House of All Nations
The Sunlight Dialogues
F. W. Dupee once wrote of a character in Henry James as falling out of the world and into the universe. Something of this kind has happened to narrative literature: it has fallen out of the novel and into fiction, out of detailed circumstance and into escalating hypotheses. We no longer have a purchase on the social world which is the ground of the novel, and we respond to this by creating vast, simplifying theories of conspiracy, which put us in touch with a rich universe of speculative myths but will not give us Julien Sorel or Anna Karenina or Balzac’s young men.
The patient and multifarious resistance of reality to our wishes no longer seems a major theme: we are more worried about reality’s designs on us, or about its sheer unintelligibility. It is not a question of regretting our losses, of course, but of understanding our condition—the universe of myth may yet give us an Oedipus or an Odysseus of our own anyway. The three books under review, different as they are, come together well enough to tell us what it feels like to fall, or to have fallen, out of the world.
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.
Randall Jarrell, writing about Christina Stead’s next book, The Man Who Loved Children, published, to a poor reception, in 1940 and reprinted, belatedly, as a minor classic in 1965, said that an occasional fault in Miss Stead’s writing was “a kind of vivacious, mechanical over-abundance”:
…the observation and invention and rhetoric, set into autonomous operation, bring into existence a queer picaresque universe of indiscriminate, slightly disreputable incidents. Reading about them is like listening to two disillusioned old automata gossiping over a cup of tea in the kitchen.
This is even truer of House of All Nations than it is of The Man Who Loved Children, but the pejorative note is out of place here. 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. If its characters don’t move us and haunt us as those of The Man Who Loved Children do, it crackles with epigrams which evoke a whole civilization awash in its wisecracks: “Life is only sordid if you’re looking for something else”; “You can tell how sane a man is by the number of crazy ideas he has”; “Every man has his price and will take sixty per cent off for cash”; “The great impediment in her career was her expression: she looked as calculating as she was.”
The story, such as it is beneath the sparkling chatter, concerns a private bank in Paris, described to a bewildered client in this way:
“Richard, this is a telescoped bank, a private luxury bank: here we do things on the first floor that they do on the fiftieth story in a fine New York bank, that’s all. This is a bank between friends.”
It is a bank for rich but flighty people who want to become richer, and its name, significantly enough, is the Banque Mercure. Its mercury is both a means of measuring the temperature of Europe and that Mercury who had winged heels and a habit of stealing, patron god of commerce and theft. His name in this case is Jules Bertillon, owner of the bank and gilded pickpocket, as he says: “and believe me, a pickpocket has to have twinkling ankles.” Jules believes in his luck and his charm and his style, and most of the time he is right. But he is also obstinate and jumpy. He bets on the pound when the pound is a poor bet; knows he has made a mistake, but won’t go back on his gamble; loses money, and finally skips out to Estonia, leaving his creditors and clients to haggle over whatever they can find behind the elegant and sober façade of the Banque Mercure. The book ends on a picture of Jules as the charming bandit, a pirate of finance, loved even by his enemies, but a page or two before that we are given, through the eyes of Jules’s cautious brother, a darker vision:
He saw him also in a flash, for years ahead, an irritable anxious baffled impish vampire, using his charm and his connections to no purpose, flying out in a dozen illegal ways, sitting presently in some birdlime of the law.
Jules is a “child of his age,” Christina Stead says, and his age is between the wars, a time when the market was spiraling down, when a man with the right temperament could make a fortune out of other people’s unwillingness to believe what they saw. “The history of everything is down from now on,” Jules’s chief counselor insists. “The only investment now is in a crash.” “You’re betting on a funeral. Everyone’s sure to pass out….” Jules himself, advising a client, says the same thing in his own style:
“Bet on disaster, Comtesse. The world’s like an old pope: it’s dying with a hundred doctors in attendance. It’s dying of everything at once, because they kept it alive too long….”
