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House of All Nations
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A- : a formidable satire of the world of finance
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The complete review's Review:
In the early 1930s Paris when this novel is set it was Le Chabanais, a grand, opulent house of pleasure that styled itself a 'House of All Nations' (e.g.).
The institution at the heart of Christina Stead's House of All Nations is a bank, but with her title she certainly meant to suggest parallels between this Banque Bertillon frères, with its largely upper-class and international clientele and the kinds of games they play, and the (in)famous luxury-bordello.
(There's even a touch of actual overlap, including when one of the frères-Bertillon observes about one of their bank-men: "I don't see why we can't have a man who knows the prices at the House of All Nations".)
It's easy to make money. You put up the sign BANK and someone walks in and hands you his money. The façade is everything.Credo, indeed. Jules makes no bones about it, or how he runs his house of all nations: the façade is everything.
In fact -- and intentionally -- Banque Bertillon frères doesn't even much resemble a traditional bank:
"It's too nice. Where's the bill department ? Where's the loan department ? Where's the business done ? I don't see any banking."(So mercurial, in fact, is Banque Bertillon frères that, late in the day, it is revealed: "It was discovered that no one knew anything about the bank. What was its name ? Everyone called it the Banque Bertillon. It had a plate which said BERTILLON FRÈRES, but it was really the Banque Mercure, S.A.".)
Jules has no interest in retail banking of the usual sort; he doesn't want clients -- much less depositors -- who actually rely on a job for their living ("We ought to make a rule never to take in anyone who works for a living", he suggests). His own lawyer is shocked at how he runs the place and does business -- "Never, never in my life have I seen an institution run like this: it's lunatic !" -- but Jules knows what he's doing (or rather, he fakes it exceptionally well). He understands both the risks and rewards -- and is equally casual about both, an insouciance that has, on the one hand, served both him and his bank well but also keeps tripping him up. Still, he can't help himself:
Jules, not out of cynicism, but out of the clarity of his nature, believed nothing that was told him, sought the person's interest behind each sentence, lied perpetually for the pleasure of tricking even the credulous, tried to recast every situation, for the pleasure of changing it; he cared not so much for money as for moneymaking, and, when he had got the hang of moneymaking, not so much the making of money as the endless field for speculation and fantasy it yielded him. He hated to think, he liked to depend entirely "on inspiration"Jules understands that: "a bank is a confidence trick"; he knows how to do appearances, and he exudes confidence, presenting himself as a gambler -- but as a lucky one (and, as such, the one everyone wants to place their bets along with). He plays a game -- but entirely by instinct:
He knew, really, nothing, and nothing of the world he lived in, worked in, made money in: monstrously ignorant, he succeeded because he had recognized at once that in the financial world there are no dignities which cannot be questioned or facts which are not given out for someone's interest.Jules' success has been built on collapse, as he's been riding the ongoing market crash -- and remains certain of its continuing decline: "'The world's always rotting somewhere,' said Jules cheerfully, 'and I have a nose for decay' ". As long as he remains true to that belief, he generally does well, even spectacularly. When he punts on stability, on the other hand, he stumbles: a bet against the devaluation of the pound -- an odd personal contest and game he gets into, with a Jacques Carrière -- eventually causes him considerable trouble (as readers will have seen coming, recalling the sterling crisis of 1931, when Britain abandoned the gold standard). True to form then, it's his enormous, risky bet against Ivan Kreuger (of Swedish Match fame) and Samuel Insull -- "Let's stake everything on a crazy hunch I have !" -- that will revive and remake his fortune(s), as it pays off handsomely, in both cash and reputation: "Jules in 1932 won the great prize in the lottery !"
