More summer reading, and finance

I mentioned in an earlier post that I had been re-reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel Tender is the Night. It’s good to read something that is unconnected with work but it’s pretty hard to do that when your subject is finance.

This novel is very much about wealth, or rather wealthy people, a big theme in Fitzgerald’s work. He became very well off himself through his book sales but he married a really rich woman, Zelda Sayre. Engaged initially when Fitzgerald was very young, Zelda broke it off because she doubted he would succeed as a writer. When he did, and became solvent, she married him after all.

One can see how this might have given the novelist a certain fixation with money. And in Tender is the Night (based heavily on his rather tragic relationship with Zelda) and the more famous The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald is both in awe of and repelled by the truly rich. He is supposed to have had an exchange with another great American author, Ernest Hemingway, as follows:

Fitzgerald: The rich are different from the rest of us.

Hemingway: Yes, they have more money.

(I’m with Hemingway on this by the way). Fitzgerald was actually fixated with great inherited wealth, especially in contrast to more mundane middle class professional salary comfort. In Tender is the Night, Nicole Diver, grand-daughter of a self made American capitalist, is married to a doctor, Dick. Without giving away the plot, Nicole comes out best and the implication is that this is partly owing to the supreme confidence and self-assurance that comes with unspeakable wealth. In The Great Gatsby, the commonplace solid income of a bond salesman is contrasted with the vast wealth of Gatsby (illegally procured) and Tom and Daisy Buchanan (inherited). The Buchanans triumph, again partly owing to the security of the size and origin of their wealth.

Though superbly written, neither novel is very charming. In fact I think they’re both sad and rather bitter, perhaps understandably given Fitzgerald’s experience. The writer Christopher Hitchens said once (somewhere, I can’t recall the reference) that The Great Gatsby is not a book that lovers give to each other. It’s interesting to compare that time, the Jazz Age, when enormous wealth dominated American society, with the present, when many people fear a growing plutocracy grabbing more and more power at the expense of a middle class with stagnant or falling income.

My next reading will almost certainly be directly about finance rather than only tangentially, as we’re nearly at the start of term and there is much work to be done.

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