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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

House of All Nations

Christina Stead

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To purchase House of All Nations

Title: House of All Nations
Author: Christina Stead
Genre: Novel
Written: 1938
Length: 787 pages
Availability: House of All Nations - US
House of All Nations - UK
House of All Nations - Canada
directly from: Melbourne University Publishing
  • The Melbourne University Publishing edition (2013) comes with an Introduction by Alan Kohler

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Our Assessment:

A- : a formidable satire of the world of finance

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The American Scholar . Winter/1999 Michael Upchurch
The Herald A 9/7/1938 Edgar Holt
The Listener . 30/6/1938 Edwin Muir
The Nation . 18/6/1938 Louise Bogan
The Nation . 9/4/1973 C.L.Markmann
The New Republic C 6/7/1938 John Chamberlain
The NY Rev. of Books . 19/10/1972 Michael Wood
The NY Times . 9/6/1938 Ralph Thompson
The NY Times Book Rev. . 12/6/1938 Harold Strauss
The Saturday Review A+ 11/6/1938 Elliot Paul
The Sun A+ 10/7/1938 Adam McCay
Time . 13/6/1938 .
Time . 30/10/1972 Martha Duffy
TLS . 11/6/1938 .

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus, though all are impressed by it.

  From the Reviews:
  • "House of All Nations, set in 1931-1932, made you feel you were there, riding the downward spiral of economic collapse, buffeted by billowing war clouds each step of the way. (...) (A) novel that chews up and spits out the spirit of a whole decade (.....) The book may feel like an indictment, but it's not an indictment of particular characters -- it's an indictment of a society in economic anarchy that is heading inexorably toward war. Her characters, as they see it, are just making the best of a bad hand." - Michael Upchurch, The American Scholar

  • "House of All Nations is a brilliant and exhilarating book, a superb performance of sustained wit, a crushing satire on the world of international finance. (...) House of All Nations is not constructed as an ordinary novel. It does not flow smoothly. (...) One of the most curious features of this novel is its complete lack humanity. In that perhaps is its most conspicuous defect. It is admirable in its surface polish. Outwardly men and women are photographically vivid: their speech is brittle and witty. But they have no flesh and blood. They are superbly manipulated sawdust puppets. (...) The scope of this book is almost too ambitious; but instead of failing in an exceptionally difficult undertaking, she has written a novel which will command universal admiration." - Edgar Holt, The Herald

  • "In her latest and longest story she attempts a task which. one feels, might have been better done by a writer of no originality at all. (...) The brilliance of Miss Stead's comments and of many of her descriptions is undeniable; the fantastic nature of international finance is probably as undeniable. But the brilliance and the fantasy have combined to produce something which is neither in the realm of pure imagination nor in that of fact. There is not a completely credible character in the whole book (.....) This is a story into which a great deal of labour and a great deal of talent have gone; but it is hard to read, for it is hard to believe in." - Edwin Muir, The Listener

  • "What House of All Nations chiefly proves is that the audience for Ouida and Gothic romance has not yet been completely absorbed by the. movies. Its members cast glances up and down the padded shelves of circulating libraries, on one of which this novel will, no doubt, have a long and profitable stay." - Louise Bogan, The Nation

  • "It is almost defiantly (today-not when it was written) a real novel in the traditional form, whose characters have names, and personalities, and act at least as much as they talk and reflect. And it is utterly indifferent to technical innovation. This is not to say that the artist must eschew experiment; on the contrary. But Miss Stead has chosen not to experiment. (...) This is a long novel but never a wearying one. (...) (A)s in life, -there are no heroes, only men and women." - Charles Lam Markmann, The Nation

  • "Christina Stead's House of All Nations is a virtuoso performance, a prodigious tour de force, an epic exercise of sheer writing will. Its design is spacious, its characterization is apt, and it is positively littered with epigrams. Yet it is one of the dullest novels which it has ever been my misfortune to read. The reason is obvious: it deals with a group of men and women who devote their lives to that dullest of all abstractions -- the abstraction of the money game. (...) Probably the story of Jules Bertillon's rise and fall could have been made interesting. But Miss Stead has chosen the wrong technique. Her book is filled with the gossip and the financial-circle clichés of Big Goings-On, but we never actually see the stupendous deals. And Miss Stead's human beings are always considerably less than human. (...) Balzac's lens was a wide one, and he ended by portraying the whole of bourgeois society. Miss Stead has merely given us the froth on the surface. The froth might have been enough in itself had it been treated farcically. But after 787 pages of it one feels choked with cheapness." - John Chamberlain, The New Republic

  • "Christina Stead’s House of All Nations, first published in 1938 and a best seller then, is definitely a novel, and a remarkable one. But it is a novel about a disappearing place, curiously lightweight for all its 800-odd pages, a record of the chatter of Europe as it went under, as the pound sterling went off the gold standard, as the Japanese invaded Manchuria, as Hitler began his menacing, unbelievable ascent. It is a novel suspended in air, the earth pulled out from beneath it, caught by the writer the moment before the crash, both of the old genre and of its home and origin, became complete. (…) The book is too long, flounders a bit in its profusion somewhere just before the middle, but generally it is just this sense of a world rattling on without any kind of control or supervision that makes the novel work the way it does." - Michael Wood, The New York Review of Books

