Trust – Hernan Diaz

After many years, the Booker Prize longlist in 2022 has looked quite interesting. I thought Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These was great (it was recently shortlisted for the Prize), as was The Colony by Audrey Magee. To this, I will now add Trust by Hernan Diaz, another excellent read from the list.

Set in early 20th century New York, Trust by Hernan Diaz is a cleverly constructed, fascinating tale of money, deception, power and the ultimate question of who controls the narrative.

The book comprises four sections of which the first is called “Bonds”, a book written by the author Harold Vanner, who has seemingly sunk into oblivion. “Bonds” narrates the story of Benjamin Rask whose astounding success on Wall Street and the stock markets during the heydays of the 1920s, transforms him into one of the richest men in the world.

Because he had enjoyed almost every advantage since birth, one of the few privileges denied to Benjamin Rask was that of a heroic rise: his was not a story of resilience and perseverance or the tale of an unbreakable will forging a golden destiny for itself out of little more than dross.

We are told of his privileged background – a gregarious and sociable father whose success has come from running the family tobacco business and cultivating relationships in gentleman’s clubs, the haven where men smoke cigars; and Benjamin’s mother, a woman always surrounded by her coterie of wealthy friends, who spend their days in each other’s homes. Compared to his parents’ need for company, Benjamin grows up as a lonely child with a remarkable aptitude for mathematics and an outlook that differs sharply from that of his father’s.  On the death of his parents, Benjamin begins to chart his own course of success, one that is largely determined by his flair for numbers and staying ahead of the game in the world of high finance despite his awkwardness in social situations.

He was an inept athlete, an apathetic clubman, an unenthusiastic drinker, an indifferent gambler, a lukewarm lover. He, who owed his fortune to tobacco, did not even smoke. Those who accused him of being excessively frugal failed to understand that, in truth, he had no appetites to repress.

We are also introduced to Helen Rask, Benjamin’s wife – a reserved, introverted, deeply intelligent woman born into a family of eccentric aristocrats, parents who are often at odds with one another.  We learn of Helen’s precociousness as a child; her closeness to her father, who nurtures her talent and her thirst for knowledge; and her strained relationship with her mother, a woman with impeccable networking skills and a thirst for a vibrant social life.

Helen had left her childhood in Albany. Being constantly on the move, she met few girls her age, and those casual encounters never had a chance to blossom into full friendships. To pass the time, she taught herself languages with books she shifted between different homes and hotels…When books proved insufficient, she turned to her diary. The dream journals that her father had made her keep for a few years had instilled in her the daily habit of recording her thoughts. Over time, her writings turned away from her dreams and toward her musings on books, her impressions of the cities thy visited, and, during her white nights, her innermost fears and yearnings.

Benjamin and Helen’s marriage becomes a union of mutual respect and understanding given their respective solitary natures rather than love and passion, and while Benjamin goes on to amass unimaginable wealth from the soaring financial markets, Helen focuses her attention on philanthropy, culture, books and music. Until there comes a point when things begin to unravel as Helen’s health deteriorates and she is committed to a medical institute in Switzerland.

The second section titled “My Life” is an autobiography by Andrew Bevel, who is the chief protagonist of Trust (or is he?), an unscrupulous and powerful man willing to go to any lengths possible to restore his public image which he believes has been unfairly tarnished. It quickly becomes clear that Benjamin Rask is a fictional version of Andrew Bevel himself.

My name is known to many, my deeds to some, my life to few. This has never concerned me much. What matters is the tally of our accomplishments, not the tales about us. Still, because my past has so often overlapped with that of our nation, lately I have come to believe that I owe it to the public to share some of the decisive moments of my story.

Bevel’s autobiography is an account written in rough draft of his accomplishments as a financier par excellence, focusing mostly on his illustrious family history, his thoughts on the American economy and the rise of high finance, his instrumental role in shaping up the markets and the most important woman in his life, his wife Mildred Bevel.

These two narratives have similarities and yet differ significantly on crucial aspects. Andrew Bevel and his fictional avatar Benjamin rise to the pinnacle of wealth not only during the unsustainable boom of the stock markets in the 1920s, but they also earn immense profits during the massive Wall Street crash in 1929. But the stories differ on how Bevel’s meteoric rise is perceived. Vanner’s novel paints Rask as an opportunist, his greed for wealth and power starkly apparent and resented at a time when the country is plunged into the doldrums, while Bevel painstakingly paints a picture of a highly intelligent gifted man, who having engineered the country’s economic success is now unfairly accused of instigating its downfall.

The biggest anomaly in both the accounts is the depiction of Mildred Bevel (Helen Rask in Vanner’s novel), who remains an enigma, all the more because there are marked differences in how her personality and her circumstances have been highlighted by both men. Is the fictional woman real or is the real woman a figment of the imagination?

