Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 603
House of All Nations is a fictional tale dependent on the dramatic events of economic history to substantiate its fantastic plot. At the center of the novel is the Banque Mercure, ostensibly run by the Bertillon brothers. The brothers’ official, legal responsibility for the bank’s mysterious but apparently successful inner workings, however, exists more in the minds of the institution’s clients than it does on paper. As Jules says, “It’s easy to make money. You put up the sign BANK and someone walks in and hands you his money. The facade is everything.” The petty European aristocrats, South American plantation profiteers, and American businessman who deposit at the bank and rely on its stock-exchange services are continually buoyed by the profits they see themselves making thanks to the financial wizardry of the enigmatic but gracious Jules Bertillon. Yet, while the men who make these fortunes and the bank which helps them flourish share a penchant for the trappings of elegance, as demonstrated in the clients’ refined manners and the plush atmosphere of the bank, they also share less glamorous common attributes. The private matters of neither the institution nor those it serves can withstand close inspection.
In this realm of precarious financial stability, where a facade of substance and reliability is carefully maintained, Jules Bertillon reigns over all. Everyone in the bank—employees, clients, even his brother William—thinks that Jules is the driving imagination and creative presence maintaining the bank’s solid position during the dangerous storms of the 1930’s global financial climate. It is Michel Alphendery, however, who is the true genius: While Jules’s urbane, expansive personality draws in clients and their capital, Michel, when markets fluctuate, juggles the discrepancies between the bank’s apparent and actual position, recorded in numerous hidden account books.
As Jules, using the bank clients’ funds for capital, recklessly plays in the gold and commodities markets, Michel covers the losses “on the books.” Michel reconciles these dishonest practices with his personal politics by cynically acknowledging that the inescapable corruption of the system that his work supports will inevitably cause its own downfall.
Aristide Raccamond insinuates himself into the chaotically disorganized bank administration, hoping to recover recent personal financial losses and promote himself as a client’s representative through his association with the bank. Jules overlooks his superstitious misgivings about Aristide’s recent involvement with a failed competitor and takes Aristide into the bank, despite a premonition that the “customer’s man” brings bad luck.
Jules never takes the business of his bank too seriously. When reverses in the global financial community portend the bank’s failure, Jules, encouraged by Claire-Josephe and with Michel’s help, siphons his clients’ funds into bank accounts abroad. He thus ensures his family’s future security. Aristide, however, discovers the plan, and he and his wife try to blackmail the Bertillons. The Raccamonds fail not only because the Bertillons have prepared for every eventuality but also because the malicious and potentially damaging rumors they spread about the Banque Mercure and its directors do not convince any of its clients or employees, who have been utterly seduced into loyalty by the enigmatic and charming Jules. Their admiration for him remains intact, even after the abrupt disappearance of both the Bertillons and the bank’s entire capital. After some mourning over their lost income, the poseurs of Continental high society, along with the bank workers whom Jules exploited and the financiers he duped, transform their memories of Jules into a legend. He is remembered as the gracious charlatan who was clever enough to deceive anyone—even other professional deceivers.
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