  • "The book has no apparent logical structure or system. It is 300,000 words, more or less, long; it could just as well have been 200,000 -- or 400,000. It has somewhere in the neighborhood of 125 characters, major and minor. It could just as well have had 100. Or 200. (...) The result is imposing, not only because of the scope and air of authority, but because of its crafty innocence. It is not, however, a book that many among even patient people will read to the end. That is Miss Stead's fault, or her publisher's. Less a study in human nature than a social panorama, the book could and should have made its point in half the space, with considerably fewer characters, internal analyses, protracted arguments, elaborate debates." - Ralph Thompson, The New York Times

  • "Never submissive to the conventions of story-telling, she has put together a provocative jumble of brilliance and blatherskite the like of which has seldom appeared between boards. While it brings within the horizons of literature material never before mastered by a novelist, while it seethes and froths with a pyrotechnic imagination and spews forth characters and situations by the gross it is perverse in technique, contemptuous of intelligibility, and loaded down with a vast amount of documentary material and endless pedantic reproduction of the exact speech of inarticulate boors. (...) And yet, difficult and formless as the novel is, one cannot simply dismiss it as inchoate." - Harold Strauss, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The book is a long one, only because the scope is large. I was held by it to the highest pitch of excitement. (...) The story is so well constructed, with such originality and force, that the main characters stand out clearly. There is nothing in the book except human beings and their activities, few descriptions of scenery or interior decorations, few doses of author's philosophy. The pages are filled with conversations and concise stage directions. The essence of Miss Stead's art is dialogue. (...) The emotional tension of the story rises and falls magnificently. (...) In this limited space it is impossible to do justice to Miss Stead's book. I only hope to convey that it is interesting and almost inexhaustible. Miss Stead possesses an immense vocabulary from which triteness only is missing, and she uses it with the utmost simplicity." - Elliot Paul, The Saturday Review

  • "(A) dazzling and fascinating book. It may be doubted whether any other woman. in our time, has written a novel of contemporary affairs equal in brilliance to this one. (...) Looking for a word, we might say that it is a symphony, with privateering international finance as leitmotiv, and it is written wholly in scherzo movements. The wit is illimitable; the rapid grace of the writing is tireless; and the cynicism is superb enough to be called Olympian. (...) In its style of writing the book is quick, nervous, sparkling; mostly in a series of vignettes, and in dialogues short and long. (...) In her perception of financial intrigue, as well as in her naked studies of fraud, gluttony, perversion, avarice, and adultery, Miss Stead has eyes as ruthless as a studio light. It is a rare woman who can furnish scepticism and satire as unabashed as Voltaire's. This is an amazing book." - Adam McCay, The Sunday Sun and Guardian Magazine

  • "Unlike most novelists of financial high life, Author Stead gives the complex details of shady transactions, banking manipulations, stock transfers, wheat deals, makes brilliant sense of gigantic currency speculations, of how the Bertillons make millions in bear operations on Kreuger stocks. Combined with her Hogarthian humor, brilliant vocabulary, high-keyed imagination, the result is one of the most savage satires on "the principle of money" since Balzac." - Time

  • "This is a long, unfathomably static but often exhilarating novel about money. There are 104 chapters, at least as many characters, and dialogue that runs on and on like ticker tape. (...) She observed the motley incarnations of greed who inhabited the place, and obviously developed a grudging fascination with the charms of avarice. But she has set it all in motion with more gusto than discrimination." - Martha Duffy, Time

  • "In House of All Nations (1938) (...) the puppy-fat is already beginning to fall away from the bare bones of Stead’s mature style, and of her mature purpose, for this is a novel straightforwardly about the root of all evil: that is, banking. However, the complications of its plotting recall the Jacobean drama at its most involuted, so that it is quite difficult to tell exactly what is going on. In fact, the elaborately fugal plotting of House of All Nations is beginning to dissolve of its own accord, just because too much is going on, into the arbitrary flux of event that characterises Stead’s later novels. And she is beginning to write, not like a craftsman, but like an honest worker." - Angela Carter, London Review of Books (16/9/1982)

  • "The House of All Nations is an excellent, interesting novel, large in scale, intelligent, and splendidly detailed." - Elizabeth Hardwick, The New Republic (1/8/1955)

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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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".)
       House of All Nations comes with an epigraph (from Diderot) but also an opening page of quotes headed 'Credo' -- sixteen short quotes attributed to characters then introduced in the novel, clever remarks that also appear, in similar form, in the story proper in this epigram-littered novel. Several are attributed to the novel's central character, Jules Bertillon, the youngest of five brothers and the man who runs Banque Bertillon frères; among these is:

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."
     "It's a rich man's club: a gambling, deposit, and tax-evasion bank, don't you see ? It's the rich man's section of a big bank taken out, polished, and set rolling on its own wheels. Very good idea. Jules always had such chic ideas."
       (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 windmill
       Jules 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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House of All Nations: Reviews: Christina Stead: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Australian author Christina Stead lived 1902 to 1983.

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© 2022 the complete review

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