Other People’s Money, by Justin Cartwright, Bloomsbury, RRP£18.99, 272 pages
Ever since Shylock demanded his pound of flesh from Antonio, bankers have been presented as loathsome figures in literature. Trollope and Dickens made them greedy, unprincipled villains; Tom Wolfe updated this model for the 1980s, adding sexual incontinence, coke habits and a taste for vulgar interior design.
In the slew of new novels about the financial crisis, the bankers are all of the above but blacker still: two-dimensional sociopaths who blithely destroy the world economy. Though there may be some truth in this, it makes for dull reading, particularly when the lecture is dished up – as it was by Sebastian Faulks in his book A Week in December – with a half-baked explanation of how a derivative works.
The title of Justin Cartwright’s novel leads one to fear more of the same. But Other People’s Money turns out to be nothing of the kind. For a start it is a literary first – a feel-good novel about the financial crisis. Second, it is a comedy of manners, in which bankers are good and bad – as are journalists, failed actors, drop-outs and postmen.
While the other financial crisis novels are set in US investment banks staffed by big swinging dicks on immodest bonuses, Cartwright’s story is about a traditional bank in the City of London. Tubal & Co was founded 300 years ago by Moses Tubal, and 11 generations later the family has become banking royalty. Sir Harry Trevelyan-Tubal unerringly knows exactly which flower will be right to match the subtle flecks of colour in his tweed jacket. He also knows, equally unerringly, that good banking means serving your clients well and maintaining a ratio of two-thirds assets to one-third loans.
But now Sir Harry has had a stroke and is dying in his beautiful house in Antibes, cared for by his loyal assistant. His second son, Julian Trevelyan-Tubal, is running the bank and has turned his back on his father’s principles, allowing himself to be seduced by hedge funds. To save the bank from ruin, he arranges for the balance sheet to be fraudulently bolstered with a view to selling out to a big US bank.
Yet Cartwright is not trying to tell us that Sir Harry, who believed in conservative banking, was a good man, nor that his son, who has become a liar and a cheat, is an evil one. Indeed, for all his perfect manners, effortless charm and gorgeous John Lobb boots, the father is so cold that his first wife killed herself. His sons have had a loveless childhood and the older is a trust fund hippy, while Julian still sustains himself at night by dreaming that his childhood pony is talking to him.
Julian knows these dreams are pathetic. He also knows – and hates – what banking has made him become. He loves his wife and his children and also cares for his staff in the best paternalistic tradition. While he is engaging in fraud, he is also fretting about keeping his chauffeur waiting, knowing that the man has prostate trouble and needs to pee frequently.
All the minor characters have been touched by light too. The talentless actress who deserted her impoverished actor to marry Sir Harry fornicates with her personal trainer as her husband is dying but still has a heart that can be touched. The failed actor, now a bar-room bore, is occasionally allowed to say something profound. The cabinet minister who connives in the fraud rides a bicycle and is charmingly unpompous. Even the American banker, with his white Gucci moccasins which he wears without irony, turns out to be straight, in a crooked kind of way.
Only one character is entirely good: an overweight 22-year-old Cornish journalist who writes rather a good blog about cupcakes and Mary Wollstonecraft and who unwittingly gets embroiled in the story about the downfall of Tubal & Co. Otherwise financial journalists get a less good press: Cartwright correctly observes that they tend to feel either excessive love or excessive loathing of people who have made a lot of money.
Cartwright himself is more ambivalent. He mocks the arrogance of the family who are so cavalier with other people’s money, yet describes with relish the beauty of the lifestyle that their old money buys. The shine on the table, the beautiful chocolate pudding, the clipped lavender and, above all, the Matisse painting, which Sir Harry spends hours gazing upon.
The book begins, apparently obscurely, with a quote from Robert Hughes: “Matisse’s studio was a world within the world: a place of equilibrium that, for sixty continuous years, produced images of comfort, refuge … ”
Tubal & Co occupies the same place in the financial sector, preserving a tradition at odds with a modern world where there are few shared values, people are obsessed with celebrity, and Thomas the Tank Engine passes as art.
Yet in the end, though other people’s money may have been lost, other things have been gained; life goes on in this delightful novel, as it does in the world that it so gently satirises.
Lucy Kellaway is an FT columnist and author of ‘In Office Hours’ (Penguin)