)
Most writers lack not just experience of true wealth, but also knowledge of it. Still, there are engaging examples of monied characters. Take Gatsby in Fitzgerald’s novel of dazzling 1920s New York, whose lavish parties on Long Island are actually a form of trauma management (of wartime experiences, lost love, spiritual paucity). Or John Self in Martin Amis’ Money, who may be on a permanent piss-up but is also stinking rich – at least until things begin to go pear-shaped. Novels about wealth tend to be stories of decay, and thus often (more or less satirical) novels of manners. Easton Ellis’s depiction of that yuppie monster on Wall Street is the logical extension of the genre: a blistering critique of consumerism, driven by perverse self-loathing and dressed up as postmodern splatter-lit.
So which is the best or most interesting novel about economics?
I have a soft spot for Knut Hamsun’s slim volume Hunger. Perhaps because I read this invertedly heroic novel about existential failure at an age when I was chronically skint, despite student loans. Written on the cusp of modernity (1890), it depicts not just »blood’s murmurs and marrow’s prayers«, as Hamsun puts it, but also the implications for the writer as a social creature, forced to earn his keep through words. The nameless protagonist is among the prototypes for writers of the twentieth century. (Woolf’s woman with a room of her own is another, Kafka’s prejudged bachelor a third.) Hamsun’s alter ego conducts his life according to a chivalrous code which is no longer compatible with his surroundings. He gives away money to children and those poorer than himself, refuses offers of food out of pride, and turns himself in after having been forced to steal. But this self-destructiveness, dictated by a society which has neither interest in nor a place for him, is only the beginning of his misery. One doesn’t need to have read Marx to know that an empty wallet begets an empty stomach. Life literally eats away at the protagonist, his decrepit body soon frayed by exposure. He pawns the buttons on his jacket, while his gastric acid burns and his gums become inflamed. Blind to the conditions of existence, he stumbles on his idiotic pride, his inability to adapt, his talent for misunderstanding – and in the final pages enlists on a ship, to depart the city he never found his footing in. A more grandiose evocation of economic misery is hard to imagine.
So what makes a novel about money good?
The short answer: a subject matter that has found its apt expression. Mind you, there is also such a thing as economy of style. As writer one needs to be thrifty with one’s resources. Johan Kling’s Människor helt utan betydelse, a novella about a penniless freelancer over the course of a few summer days in Stockholm before the turn of the millennium, is a fine study of money’s significance for self-esteem. Its style is pared down in that way that poverty turned into literature perhaps must be. As reader one has to be alive also to what is not there – which is to say: to read between the lines. Kling is good at managing the capital of the unsaid.
Another example might be Katherine Faw’s Ultraluminous from 2017, a scalpel of a novel about a young woman, K, who returns to New York after a decade spent in Dubai selling her virtue, as it used to be called. In crystalline prose – acerbic, brazen, brilliant – she describes how she survives as a woman in a late-capitalist society. Obviously, that too – female agency – is a matter of economics.
(SVT Babel, March 19, 2023)