Saturday, November 21, 2009

in Léon's usual suite

The first lines of House of All Nations.

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, went 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."

This opening gives us a setting in three swift sentences (the place, the room in the place, the people in the room, starting wide and getting narrower, zooming in) then segues into dialogue, making it even quicker than the start of The Beauties and Furies. Again the reader is prompted to ask questions about the characters. Why is Léon not in his usual suite, who is this couple, and where is Léon while they're looking inside his bag? He must be rich. Look at the room. Look at the chair. Look at the case - not ordinary leather. Look at the flasks - crystal. These are objects he carries around with him, intimate possessions. Who is this man? He's rich or else he puts on a good show. He's possibly proud, extravagant, outgoing, maybe selfish, maybe he likes to see people envy him, a flash façade covering hidden fears? Confident in front, but behind: unreliable, uncertain, therefore dangerous? The Raccamonds are not part of this opulence, they poke around in it, curious and sceptical, perhaps jealous? Perhaps nemeses in embryo? So, plenty of questions.

When House was published in 1938, Time reviewed it like this:

House of All Nations brings up to date the theme of Balzac's La Comedie Humaine. Our epoch, said Balzac, is one in which "money is the lawgiver, socially and politically," when, for money, "people fight and devour one another like spiders in a pot." Running to 795 pages, told in 104 cinematic scenes, House of All Nations takes for its pot the luxurious Paris private bank of Bertillon & Cie. S.A., described by its head, elegant, cynical, lucky, grandly deluded Jules Bertillon, as "a rich man's club: a gambling, deposit and tax-evasion bank ... a society dump"

Stead liked Balzac, and the idea that "money is the lawgiver, socially and politically" runs through her entire oeuvre. Poverty poisons the Pollits - a rich Henny would have been a less desperate Henny - the Massines of The People With the Dogs can afford to be easygoing because they don't have to fret about an income, and even in The Salzburg Tales there is a story about a magical goldfish that makes people rich. The speculator and the socialist are two types that recur in her work: Robert Grant on one hand, Nellie Cotter on the other. In House of All Nations she's at her most money-explicit. Every decision the characters make is coloured by money: making it, or spending it, or working out ways to keep what they have. The idea that a man would value his health because, "He's afraid to lose his money" - the flow of life the same as the flow of cash - is not something she's put here idly. It sets the tone. So does the speed of that introduction. Events in House go past quickly, in a massive hurly-burly, characters enter, are described, argue, make claims, vanish, perform some scheme, reappear, shout, make money, lose money, flee the country, return, make money again ... Bertillon's bank looks solid, respectable, but backstage it's a carnival. Strange, for such a busy book, the net effect is of people treading water.

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