Jules had his epiphany in 1929:
That's the only way profit is going to be made from now on. The history of everything is down from now on. The only investment now is in a crash. I saw that in 1929. Everyone else was wringing their hands. I was short a few stocks in the American market. I made a bit of petty cash: but the next day I figured it all out to myself. I said to myself: I won't weep. I won't cry. I've got the hang of this -- first the Russians started to smash the works and then the Americans had to. That's it ! The history of the world is down !Jules has positioned himself almost entirely short -- betting on a continuing collapse in prices. It's an unpopular position -- "it's not natural: it's against nature, to be always betting on the wrong side", one person complains; "It seems almost -- crooked !" -- but it's been the right play for a while, and it continues to serve Jules well -- bar that ongoing pound-contract that he refuses to be very clear about. As one of his underlings encourages him (at a point when Jules is thinking of packing it in (quite literally: he toys with the idea of absconding with all the money that is lying around)):
You're one of the few men in the world who had the courage to say, ‘This is an age of going-down and I'm betting on disaster,’ and who actually went and pyramided on disaster and who has won ! Why give up ? You are born for this age ! You are brilliant, Jules. You can be another Rothschild.The Banque Bertillon frères actually only involves two of the brothers, Jules and the much more staid and grounded William, a stabilizing influence -- to the extent possible -- in the background. William has no great ambitions -- "his ideal was to retire to a little farm and keep a couple of horses and beehives" --, but does his best to make sure the rest of the family is provided for, forming an asset-holding company in Luxemburg, the Five Brothers Simla Corporation, where he's building up a nest egg in case things go south with the bank (as his twin brothers, Jules' wife, Claire-Josèphe, and Jules' children "seemed to expect to live for ever on velvet" (and hand-outs, at that)).
William is a steadying hand at the bank, but also acknowledges that it's Jules' baby -- and know that Jules does as he pleases (which often means acting on a whim). He tries to rein him in on occasion:
The trouble is that you have a best seller, Jules, in your bank. The cover and the title alone sell the book. But when they open it, there's nothing inside. First you're a bear on the market, then you become too clever and become a bear on the whole world; next you're a bear on yourself, too. Where are you going, Jules ? Don't speculate, Jules.When Jules is absent for a while, taking time off, the bank putters along well enough, but Jules doesn't find satisfaction in other distractions -- or in his bank operating simply as a normal business. He can't step back from it, understanding that the itch would still be there: "I'd do it for six months and then I'd be unable to resist the splendor of the façade". He's in it -- indeed, he lives for -- the game:
Who told you I wanted to build a bank ? I don't ! I want to play around and go up in smoke perhaps ! Why not! It's my bank, it's my fun. You people are crazy wanting me to make something !If Banque Bertillon frères and the way it is run, and the goings-on around it, seem almost farcical, the sharpness of Stead's satire comes not in the excess she describes but rather in how true-to-life so much of this seems. The novel, presented largely in dialogue, has a cinematically documentary feel and so also is divided not into chapters but rather 'scenes' -- 104 of them, some only a page in length (though one runs over forty pages, too). Many of the scenes feel like raw footage -- the camera (or, here, the narrator), simply capturing it all -- bu there is a design to Stead's often unwieldy-seeming (super-)structure; it might not always seem it, but she does keep boring at the essence.
While concentrated on a few main characters, the novel is crowded and bustling, teeming with incidental ones too. There are a few stragglers who struggle for a livelihood and foolishly play the market but the clientele is mostly of a class that can afford to treat all this financial play like a game; for them the bank is like the theater - and they can strut about, play-acting on this stage for diversion. (The general attitude is one of a kind of casual lawlessness, too, as they know that different rules apply to them than ordinary folk; one disdainfully even complains about: "This childish idea of making the law for the rich and the poor the same: it's absurd, they haven't the same responsibilities !") It's a colorful bunch, in any case -- but a large one, too: the original edition of the novel apparently included a 'List of Characters' numbering well over a hundred (and I certainly miss it in my 1966 edition ...).
