Thursday, November 17, 2011

enough to go round

Almost every morning I type Christina Stead's name into Twitter to see if anyone has posted a link to a new review or article and this morning for about the millionth time I came across somebody tweeting this quote from House of All Nations, "If all the rich people in the world divided up their money among themselves there wouldn't be enough to go round." It's really a slight misquote but you can say that for most of those lines that get quoted and requoted, "Play it again, Sam," and so forth; people like to sleek down the fluff, a human instinct for tidiness and tool-handiness steps in, and Stead's "amongst" becomes "among" by process of natural evolution. (At least one of the old desert washes under the Las Vegas Strip now feeds into a roadway that slopes down from both sides into the centre -- a street that is also a river -- and either way the rain has a place to rush.)

And I wonder sometimes if the people who post that quote ever want to know how the rest of the words on the page stand around it, the context, the bedding, the rabbit hutch through whose wires that quote's eyes melancholy stare, etc, etc, so I'm going to write down the paragraphs it sits in, on the off chance that anyone out there ever comes searching --

The scene: Michel, an intimate subordinate of the French banker Jules Bertillon, has told his employer that he spent a recent commission on "fifty German Communist books for my library." Then:

"Hey I thought you knew enough already," said Jules, just as suddenly restored to good temper. "I'm surprised at you, Michel, being such a mooch for the Reds. Stalin found out that the workers don't know what to do with money. That's all right. It isn't the Stalins that bother me. They know their game. But a man like you, Michel! A guy makes the money he can. Anyone who doesn't is a bit crazy. If there were the difference of a hair in your brain, Michel, you'd be batty: you'd be standing on soapboxes. That's a tomfool idea to want to try to make everyone rich by confiscating from the smart guys who know how to get out of the tangle early! Why, if all the rich men in the world divided up their money amongst themselves, there wouldn't be enough to go round! It all proves there are constitutional dreamers -- they're sick; you're sick, Michel.

'I say, don't you realize if you gave everyone the same amount of money today, in a fortnight, somebody, some Citroën, some Oustric, some De Wendel would have got half of it back! You're too intelligent, Michel, not to see that! Why, types like me only think in money. Why, take me. When I take off my pants I'm thinking up a gag, when I make water, what the deuce! I'm asking myself why I didn't take a crack at the cheap crook who tried to do me in yesterday. I dream all night and I get up at three o'clock to write down all I've dreamed because there are good schemes among them. When I wake up I think of a check with a big figure if I'm good-tempered, and of petty cash if I'm out of my humor: big or little, but I only think of money. How can the workers beat a man like me?"

House of All Nations, page 102, Scene: Twelve: The Revolution

Angus & Robertson: third printing: hardcover: 1974. First published, 1938.

Bertillon is one of her mad, massive, force-of-nature characters, like Sam in Man Who Loved Children, or Nellie in Cotters' England.

I'm inserting an edit here in early December to say that this is the first time I've seen the quote tweeted in Thai. It looks like this:

ถ้าคนร่ำรวยทั้งหมดในโลกแบ่งเงินทองของพวกเขาแก่กันและกัน จะไม่มีเงินพอให้แบ่ง


  1. ' the rest of the words on the page stand around it, the context, the bedding, the rabbit hutch through whose wires that quote's eyes melancholy stare' - beautiful.

  2. You know I don't have anything to say to that except, "Thanks." It's funny, watching that quote spread itself. House is a long way from being her most popular book, and yet there's nothing else in any of them that I see getting around as efficiently and quickly as, "Why, if all the rich men ..."

  3. This is the book that Kate Jennings praises isn't it? The scary thing - at least as I see it from these two paras - is that there's a grain of common sense in what Bertillon says but then he pushes it to an extreme that is unsupportable.

  4. Oh, and I do love the idea of your typing Christina Stead's name into Twitter every (most) mornings. Makes me feel that all's right with the world if there are people like you in it ...

