House of All Nations
"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."
They were in the Hotel Lotti in the Rue de Castiglione, but not in Léon's usual suite. Léon's medicine case in yellow pigskin lay open, showing its crystal flasks, on a Louis XV chair. The Raccamonds, man and wife, bent over this case and poked at it.
"He always travels with it: cowardice of the lion before a common cold, eh?" Aristide reflected.
Marianne sniffed. "He's afraid to lose his money, that's all."
The white door opened a few inches and an immense head, with long black hair carefully brushed over a God's acre of baldness, appeared in the crack. Clear brown eyes sunk in large sockets searched them, forgave them. "Hello, Aristide! Just having a bath," said the head. "Wait a few minutes, will you? Sit down, Marianne. Ring if you want anything. Excuse me." The door shut. In a moment, it reopened. "Excuse me. How are you, Marianne? So you want some tea, some - cockta', sherry? Ring on the telephone. I'll be with you in a minute."
From the Angus and Robertson hardback edition, 1974.
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Last modified: September 15, 2003.