The most prominent other characters are Jules' brother William, and Michel Alphendéry, "the mystery man of the bank" who is similarly pessimistically inclined about the future of capitalism as Jules, albeit for a different reason, not as a gut reaction but because he thinks himself a die-hard communist -- who refreshes: "his philosophy every day by reading the leading communist dailies and weeklies, in several languages". He's also a dedicated -- if torn, given his ideology -- employee. And, despite being good at his job, Jules is ambivalent about him: "Alphendéry is too much of a circus, anyhow,. I don't want smart men: I can do the thinking", he maintains -- though his 'thinking' is of a different nature and on a much more limited scale than Alphendéry's. But then Jules is convinced -- and seems to have been proved right -- that:
(Y)ou don't make money by knowing anything. You make money by having a game and employing smart dumbbells to work at it for you.Despite occasionally tiring of him, Jules keeps Alphendéry as, essentially, his right-hand man -- understanding that his employee's ideology warps him: "The best people for a man like me are dopes and communists" --, admitting also, (too) late on, that: "he's my friend. He's my only friend". Still, there's quite a bit he keeps from him (as from everyone) along the way. Jules wants, and does, things his way; he's not a businessman of any rational school, he's one of those: "crazy, expensive, flighty, daring -- birdmen of finance !" As someone concludes about the way the bank is run:
Only, he's not a partnership. He's one man. A sort of Quixote with a couple of Sancho Panzas and a donkey and it doesn't work. No Sancho Panza ever yet stopped a Quixote from getting his nose broken by a windmillJules is willing enough to hand out money left and right to stay out of trouble -- he's generous, in that and other ways -- but still manages to get himself caught up in things better avoided. He generally knows better than setting down things on paper -- "No: it commits me. Anything in black and white commits you, even if it's the truth" -- but not always: though he tries to hide it from the others at the bank, he signed his name to the agreement putting him on the hook to Jacques Carrière. And then there are the bank's books, some of which wind up in the wrong hands, leaving Jules and the bank vulnerable, as the books show that the bank is even more of a shell than generally imagined, not even going through the motions of placing their customers' stock market orders but rather only doing so on paper (a winning strategy in a generally declining market, where few customers can sell for a profit).
There are a few bigger schemes along the way -- one involving wheat, for example -- and many smaller ones, but really the bank is a muddled scam whose fortunes swing wildly (if long also well-hidden) about. There are any number of ongoing court cases against the bank -- "We live only to give evidence against our clients", an exasperated William notes at one point -- but these are more nuisances than serious threats, Jules swatting at them indifferently, paying out small amounts to even those that aren't successful, because that is his nature. His lawyer does what he can, but also understands his client: "Bertillon is outside the law -- he does nothing legal".
Eventually, things do come to a head. Aristide Raccamond, the man who steals the company-books, looks to blackmail Jules and the bank, but with his own business so closely intertwined with the bank's finds he might be undoing himself: as is pointed to him: "an incursion by the police might only reveal what we are anxious to conceal" -- as everyone has things to hide. Nevertheless, after what Jacques Carrière has already set in motion, Raccamond's (and his wife's) squeeze finally topples the dominos, a whole cascade resulting. But Jules and William prove well-prepared for the collapse .....
House of All Nations is very much a novel of its time: the actual financial markets as well as the politics of the period -- not least with a Hitler rising in the background -- all play a significant role. For all that, it feels surprisingly contemporary as well, with Jules resembling many a modern-day entrepreneur, playing fast and loose with huge piles of money (that may or may not be real).
The novel can seem, especially at first, messy and unwieldy, but it ultimately feels surprisingly tight. The narrative does stray all over, and many of the interactions and conversations can seem banal, -- and Jules always remains a mystery-man --, but it is ultimately a very coherent slab of a book (yes, it is long). Clearly, it's not a novel for everyone, but for those who can warm to the style -- idiosyncratic but absorbing -- it is a rewarding load of fun. (William Gaddis' J R would seem to be the best point of comparison, with many similarities in heft, approach, and subject matter.)
A grand novel of the world of finance -- revealed to be simply showmanship, vacuity, and schemes -- House of All Nations is an unusual but quite exceptional work.
- M.A.Orthofer, 13 July 2022
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Australian author Christina Stead lived 1902 to 1983.
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