  5. Usually it takes about ten seconds and yields nothing. This morning a blog called Booktopia was pointing out that MUP has reprinted For Love Alone. A couple of days ago somebody was thinking of Hazel Rowley. Between those two, someone posted the House Of All Nations quote. But usually, nada.

    It's the same one she praises -- and there's an American called Michael Upchurch who got knotted up in it and wrote an essay for a book called Rereadings: "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." Bertillon makes sense -- the banker who fixes his mind on one idea, making money, and devotes himself to it even at three in the morning, is going to have more success with that idea than nonbankers who think of other things and then money (the next thing he does in this speech is go through some of the things they might be thinking about, girlfriends, bosses, etc) -- but it's amoral sense, sociopathic sense, criminal sense, and laws and politics in this book are just speedbumps that have to be circumvented on the way to more money, or tools that can be picked up and used. His question is not, Is Communism right or wrong, but How can Communism make me more money? Steads zings along on the energy of it, and her criticisms come in obliquely, when she has a character make a speech like that one, something that makes you nod and say, "Yeah, you know, he's got a point ... but wait ..." In other parts of the book the characters decide that cheap mass-produced goods are an excellent idea because they get people used to living on less, and the less other people want, the more they can take. Peasant economy is what they need, they say: everybody in rope sandals! They bubble along like that, totally happily.

  6. Yes, they're the scariest characters/people - the ones who start to make sense and then, wham, you realise you've been led down a path you want to escape from. Fortunately, in literature you can! Sound like another book I'd like.

  7. He's such a big impatient hyperactive child, Bertillon ... and all of a sudden it strikes me that she's done the same thing here that she did in Man Who Loved, that is, she's locked the reader into the point-of-view-universe of a single family, only in this case the family is related not by blood but by moneymaking, and the house is a bank.

    I like to imagine that people'd like the books I like, but it doesn't always happen. House of All is brilliant, though. I don't know why it's less popular than Man or Letty or For Love Alone, but my guess is that it comes down to the subject matter ("banking" is maybe a harder sell than "love" or "sex" or "abusive parents"), the massive cast, and the racing pace (which sometimes asks you to go back and work out what just happened).

  8. Not having read any of these books I think you're right, it's the subject matter. That was, as I recollect, a point Jennings made in an essay in that collection "Trouble".

    Digressing somewhat wildly, another banker in literature is Melmotte in The way we live now. It's not as popular though as Trollope's other novels.

  9. It might be the time, too. "Banking in France in 1932" might seem less enticing than the same book set now, in Wall Street. But that's all speculation: who knows? You could argue, "It's the short chapters, they're startling, they zoom around like bees," or, "It's the lack of an obvious central character, like Sam in Man, or Letty in Letty," or, "People might call her anti-Semitic because most of these moneyhungry bankers are Jewish" (Stead wasn't anti-, she was pro-, because her partner William Blake was Jewish, but it's not hard to imagine someone coming away from the book saying, "She's perpetuating a stereotype") or "It's just the whimsical way taste goes, who can predict it, who can guide it?" or, "It's the fault of the publishers and reviewers, they don't have faith in the book," or a general heaving push of all of the above, an atmosphere of underpopularity that perpetuates itself. It wouldn't be hard to bring it into greater prominence now, if the right people came along and said, "An excellent illustration of the amorality of bankers, absolutely relevant," etc etc -- (The "right people" would be ones like Franzen, who can stir up interest just by writing an article.)

    I haven't read the Trollope, but, after looking it up (which I've just done) I think it sounds as if the two books together would make a really interesting contrast. Melmotte sounds like half the cast of House compressed into a single villain. (One difference: Stead doesn't make anybody a villain.) But "Augustus Melmotte is a foreign-born financier with a mysterious past ... [his] goal is to ramp up the share price without paying out any actual money into the scheme itself, thereby increasing his own not-inconsiderable wealth" -- he could have spared himself his unhappy ending and just migrated over to the other book. They would have loved him.

  10. (And someone has just posted the House quote again. Before that: "I'm curious what you think of the Christina Stead," tweets one person and the other person responds: "I am abandoning The Man Who Loved Children because I hate it.")