[Book Review: Tulip Fever by Deborah Moggach • Random House • 2001 • 288 pages]
"The boom produces impoverishment," wrote Ludwig von Mises in Human Action. "But still more disastrous are its moral ravages. It makes people despondent and dispirited. The more optimistic they were under the illusory prosperity of the boom, the greater is their despair and their feeling of frustration."
As the worldwide boom has turned into a worldwide crash, it's not just financial dreams that have been dashed. Families have been torn apart, relationships busted. Some men are learning that their boom-time marriages were contingent on "for better" lasting forever, and their now-ex-wives aren't waiting for Hank Paulson or Ben Bernanke's stabilization schemes to work.
Not only are economic signals distorted by boom times, but all human action can be warped. Morals and good sense are cast aside. The good times will never end; caution and prudence are no longer required; hubris runs wild. As Paul Cantor describes Thomas Mann's short story "Disorder and Early Sorrow" set in hyperinflationary Weimar Germany, "The story charts the dissolution of authority, as we watch a social order breaking down and see the confusions that result."
As rare as Thomas Mann's short story are historical novels using financial manias as a backdrop. But it wasn't the frantic trading of tulip bulbs that inspired author Deborah Moggach to write Tulip Fever. It was a 1660 painting by a minor Dutch artist that she bought at auction. In her research she quickly discovered tulipmania and "thought this a wonderful symbol of human greed and passion," she writes on her website.
In very fast-moving fashion, Moggach tells a tale of passion and deception. Set in 1630s Amsterdam, the novel captures that city's frenzy of commerce. All strata of society were living it up. The very wealthy merchant Cornelis Sandvoort has a fine home, servants, a pretty young wife—but no heirs. He, like many of Amsterdam's high society, seeks immortality with a portrait painted by one of the many busy local artists.
But his dear Sophia has lost her passion for him, and falls for the advances of the young artist her husband commissions to paint their portrait. As the portrait progresses, so does the forbidden love affair, with the lies multiplying like the price of Witte Croonen bulbs.
As they become more and more brazen with their affair, Sophia's and her paramour painter's lives become entangled with those of Cornelis's servant girl Maria and Maria's dock-worker lover Willem. In Jan van Loos, Sophia's lover, Moggach effectively portrays a man caught up in a mania. He begins to neglect his work, be negligent in his grooming, and be totally obsessed with trading tulip bulbs. He leaves his painting entirely to his apprentice. He has great success trading and then hatches a plan to mortgage everything to raise the money needed for Sophia and him to run away together.
Sophia's narrates: "I meet Jan in our trysting place beside the water fountain. He has lost weight, his cheeks are sunken. His hair, so shiny and curly when he first came to my house, is matted. He doesn't greet me; eyes glittering, he grabs my wrist."
Jan to Sophia: "Luck's been on our side, all these weeks. Tell me we should put all our eggs into one basket!"
"He means, of course, the risk beyond all risks: the most dangerous risk of all. The king of kings, the Semper Augustus. Claes van Hooghelande has one bulb left."
Moggach brings tulipmania to life and continually surprises the reader with an imaginative plot. Imaginative enough that Steve Spielberg called the author before the book was even published in 1999 and said he wanted to film it.
There is plenty on the Internet about the cast: Jude Law is to play Jan van Loos and Keira Knightley will be Sophia. But, unfortunately, Spielberg hasn't gotten around to making Tulip Fever into a movie.
Like all boom-and-bust stories, not everyone lives happily ever after in Moggach's tulip tale, but it is anything but predictable and a very fun and instructive read.