“You can never be too rich or too thin” is a quote attributed to Wallis Simpson, the enigmatic former Duchess of Windsor.
This marvellously cynical line may well have been the inspiration for the founders of The Lanserhof Group. Two slick and minimalist rural retreats in the Bavarian Forest and Tyrolean Alps, respectively, serve up a daily fare of passage salts and spelt bread. Bread which you must masticate a minimum of 30 times, while Nurse Ratched (remember One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest?) diligently watches over you.
Other rustic European spa retreats have long peddled the much lauded “Mayr Cure”, fundamentally a Draconian regime of gut cleansing and tea fasting. Lanserhof, however, through a combination of sleek, minimalist design and clever marketing, has succeeded in cementing it’s place in the annual calendar of the global jet set, bang in there between St. Barts or Saint-Tropez and Aspen or Courchevel. After all, if you’re not toxed, wtf is the point of a tortuous detox? Forget the meek, blessed are the rich, for they shall inherit the earth.
Yet there is another dimension to the Lanserhof experience, albeit one easily replicated elsewhere on a shoestring budget, or indeed on no budget at all. It is the sheer novelty of being all dressed down with nowhere to go after being done with “dinner” at 6pm, and with it a rare opportunity for the type of reflective fireside reading one craves, but rarely finds the mind space to indulge in. Murakami for me is a gift that keeps on giving, and Killing Commendatore, an epic rambling narrative of a man in a surreal flight from his own emotions, did not disappoint. Walter Isaacson’s Leonardo da Vinci biography proved a fascinating read, while Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams and Richard Dawkins’ The Magic of Reality were both disappointingly lightweight. Men Without Women – also Murakami – turned out to be a wonderful collection of short stories showcasing the master in an altogether earthy mode. Intrigued at the potential connection, I also breezed through Hemingway’s identically named Men Without Women compilation, and found myself wondering at the connection between the bullfighters who populate Hemingway’s short stories, and the tortured middle aged men who inhabit Murakami’s world. I didn’t get it, but in my search for clues in cyberspace, I wandered down the rabbit hole of short stories from great writers better known for more celebrated works. Which brings me, in my usual meandering fashion, to the point of this blog.
James Joyce described Tolstoy’s How Much Land Does A Man Need? as “the greatest story that the literature of the world knows“. There is a delicious double irony in this, the obvious one being Joyce’s implicit ranking of a pithy short story above the works of a man known for tomes not just monumental, but monumentally long. Equally ironic is my estimation of Joyce’s Ulysses as ranking right up there with Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children in the pantheon of great novels that are just plain f**king impossible to read. Joyce’s partner Nora, upon the publication of Ulysses, suggested he might consider “writing sensible books that people can understand“. Bizarre, therefore, that Joyce would hold in such remarkable esteem a punchy allegorical story, eminently readable and entirely comprehensible, even for a not particularly precocious 10-year old.
Tolstoy’s story begins with two sisters in a predictable debate about the quality of their respective lives. The older boasts about the superiority of her sophisticated urban existence, while the younger, a peasant, sings the praises of a rural life without worries and temptation. Pakhom, the younger sister’s husband, finds himself agreeing with his partner, but lets slip that “my only grievance is I don’t have enough land“. Unbeknownst to all, the Devil has been listening to every word, and decides to play a game with Pakhom.
Part of the story’s appeal is the remarkable parallel with the world of modern finance. Pakhom kicks off his career as a real estate investor negotiating a deal with a lady from the village who owns a 300 acre estate. He sells his foal and his bees, and combined with the family savings he is able to make a 50% down payment on 30 acres of land, with the balance to be paid over two years. At this point, Satan is smiling; Pakhom has now discovered the heady drug that is leverage. He borrows more to buy seeds, sows the newly bought land and within a year has a flourishing crop.
What follows next could well be a case study in corporate finance. There’s rivalry with competing landowners, multiple litigations, bankruptcies and distress sales, joint ventures, and of course, more levered acquisitions. As we near the climax of the story, our hero has accumulated 1300 acres of land, along with the all the trimmings of wealth: fine vodka, tea, a lavish homestead.
At this point, the ever acquisitive Pakhom meets a merchant, who tells him of a distant tribe of Bashkirs who own an abundance of fertile land, and are apparently a pushover when it comes to negotiating skills. Intrigued, Pakhom sets off, ready to cajole the Bashkirs into parting with their prime land. However, the Bashkir elder proposes an unusual deal: Pakhom can have as much land as he can circumnavigate in a day – sunrise to sunset – for a flat payment of 1,000 rubles. There is, however, a catch. Pakhom must return to his starting point by sundown, else he forfeits 100% of his deposit.
Seduced by this obviously Faustian pact, Pakhom sets out at sunrise, energetic and optimistic. The further he goes, the better the land gets, tempting Pakhom to venture beyond what he intended, unwilling to rest for fear of missing out. Sound familiar? When he eventually decides to make the turn home, Pakhom finds the going increasingly tough. Exhausted, dehydrated, and eventually terrified, Pakhom wills himself to carry on, even as he sees the sun receding in the distance. He fears ridicule even more than he does death. “If I stopped now, after coming all this way, they’d call me an idiot”, he tells himself.
If this was a movie, Pink Floyd’s iconic and appropriately dramatic Time would play in the background, with its ominous lyrics (“so you run and you run to catch up with the sun but its sinking”) providing the perfect coda. Pakhom makes it to the finish line, just as the sun disappears, but even as he does, his legs give way and he falls to the ground, dead.
The story ends with Tolstoy answering the question he poses in the title. “Pakhom’s worker picked up the spade, and dug a grave for his master – six feet from head to heel, which was exactly the right length – and buried him.”
Is this the greatest story ever told? Perhaps somewhat cliched, the cynical among you might say. The relative ranking or impact of any story, or indeed a piece of music or art, is of course an intensely personal matter. For me, redolent as it is with the world of finance and memories of those fallen by the wayside, the story resonates in a profound way. This little gem, this blinding flash of the obvious, was my reward for a week of meditative penance, much more so than a flat stomach or a lower heart rate.
And if you still don’t get it, “yeah, well, that’s just, like, your opinion, man…”