Other People’s Money

Idon’t know how many times I have asked myself and my friends—who now begin tosidle away when this hobbyhorse comes up—why the novelist Justin Cartwright isnot better known in this country. The answer may lie in our American deafnessto irony and a national tendency toward moral absolutism. Perhaps, too, it hassomething to do with the quality, perplexing to us, of this Jewish, SouthAfrican-born Londoner’s fascination with Englishness, a fascination partyearning, part mistrust. The yearning is for an ideal which Cartwright foundsymbolized in Oxford, something that lies, as he said in his paean to thatuniversity, Oxford Revisited, “deep in the Anglo-Saxon mind—excellence, akind of privilege, a charmed life, deep-veined liberalism, a respect fortradition.” On the other hand, his mistrust comes in the form of a leerydistaste for “the ideal” as an all-encompassing vision of truth, andfor its seductive, delusionary potency.  

It’s perhaps his novel The Song Before It’s Sung that shows the dark, distorting side of the idealmost explicitly. (The book is, among other things, a grand salute to the viewsof Isaiah Berlin, the thinker Cartwright appears to admire above all others.) Afurther three, In Every Face I Meet, The Promise of Happiness, and the just-published Other People’s Money, are absolute marvels of comedy and intellectualdepth.

Other People’s Money begins at its story’s end with a list of the greatpersons—blue-bloods, political pooh-bahs, high diplomatic muck-a-mucks, andfar-flung family members—who have attended the memorial service at St. Paul’sCathedral for Sir Harry Tubal-Trevelyan. He was, we will discover, the head of,Tubal and Co., a family banking house established in 1671. Over the centuries,the Jewish Tubals, now Tubal-Trevelyans, have become assimilated, exemplifyingthe very essence of Old Albion, while the bank itself emanates stalwart,English soundness. It “sits in the middle of its own magic circle of money—staid, reassuring, andvery, very rich. It pulses benignly, broadcasting goodwilloutwards to its clients.” SirHarry’s last three years were dimmed by a stroke, but even before that, thebusiness of the bank had been increasingly handled by his son, Julian, who hadembraced the new financial instruments of sub-prime derivatives that seemed tocreate value so ingeniously, bringing astonishing rates of returns. Until, ofcourse, they didn’t.

As theaction of the novel begins, the bank has lost hundreds of millions of pounds. Theidea—or ideal—that money could be created without risk and out of nothing, aconceit peddled by the bank’s Nobel Prize-winning advisor, proved fatallywrong. “What we didn’t realise,” Julian says with dismay, “isthat the markets have no logic—unlike mathematics—and they can be thrown by allsorts of random events, human events.”

Julian, who never wantedto be a banker anyway, longs to live with his pert American wife and two littlechildren in a place of beauty and calm—on the Cote d’Azur, actually. He wants,that is, what only discreet and durable wealth can bring. He hopes to sell thebank to an American investor, but arranging for this has involved some tricky,not to say illegal, maneuvers. He is rigging the books by temporary infusionsof cash from various trusts and has managed to get his seriously impairedfather to sign over power of attorney—even as he is selling off the old man’sbeloved custom-built yacht, a family heirloom. The whole dirty businessperturbs Julian’s decent soul, but, really, what’s the alternative?

Unwanted publicity arisesfrom an unlikely source: Artair MacCleod, a flamboyant Celtic playwright andactor, the near-destitute first husband of Sir Harry’s present wife, Fleur. Artairhad been receiving a regular stipend from Tubal and Co., now cut off thanks tothe bank’s tribulations—a fact which comes to the attention of a smallprovincial newspaper whose editor would dearly love to expose the malfeasanceof the house of Tubal-Trevelyan. For his part, Artair is something of anunwitting pawn; he is absorbed in writing a play based on the life of FlannO’Brien (one of the pen names of the Irish writer Brian O’Nolan). UsingO’Brien’s works as his text, he is creating further value, as it might be said,by copying the whole thing out with pen and ink with the intention of sellingthe “original” manuscript to an American university archives.

Flann O’Brien’s supposed views—among them that anovel is tantamount to a confidence game, “inducing the reader to beoutwitted in a shabby fashion and caused to experience a real concern for thefortunes of illusory characters”— have a strong valence with Cartwright’sskepticism about self-sufficient narratives. Indeed, he pays flirtatiousobeisance to Flann O’Brien’s conceits in his own novel’s arrangement. Still,dupes though we may be, it is the fortunes, in every sense, of the charactersthat keep us turning the pages. Aside from Julian, Artair, and Sir Harry—suchas still exists of him—there are a number, most painted with comic flair andsunny irony. Among them is the soon-to-be-widowed Fleur, who begins to see thather affair with her personal trainer may jeopardize her inheritance (though buta measly £8 million trust fund and £200,000 a year). Also key is SirHarry’s faithful secretary and assistant, Estelle, who wants nothing more thanto be accepted as part of the family—even if it takes a bit of forgery andextortion to bring it about. And then there is reporter and blogger Melissa, ayoung woman who has recently completed a degree in philosophy and sociology. Sheincreasingly finds that this frame of reference explains nothing about howthings actually work in a world that is, not to labor the point, far fromideal.