Jules’s bookkeeping is a gamble on the pope’s decline. He sells when others are buying. He doesn’t buy what his clients ask him to buy. Since they would lose if he did, he is saving them money; but if he were to be wrong; and the clients’ supposed stocks, unbought, were to rise after all, he wouldn’t be able to pay up. Out of shock at this state of affairs an employee of the bank goes frantic and brings the house down in confusion.
The title of the novel suggests that the bank is a brothel, and Jules himself underlines the idea: “I sleep with my own wife, true; but I sleep with other people’s money.” But the bank is also described as a merry-go-round, a beehive, a version of Shelley’s Tower of Famine, an asylum, and above all, a hall of dreams, a “strange palace of illusion, temptation, and beauty.” It is a place that drives men mad, that leases out, as Jules’s brother puts it, the open spaces in people’s heads. It is a figure for the disarray of Europe in the Thirties, for the lure of riches when they really can’t be had. “Poor Aristide,” the narrator comments on a character trying to blackmail Jules, “sailing to prosperity on a death ship.” The image is perfect, except that Jules, unlike Aristide, really does sail the ship to prosperity. Miss Stead means us to see the attraction of this man of the times, even if the times are desperate. The more so since behind that poise and that perfect pitch we can see, as Jules’s brother does, the specter of what Jules will become when the times are too bad even for him, when he is no longer their man: Mercury turned baffled vampire in a spreading Transylvania.
In such a graceless second incarnation, Mercury might well appeal to John Barth. A touch too sinister, perhaps, since Barth’s heroes in Chimera are flaccid, simple fellows, mythic heroes past their best, picked up at forty and sent out on fresh errands: Perseus, in the second of the three novellas which make up Chimera (“a vague monstrosity in three parts, obscured from clearer view by the smoke of its own respiration”), to face a resurrected and restructured Medusa; Bellerophon, in the third, to ride a middle-aged Pegasus to heaven, only to fail and fall through the centuries to Maryland, where he becomes his own story and is metamorphosed into the third part of a book called Chimera.
Or if you really want the facts of the fiction: Bellerophon is metamorphosed into his old tutor Polyeidus, who has taken on the form of Bellerophon-as-narrative-of-his-life, a story written by John Barth through the intermediary of the voice, or voices, of Polyeidus, who is masquerading as Bellerophon-as-narrative, and so on. Bellerophon, however, is not really Bellerophon but his dead brother, or rather the brother we all thought was dead when it was really Bellerophon that was dead. In a sense, though, he is Bellerophon after all, because he has lived Bellerophon’s life as well as living his life as Bellerophon. Still with me?
Chimera is, as its own closing words laughingly have it, a “beastly fiction,” “a kind of monstrous mixed metaphor,” a creature fallen well clear of the world of the novel, and out into the universe of myth. It is a maze of bad jokes, false clues to its own meaning, stories within stories, stories that begin in the middle of an action, turn into flashbacks as they reach the middle of the story, and leave their characters at the end stranded in the middle of their lives. In the Perseus novella Perseus tells Medusa his whole story, including the story of his telling his story to a girl called Calyxa, an eager student of mythology. In the first of the three novellas Dunyazade, the sister of Scheherazade, having spent a thousand and one nights listening to her sister and interrupting her strategically at cockcrow, now tells her sister’s stories to her new husband, as well as the story of the stories (including in this story an unscheduled genie horribly resembling John Barth, who wafts in from the twentieth century to chat with Scheherazade, or Sherry as her sister calls her, about narrative technique and the intimate analogies between sex and storytelling). What is she to tell her husband now that he has heard everything?
Barth is not simply playing around, there are meanings in these mazes, metaphors, for example, for a life seen as a labyrinth made up of too many crowded stories, buried beneath a surfeit of tales, trapped at the end of a cultural road. The trouble with Chimera is not its intricacy or its frivolity or its abstraction—all those things pay off with what they are meant to portray. The trouble is a thorough deadness in the language, which belies all the book’s apparent mental activity, makes it seem a fraud. Barth seems to have something like an unwillingness to write, as distinct from simply publishing.