The third section focuses on Ida Partenza, an Italian immigrant, employed as Bevel’s secretary chiefly to type out his autobiography as per instructions given by him personally. After a few sessions with Bevel, Ida is disconcerted to find that rather than give a shape to the facts of Bevel’s life, Ida’s job is really to invent a narrative that aligns with the story Bevel wishes to tell, a large part of it centred on projecting Mildred’s “watered-down” personality to the world. This fuels her quest for the truth, a research that she secretly carries out on the side, if only to untangle fact from fiction.  

“Miss Partenza, I am writing this book to stop the proliferation of versions of my life, not to multiply them. I most emphatically do not want more perspectives, more opinions. This is to be my story.”

And in the fourth section titled “Futures”, we hear from Mildred Bevel herself.

In terms of structure, Diaz’s Trust employs a slew of narrative devices that add depth to the book – a novel within a novel, an unfinished autobiography, memoirs and journals – conjuring up varied perspectives on the same set of events.

With respect to subject matter and themes, in replaying the events of the halcyon years of Wall Street and the debilitating crash thereafter that sparked the depression of the 1930s, one could say that Trust is an exploration of the enigmatic and competitive world of finance, the immense greed and corruption that fuels it, the inequality bred by concentrated wealth at the hands of the very few. Diaz has excellently captured the milieu of the rich – the hush and the quiet, the aura of awe and invincibility that it exudes. One could also say that the novel takes a closer look at the topics of mental illness, deception in relationships and limited roles for women during the early part of the 20th century who languished in the shadows of men.

But at the end of the day, Trust is really a novel about how stories are told (what is revealed, hidden, enhanced or diluted), how viewpoints often differ and how power can warp reality and ultimately influence the narrative.

“It seems to me that you don’t understand what any of this is all about.”

“I do.”

“Is that so?”

“Bending and aligning reality.”

Blast from the Past – Best Books of 2010

I started my blog in early March 2017 to discuss and write about books I had enjoyed reading. This has gradually evolved to become a very enjoyable activity as much as reading itself has been and will continue to be.

It also means there were several excellent books which I read pre-blog that I could not discuss unless I chose to re-read them. The problem is that I have so many books unread, it’s always a dilemma between re-reading a favourite or trying out something new.

Anyway, as I was deleting notes on an old phone, I came across some lists I had made – the best books I read every year.

The seed of an idea was born. Why not highlight these books on my blog?

This exercise was also a great reminder of some wonderful authors I had read and my resolve to seek out more of their works which somehow never came to fruition because there were always other books to tempt me.

I started making these lists from 2010, so that’s the year I will start with (the last of these being 2015, since the Best of 2016 was already the first ever post on this blog).

Also, I don’t intend to write a detailed view on any of these books. It is more of an attempt to bring them into focus once again and so the write-ups will be short.

So without much ado, here were my top reads in 2010…

Best of 2010

Bonjour Tristesse – Francoise Sagan

I loved this slim and stylish novella set in summer in the French Riviera. Cécile and her father Raymond are holidaying in the South of France on the coast. They lead a carefree, languorous and bohemian life – Cécile in particular is content to soak up the sun and laze with her boyfriend Cyril.

Until one day Anne arrives into their lives, eventually to become Raymond’s partner. Anne is cultured and intelligent and regards herself as a sort of godmother to Cécile. She tries to take Cécile under her wing, to compel her to stop seeing Cyril and get back to her schoolbooks, all of which agitates Cécile greatly and propels her to hatch a plan.

Haweswater – Sarah Hall

I love Sarah Hall. Haweswater was the first novel of hers that I read and I was blown away by it. The book is set in the beautiful Lakes District in England.

Here’s the blurb:

The village of Marsdale is a quiet corner of the world, cradled in a remote dale in England’s lovely Lake District. The rhythm of life in the deeply religious, sheltered community has not changed for centuries. But in 1936, when Waterworks representative Jack Ligget from industrial Manchester arrives with plans to build a new reservoir, he brings the much feared threat of impending change to this bucolic hamlet. 

Jack then begins a passionate affair with one of the residents of that village Janet Lightburn and it is in the depiction of this relationship where Sarah Hall has excelled. Her writing is so spiky, raw and visceral and it was unlike anything I had read at the time.

The Good Doctor – Damon Galgut

Damon Galgut was a find that year as I gulped down three novels in quick succession.

The Good Doctor is a taut, lean and compelling novel set in post-Apartheid South Africa that essentially focuses on two main characters – Frank Eloff and Laurence Waters, two doctors of different personalities and opposing perspectives, who are now thrown together in the same hospital and are also sharing a room. The novel charts the actions of these men as they respond to the challenges that they face in the hospital as well as in the community in their own ways, each with a varied view on what is moral or ethical.

