Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Proust's Mexican Stocks

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Proust's Mexican Stocks

Article excerpt

Few people around him knew that Marcel Proust had developed a passion for investing and that he spent considerable time and energy trading Latin American stocks. (1) After the death of his parents--his mother died in 1905, two years after his father--Proust inherited a considerable fortune that was invested in blue-chip stocks and bonds and was managed by Leon Neuburger, a family friend who worked for the Rothschild Bank. When the novelist began purchasing exotic financial products, Neuburger asked his nephew Lionel Hauser, who was almost the same age as Proust, to take charge of his friend's portfolio.

Starting in 1906 and continuing through 1921, Proust wrote frequent, elaborate letters to Hauser. The style and form of these missives could not be more different from those he sent to Reynaldo Hahn, Proust's one-time lover and life-long friend. Proust's notes to Hauser conveyed instructions to buy and sell stock, asked advice about possible investments, and often veered into extended meditations on life, politics, and literature. Proust treated Hauser not only as a financial adviser but also as a psychoanalyst and a guru of sorts; he seems to have been under the impression that Hauser, given his line of work, could accurately predict the rise and fall of securities and the general tendency of the world markets. The two had met as children, and Hauser was one of the rare people whom Proust addressed using the informal tu.

Hauser, for his part, was no ordinary broker. He was the scion of an illustrious banking family--several of his relatives worked for the Rothschild Bank--who had a passion for literature, philosophy, and the arts. His letters to Proust include long discussions of operas, novels, poems, and paintings. More intriguingly, Hauser was a theosophist, and some of his financial advice is intermingled with meditations on karma and the effects of greed on the chain of reincarnation. In 1920 he wrote a book summarizing his views. The Three Levers of the New World: Competence, Probity, Altruism, published by the London Theosophical Publishing House, called for the creation of a "league" of ethical professionals. ("The member of the League who is a banker," he wrote, "must regard the interests of his clients as his own and never suggest an investment to them which he would consider too risky for himself" [110]). He sent Proust a copy, and a lively debate ensued as the two friends compared views on the best way to live an ethical life.

As an investor, Proust had a special interest in exotic securities. His purchases--or at least his intended purchases--included bonds issued by Holland, Spain, Serbia, Egypt, Turkey, Tunisia, Chile, Argentina, and the United States; railway stock in Switzerland, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Argentina, Brazil, and Tunisia; gold, nickel, and diamond mines--including those exploited by De Beers; oil and shipping companies from around the world (including the Port of Rosario, Argentina); and random securities, such as shares in Societe de l'Azote, a nitrogen producer; Societe Pop, a firm specializing in compressed air; Malacca Rubber, a company based in Malaysia; and Oriental Carpet, a Russian venture.

Scholars have offered different interpretations for Proust's puzzling obsession with the stock market. Philip Kolb--who first published the Proust-Hauser correspondence and wrote an article called "Marcel Proust, Speculator"--judged that "when he occupied himself with financial matters, Proust behaved less as a businessman than as a poet, with a particular imagination" (179). Jean-Yves Tadie adds that Proust

   belongs to the category of small-time speculators who buy high and
   sell low. [...] It is not a matter of incompetence on Marcel's
   part, but of character traits: he sells when he feels bored or
   anxious, and buys to amuse himself. Speculating breaks for an
   instant his daily toil: and the more he works, the more the stock
   market [. … 
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