Other People's Money

I don't know how many times I have asked myself and my friends—who now begin to sidle away when this hobbyhorse comes up—why the novelist Justin Cartwright is not better known in this country. The answer may lie in our American deafness to irony and a national tendency toward moral absolutism. Perhaps, too, it has something to do with the quality, perplexing to us, of this Jewish, South African-born Londoner's fascination with Englishness, a fascination part yearning, part mistrust. The yearning is for an ideal which Cartwright found symbolized in Oxford, something that lies, as he said in his paean to that university, Oxford Revisited, "deep in the Anglo-Saxon mind—excellence, a kind of privilege, a charmed life, deep-veined liberalism, a respect for tradition." On the other hand, his mistrust comes in the form of a leery distaste for "the ideal" as an all-encompassing vision of truth, and for its seductive, delusionary potency.  


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


Other People's Money begins at its story's end with a list of the great persons—blue-bloods, political pooh-bahs, high diplomatic muck-a-mucks, and far-flung family members—who have attended the memorial service at St. Paul's Cathedral 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, exemplifying the 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, and very, very rich. It pulses benignly, broadcasting goodwill outwards to its clients." Sir Harry's last three years were dimmed by a stroke, but even before that, the business of the bank had been increasingly handled by his son, Julian, who had embraced the new financial instruments of sub-prime derivatives that seemed to create value so ingeniously, bringing astonishing rates of returns. Until, of course, they didn't.


As the action of the novel begins, the bank has lost hundreds of millions of pounds. The idea—or ideal—that money could be created without risk and out of nothing, a conceit peddled by the bank's Nobel Prize-winning advisor, proved fatally wrong. "What we didn't realise," Julian says with dismay, "is that the markets have no logic—unlike mathematics—and they can be thrown by all sorts of random events, human events."


Julian, who never wanted to be a banker anyway, longs to live with his pert American wife and two little children 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 the bank to an American investor, but arranging for this has involved some tricky, not to say illegal, maneuvers. He is rigging the books by temporary infusions of cash from various trusts and has managed to get his seriously impaired father to sign over power of attorney—even as he is selling off the old man's beloved custom-built yacht, a family heirloom. The whole dirty business perturbs Julian's decent soul, but, really, what's the alternative?


Unwanted publicity arises from an unlikely source: Artair MacCleod, a flamboyant Celtic playwright and actor, the near-destitute first husband of Sir Harry's present wife, Fleur. Artair had been receiving a regular stipend from Tubal and Co., now cut off thanks to the bank's tribulations—a fact which comes to the attention of a small provincial newspaper whose editor would dearly love to expose the malfeasance of the house of Tubal-Trevelyan. For his part, Artair is something of an unwitting pawn; he is absorbed in writing a play based on the life of Flann O'Brien (one of the pen names of the Irish writer Brian O'Nolan). Using O'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 selling the "original" manuscript to an American university archives.


Flann O'Brien's supposed views—among them that a novel is tantamount to a confidence game, "inducing the reader to be outwitted in a shabby fashion and caused to experience a real concern for the fortunes of illusory characters"— have a strong valence with Cartwright's skepticism about self-sufficient narratives. Indeed, he pays flirtatious obeisance 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 characters that keep us turning the pages. Aside from Julian, Artair, and Sir Harry—such as still exists of him—there are a number, most painted with comic flair and sunny irony. Among them is the soon-to-be-widowed Fleur, who begins to see that her affair with her personal trainer may jeopardize her inheritance (though but a measly £8 million trust fund and £200,000 a year). Also key is Sir Harry's faithful secretary and assistant, Estelle, who wants nothing more than to be accepted as part of the family—even if it takes a bit of forgery and extortion to bring it about. And then there is reporter and blogger Melissa, a young woman who has recently completed a degree in philosophy and sociology. She increasingly finds that this frame of reference explains nothing about how things actually work in a world that is, not to labor the point, far from ideal.

About the Columnist
Katherine A. Powers received the 2013 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. She is the editor of Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J. F. Powers, 1942–1963.

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