The Impostor – Damon Galgut

The Impostor is another superb offering from Galgut and even better than The Good Doctor.

When Adam moves into an abandoned house on the dusty edge of the town, he is hoping to recover from the loss of his job and his home in the city. But then he meets Channing – a mysterious and shadowy figure from his past – along with Channing’s enigmatic wife.

Greed and corruption in South African society is at the centre of this novel. Galgut’s prose is top notch – spare, lyrical and absorbing. There is a sinister air that pervades the novel that is both unsettling and thrilling at the same time.

In A Strange Room – Damon Galgut

In A Strange Room is a completely different beast from both The Good Doctor and The Impostor but incredible in its own way. This is a more reflective and quiet novel which explores the themes of travel and relationships and what they entail – does travel give the much desired freedom or does it intensify feelings of loneliness?

The novel is told in three parts – the only link being the narrator who is Galgut himself. Besides the beautiful writing, what impressed me was the ease with which Galgut was able to move between first and third person in a single sentence. It’s a credit to the quality of his prose that instead of confusing the reader, this ploy actually enhanced the effect of what he wanted to convey.

Any Human Heart – William Boyd

This is a wonderful, ambitious novel by Boyd told in the form of diary entries of a single man’s life against a landscape spanning the twentieth century in many continents – the Bloomsbury set, the General Strike, the Spanish Civil War, 1930s Americans in Paris, wartime espionage, and New York avant garde art. The central character is Logan Mountstuart and he chronicles his life from his early childhood in Montevideo, through his years at a Norfolk public school and Oxford, tracing his haphazard development as a writer.

We learn of his successes, his failures, his marriages and his alcoholism, with 20th century events serving as the backdrop and a richly etched supporting cast.

The Fall – Simon Mawer

I had loved Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize earlier, and was therefore keen to try more of his work.

The Fall in set in Wales.  Jim Matthewson, one of the great climbers of the modern era, has died in one of his mountaineering expeditions. His old professional partner Rob Dewar attends the funeral and the inquest, and gradually begins a relationship with Jim’s wife Ruth. That’s the present. The novel then goes back to the past highlighting the lives of Rob and Jim’s parents, and the impact it will have on the younger generation.

While the splendor of nature and obsession with mountaineering are wonderfully evoked by Mawer, this is also a novel of friendship and family secrets, the crux of which is revealed in the final pages.

The Way We Live Now – Anthony Trollope

The first and the only Trollope I have read till now. This is one of his standalone works and not part of either the Barchester or the Palliser series.

This is a richly layered novel with many sub plots. But what impressed me at the time was how prescient the novel was. Trollope penned this inspired by the financial scandals of the 1870s. And I delved into it just when the crippling effects of global financial crisis of 2008-09 were still playing out. In essence, The Way We Live Now is a satire on the greed and corruption that seeped into the moral fabric of the society at the time. The most notable creation was Augustus Melmotte, a wealthy financier with a mysterious past.

Stone’s Fall – Iain Pears

An Instance of the Fingerpost was a favourite of mine many moons ago and Iain Pears’ Stone’s Fall did not disappoint either.

This is an ambitious novel comprising three sections that move backwards from Edwardian London (early 1900s) to Paris in 1890 and finally to Venice in 1867, in search not only of the reasons for Stone’s death but of the man himself. Also, every section is told from a different point of view.

As I recall, of the three, the Paris and the Venice sections were the most absorbing for different reasons. The Paris story was peppered with enough tension and drama exploring the worlds of banking and financial management, as also wonderfully evoking the atmosphere of intellectual salons.

The Venice section was more melancholy but no less gripping. Here, Pears has superbly conjured the rot and decay of Venice – of not just its grand palazzos but also of its people. All of this ultimately culminates into a satisfying end to Stone’s saga.

Sacred Hunger – Barry Unsworth

Sacred Hunger was the joint winner of the Booker Prize along with The English Patient. But while the latter went on to garner accolades even to be made into an acclaimed film, Sacred Hunger comparatively sank into oblivion.

Here’s an excerpt of the book from Wikipedia:

The story is set in the mid-18th century and centres on the Liverpool Merchant, a slave ship employed in the triangular trade, a central trade route in the Atlantic slave trade. The two main characters are cousins Erasmus Kemp, son of a wealthy merchant from Lancashire and Matthew Paris, a physician and scientist who losing everything that he loves decides to go on the voyage. The novel’s central theme is greed, with the subject of slavery being a primary medium for exploring the issue. The story line has a very extensive cast of characters, some featuring in only one scene, others continually developed throughout the story, but most described in intricate detail.

This was a richly layered tale, which besides the themes of slavery and vengeance, also explored the topics of mutiny and setting up a utopian society.

And that’s it for 2010. Next month, I will highlight the best books I read in 2011.