I’ve just started reading Lords of Finance (about 1/3 through) and unfortunately I’m really put off by character descriptions that seem to belong more to the world of fiction than to non-fiction. I just don’t understand how it is possible in a work of non-fiction to have an omniscient narrator make statements like: “He displayed an astounding self-confidence. This was not a facade.”
I have rarely met anybody who was outwardly confident without being inwardly insecure. In fact, I would say that it is precisely those who present themselves as uncertain who have the deepest confidence — that is, they are confident enough to display openly that there’s a lot they don’t know and don’t worry about how the world judges them. In short, I would argue that the character of someone who died some sixty years ago is in some sense unknowable.
That’s why biographers use lengthy quotes. What a man’s wife has to say about him always says something about the man — even if it’s only about the kind of wife he chose. But surely this issue: whether a character description says more about the speaker or the object of the description is for the reader to decide. Thus, the introduction of an omniscient narrator into a work of non-fiction is problematic — the reader has difficulty judging whether the character descriptions say more about Liaquat Ahamed or about the character he’s describing.
Given my discomfort with Ahamed’s approach to the subjects of his book, I can’t help but wonder what evidence the author has for his diagnosis of Montagu Norman as suffering from “severe manic depression“. This reads to me as an outrageous case of pop psychology, which may be supported by nothing more than Carl Jung’s diagnosis in 1913 of GPI and death within months (Norman lived until 1950) and episodes of moodiness. There seems to be strong evidence that Norman suffered from more than one “nervous breakdown”, but conflating a reaction to excessive stress with mental illness strikes me as one of those decisions that says far more about Ahamed than about Norman.
On an alternate note in Ahamed’s takedown of the competence of the governors of the Bank of England (whom he notes in the same pages made the best decisions) he derides the real bills doctrine as “clearly fallacious” — and goes on to explain why it held true: because it was espoused in an environment with a gold standard. The author shows no awareness whatsoever that the purpose of the real bills doctrine was to protect the economy from inflation caused by speculative bubbles and frauds.
Despite the preceding criticism, I am learning a lot about finances throughout Europe during World War I and the interwar period. And it appears to me that when Ahamed focuses on factual information he is generally careful to be accurate.