Having spent most of my working life either employed in business or working on behalf of businesses as a banker I am naturally interested in any works of fiction that deal with the world of commerce. But there are surprisingly few novels that really focus on business. Last year Rainald Goetz released Johann Holtrop, a strong effort about a sociopath CEO of a German media conglomerate. One of my personal favorites is Walter Richartz's 1974 satirical Büroroman, which captures perfectly the everyday life of white collar office workers in Frankfurt. And then there is the greatest business novel of them all - Buddenbrooks - where the decline of a business enterprise mirrors the rise and fall of a family.
Nora Bossong is a gifted novelist and poet, With her third novel - Gesellschaft mit beschränkter Haftung ("Limited Liability Company") Bossong attempts to write an anti-Buddenbrooks - the young heiress of a family enterprise ruthlessly attempts to save the business which her father has intentionally run into the ground. Unfortunately, Bossong lacks the knowledge of how a business actually operates, so the novel only partially succeeds: her strong prose style keeps the reader engaged even as the plot veers off track.
The novel has an intriguing beginning. Kurt Tietjen, the Terrycloth King of Essen and heir to the family business Tietjen und Söhne, steps off the plane in Newark, New Jersey with the intention of saving his company through high-level meetings with potential investors. Instead, he spots a rather shabbily-dressed young woman and follows her to a third-rate hotel, and later to an apartment building in a run-down section of Brooklyn. In the process, he cuts off all communication with his company in Essen, thereby hastening its collapse.
The unlikely would-be savior of Tietjen und Söhne of turns out to be Kurt Tietjen;s 27 year-old daughter Luise. The young woman abandons her promising academic work at the university and plunges into the work of managing an international company, taking advantage of her boyfriend, an up-and-coming executive at Tietjen und Söhne, to quickly learn the ropes. Seemingly over night she is transformed into a ruthless operator, restlessly shifting between Essen, Shanghai, and New York City, where she attempts to wrest control of the company from her father.
Along the way, the reader learns about the early days of the company and how the founder,Justus Tietjen, saw and opportunity to make a fortune from the Great War:
Justus Tietjen hatte ein gutes Gespür. Er wusste, dass sich die Mode ändern würde, dass man nicht ewig auf Paris, Müssiggang und Luxus setzen konnte, und er handelte vorausschauend. Als im Folgejahr der österreichische Thronfolger einem Attentat zum Opfer fiel und die Militaristen sich in Bewegung setzten, war Justus vorbereitet. Sein neues Erfolgsrezept lautete: Je härter die Welt, desto dringlicher der Wunsch nach weichen Stoffen. Wenn das Leben hart wurde, musste man ihm etwas entgegensetzen. Der Mensch sehnte sich nach Weichheit. Im Krieg mehr noch als im Frieden. Justus Tietjen war gewappnet.
(Justus Tietjen had a good nose for business. He was well aware that fashion trends were fickle and that you couldn’t count on leisure and luxury forever. So he acted strategically. When, in the following year, the Austrian pretender to the throne fell victim to an assassin and the militarists began to mobilize, Justus was ready. His new recipe for success could be summed up like this: the harder life becomes, the more pressing the desire for soft material. When you fall you want something soft to cushion you. When life becomes hard you need to have something to counter this. People longed for the softness – more so in times of war than in peace. Justus Tietjen was sufficiently forearmed.)
This is by far the most entertaining section of the novel, and Nora Bossong's ironic style is on full display. One wishes she had stayed put in Essen and focused on the generational shifts in the Tietjen family fortune instead of making extended excursions to China and New York. The New York scenes, in particular, are problematic as Ms. Bossong has a shaky grasp of American names (has any woman since te 19th century been named "Fanny"?) and Manhattan geography (Fourth Avenue?).
In the end, both Kurt Tietjen's breakdown and Luise Tietjen's ruthless rise don't gain credibility with the reader through the logic of the narrative. Furthermore, one gets the sense that Ms. Bossong believes business is inherently corrupt, that is only through corrupt practices that Tietjen und Söhne is able to grow and sustain itself. Rainald Goetz also put a spotlight on corrupt corporate practices in Johann Holtrop, but in that novel the corruption was just a symptom of social decay in which eveyone - the banks, the media, the politicians - was complicit. Against the backdrop of the financial meltdown of 2008 it seemed completely real.
It is clear that Nora Bossong is a major talent, I look forward to reading many more - and better - novels from the 30 year-old writer.