Friday, September 19, 2008

House of All Nations

I think I ought to forget all other reading obligations long enough this fall to make my way through Christina Stead's out-of-print House of All Nations.

From the dust jacket:

"For money, wrote Balzac, "people fight and devour one another like spiders in a pot." In House of All Nations, the pot is an exclusive private European bank, and the spiders are a rich mixture of high-stakes gamblers, tax evaders, and shady speculators, all united by their love of money. They burn for it, hunger for it, and indeed would sell their souls for it had they souls to sell. Leading them on the chase is the cynical and mercurial director of the bank, Jules Bertillon, for whom every political or natural disaster is a potential shower of gold. The supreme manipulator whose only principle is money. Bertillon is a master of the devious maneuver, and his clients trust and even love him for it. In the end, he is the duper duped, but it is the clients who pay: for Jules, unprincipled to the last, has not been so foolish as to believe in himself.

Set in the Paris of the interwar period, House of All Nations is a vast panoramic novel of the intrigues, swindles, and manipulations of this world on international fiance. "No one ever made enough money," says Jules Bertillon at the outset of this story of greed and power - and that is the leitmotif for the blackmailers, playboys, brokers, and bankers who swirl through this multilayered book. Intent on their personal gain, they play out the turns of fortune against a backdrop of worldwide economic depression and the rising tide of Fascism. Here are the thirties brought to life - the decadence and indifference, the selfishness and short-sightedness that would culminate in world war.

First published in 1939, House of All Nations was greeted with great critical praise. "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," said Time. The New Yorker acclaimed it as a book "full of rich comedy, crowded with Balzacian characters...a work of extraordinary talent." And in his page-one review in the Sunday New York Herald Tribune, Alfred Kazin wrote: "here, set down with trembling irony and a generation's disgust behind it, is the clanging, frantic overture to the hysterical thirties. Christina Stead has written her novel with stock prices in her eyes and ears, the pulse of change under her fingers; she has written it not around an abstract terror, but around. . . the puffed-up balloon financiers who blew Europe hot and cold until they blew up themselves and part of the continent with them. She has carved out a slice of the history of our own time."

3 comments:

stefanie said...

What an appropriate book to read given the current financial crisis!

Mary said...

This sounds wonderful. I've just bought a copy at abe.com. Thanks for the tip.

md

Bookeboy said...

Hello!

This is certainly one of the liveliest books I have ever read. I read it and two months later reached for it again. My life in between was so quiet. I missed the noise.

I have read a number of Christina Stead's books and have yet to discover one which resembles another. What a mind!

Edmund White wrote a review of her writing which is worth hunting down.

What a wonderful site you have!
thanks
John.