As one of Canada ’s most esteemed novelists and poets, you are about to deliver a series of public lectures on a seemingly nonliterary subject, “Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth,” which is also the title of your latest book. Your timing is perfect. Well, I didn’t do it on purpose. It’s not my fault. I didn’t make those banks collapse.
So what led you to take up the subject of debt? Long ago, I was a graduate student in Victorian literature. When you think of the 19th-century novel, you think romance — you think Heathcliff, Cathy, Madame Bovary, etc. But the underpinning structure of those novels is money, and Madame Bovary could have cheerfully gone on committing adultery for a long time if she hadn’t overspent.
So very true. The young ladies in Jane Austen's novels are forever discussing how many pounds a year this handsome bachelor or that eligible young lady has (and everybody seems to know everybody's money business). And in my favorite Anthony Trollope novel, The Eustace Diamonds, a young widow refuses to give up a diamond necklace that she says her late husband wanted her to have, while her in-laws claim it's a family heirloom, and she shouldn't get to keep it, and all the bickering and the entire plot is about who gets to have what. (I hope that didn't sound dry and boring, because it's anything but).
And Edith Wharton's House of Mirth, at the very end of the Victorian era, is all about Lily Bart's failure to find a suitably prosperous husband.