After the goldrush

Introducing the “crisis novel”

Le Monde has been running an interesting series this week on what its literary editors are calling the "crisis novel". Every day, one of their writers examines a work "inspired by economic upheaval". Among the books discussed so far have been Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, The Big Money - the final volume of John Dos Passos's USA trilogy - René-Victor Pilhes's 1974 Prix Femina-winning novel L'Imprécateur and Italo Calvino's A Plunge into Real Estate (1957).

I've not read the last of these, but Jean-Michel Bezat's piece "The postwar economic miracle" has persuaded me that I should. Written at the height of a property speculation bubble in Italy in the late 1950s, this is the work of a disillusioned leftist. Bezat notes that around the same time, Calvino left the Italian Communist Party, of which he'd been a member for more than a decade. He writes:

Calvino is not nostalgic for the pre-capitalist, peasant world idealised by Pier Paolo Pasolini; he doesn't denounce, as the film-maker would 15 years later . . . the consumerism in which the latter saw 'the true fascism of today'. No, Calvino gives us instead . . . a society reflected in the eye of a scrutineer looking at history through a keyhole.

We're still waiting, of course, for the first great novel of the current financial crisis. I doubt that Sebastian Faulks's new book, A Week in December, a partial roman à clef that prompted this silly-season story in the Observer a couple of weeks back, will be remembered that way, but it does contain a rather convincing, if somewhat lurid, portrayal of a hedge-fund manager named John Veals, described by David Horspool, in his TLS review, as having the "reliable qualities of the monomaniacal villain". The novel is set in late 2007, but Veals already has an intimation of the catastrophe that is brewing:

Veals was worried. Anxiety was the staple of his work: night after night. His immediate problem was that the markets were so skittish, so nervous of financial collapse, that even the minimal movements he had seen might be noticed by others. The financial world was in a kind of suspended animation. On October 31st, only seven weeks earlier, financial firms on Wall Street had lost 369 billion dollars in a single day. The writing was smeared in letters ten feet high across the wall, but still people were trying to ignore it. The party was still on; the hard core, drunk on risk, unable to believe the gold rush might ever end, would not go home.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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"Samphire": a poem by Alison Brackenbury

"Yet how it waved, in coast’s late light. . . ."

My grandmother could cook it, for
she grew up by that dangerous shore
where the sea skulked without a wall

where I have seen it, tough as grass,
where silent men with rods trooped past
its salty ranks, without a glance.

Lear’s gatherer hangs perilously.
Why? So much is closed to me.
Did Shakespeare ever hear the sea?

Once, said my father, far inland,
from friend or stall, one clutch was found,
steamed, in my grandmother’s great pan.

Once, a smooth leaflet from a shop
claimed they could “source it”, but they stocked
bunched, peppered cress – Another gap.

Yet how it waved, in coast’s late light,
stalks I will never taste, could make
tenderly dark, my coast’s sly snake,
salt on my tongue, before I wake.

Alison Brackenbury is an award-winning poet. Her ninth collection, Skies, will be published by Carcanet in March

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle