When writers become famous, it is easy to forget that they were once obscure, and sometimes very poor. Yet with few exceptions—Homer, Tacitus, Omar Khayyam, Jonathan Safran Foer—even the greatest writers had to slave away at menial positions before their careers took off and they could support themselves with their pens alone.
William Faulkner worked as a night watchman in a mine. Herman Melville delivered newspapers. Harper Lee was an airline reservations clerk. J. D. Salinger, after working construction at Madison Square Garden, was briefly employed as the entertainment director on a Swedish luxury liner. While waiting for fortune to smile upon them, many young writers took jobs far below their talents. George Eliot moonlighted as a seamstress. Suetonius sold figs. Herman Hesse spent three years as a bouncer at a tough Bremen nightclub called Das Boots und Dem Saddles. Even the immortal Aeschylus interned as a hod carrier during summer vacations in Egypt.
One little-known field where our greatest writers marked time while waiting for their ship to come in was financial analysis. Such luminaries as Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Emily Dickinson, Henry James, Simone de Beauvoir, and Gabriel García Márquez all worked as financial analysts for major brokerage houses in the United States, England, France, Switzerland, and (in García Márquez’s case) Caracas and Puerto Vallarta. Their job was to collate raw materials supplied by the firm’s top research analysts and write them up in clear, levelheaded reports that were then sent off to wealthy investors. In effect, they were hired as ghosts.
Usually, these jobs did not last very long. To their employers’ great displeasure, the writers regularly deviated from the arid, boilerplate language that was considered de rigueur at the time, instead writing up the reports in needlessly colorful and often quite inventive prose. The fruits of their labors are now on display on the mezzanine level of the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris.
What is most remarkable about the work is the extent to which the writers had already developed the prose styles for which they would soon become famous. Consider this section from a report on the European bond market penned by Ernest Hemingway when he was just 22 years old and doing an eight-month stint at a Toronto brokerage house:
Europe’s fiscal woes worry the Canadian investors. It is not fine to worry the Canadian investors, because if the Canadian investors worry about the leveraged-debt problems of Southern Europe, then the Americans will worry next, and after them the toreadors. This is not fine. It is fine to worry the toreadors a little, but it is not fine to worry them a lot. “Qué tal?” ask the worried picadors. “Qué tal?” ask the bartenders. The camerieri and the garçons and the chanteuses all worry about international sales exposure within the Dow. All of them say: “If the report on consumer durables is not fine today, will the report on cyclical goods and copper be fine tomorrow?”
Many other documents of this nature are on display. Here is the future Nobelist Albert Camus discussing valuation metrics in a 1932 report for the Algerian brokerage firm Tuareg & Fils: “There is no point in discussing valuation metrics,” he writes. “Not now. Not ever. There is no point in it. Life is completely and utterly meaningless, and valuation metrics cannot change that.” Needless to say, Camus was quickly shown the door. So, too, was Kurt Vonnegut Jr., who got canned after his very first day on the job, after writing this snide report on 30-day moving averages:
Listen: The 30-day moving averages are moving. And so it goes. The 30-day averages are moving, all right. Moving. And so on. They are moving along at a zippy pace. Very zippy. And so it goes.
Though it was quite rare for women to work in the world of finance, Jane Austen spent four months at her uncle’s wire house in Winchester, where she generated a thought-provoking, albeit somewhat meandering, report on consumer durables, containing such extraneous asides as this: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man concerned about the direction of consumer durable prices, must be in want of a wife.”
One of the most fascinating reports on display in Paris has a gloomy 23-year-old Samuel Beckett offering his terse opinions on the advisability of buying zero-coupon bonds as a long-term investment for one’s children: “Buy zero-coupon bonds. Watch bonds fail. Buy more zero-coupon bonds. Watch bonds fail. Buy more zero-coupon bonds. More zero-coupon bonds. More zero-coupon bonds. Watch bonds fail. Next time, fail better.”
Perhaps the most interesting item of all is a report written by Oscar Wilde after his career lay in ruins. Finding no market for his work after serving two years in Reading Gaol, the disgraced Wilde emigrated to Paris. Penniless and deserted by his friends, Wilde had no choice but to take a job writing analyst reports at a seedy Montmartre brokerage house. Here is a typical example, contained in his report on municipal bonds being issued to build a new sewage system in Ivry-sur-Seine: “The only thing worse than building an absurdly expensive new sewage system in Ivry-sur-Seine is not building an absurdly expensive new sewage system in Ivry-sur-Seine.”
It was Wilde’s last paycheck.
Joe Queenan is the author, most recently, of One for the Books.