While some books – stories – give you but a few chapters of a life, others give you an entire lifetime. The latter tend to be my favorite, for they are more psychedelic – from psyche, mind, and delos, manifesting – because books really are psychedelic. And not in the trippy sense, but in the journeying, shamanic sense.
I just finished such a book: The Money Master, a 1913 novel by Canadian novelist and WW1 propagandist Gilbert Parker. Such was the effect upon finishing it – the last two-hundred pages of which I read in one sitting – that I am compelled to write about it now.
The story is about a man named Jean Jacques Barbille, who fancies himself a philosopher; however, he’s really a sentimentalist – “feeling rather than thinking.”
He is descended from old aristocracy and takes great pride in himself. He wants people to know who he is, to say, “There comes Jean Jacques Barbille.” In short, he is an egotist – but a kind one. He lends money freely and knows it will not be paid back. This is partly due to his mixture of sentimentality and naiveté, but his generosity also stems from his want of reputation. As the story progresses, we see that his priorities are somewhat off. This becomes clear when his self-centeredness causes his wife to fall out of love with him and in love with an alpha male carpenter – but we’ll get back to this.
The story begins with Jacques traveling Europe and on the voyage home, where he meets his future wife, Carmen. She and her father have fled Spain under less than honest pretenses, after her true love, a revolutionary, is killed. She never quite gets over this first love, and her and her father see an opportunity in the young successful mill-owner, which begins as soon as he has the captain of the vessel relocate them from steerage to his quarters. The captain warns him of their character but he will hear none of it – he sees the twenty-one year old beauty, hears her sing and play guitar, and he is caught in love’s snare.
The vessel wrecks near the coast in a storm and she rescues him; although, as the story is recounted upon their arrival back to French-Canada, he is said to have rescued her.
They marry and she is eventually accepted into the local community, where the Barbille family has existed for over two-hundred years. His businesses thrive and they have a child – Zoe.
Jean Jacques is pleased with his life and has everything he could want, but his focus is on his businesses and his reputation – rather than his gorgeous wife Carmen. So with the arrival of a strong carpenter, Carmen begins an affair.
Jean Jacques finds out about the affair and decides to kill the man.
When the contractor comes to inspect his work, Jean Jacques confronts him and places his hand on a lever, which, if sprung, will open the gates to the river sending in a torrent of water and sweeping the man to his death. The man cleverly offers information to Jean Jacques about his mistakes in his marriage and eventually convinces him to spare his life based on the potential consequences of the murder to his wife and daughter.
Jean Jacques then confronts his wife but instead of being angry, he admits his faults in not paying her more attention and he commits to forgiving her.
The wife, however, can’t stand the idea of having to be in her husband’s debt forever and goes to meet the man she had an affair with to run away, but in light of being spared by her husband the man refuses her. She leaves anyway. Our philosopher has lost his wife.
He searches in vain for her and carries on without ever moving on romantically. His daughter grows up and she falls in love with a man who is an actor, an Englishman, and a Protestant – three strikes against him. Jean Jacques feels he is losing his daughter as he has lost his wife, to a strange interloper, and he denies his daughter the right to marry him. But she is in love. They flee and marry and he searches for them in vain.
As he passes his fiftieth year, his mill burns down and he is ruined. Everything is sold at auction, save for a birdcage, which is spared for him, along with the bird inside it – a once treasure of his wife and daughter.
He is offered love from another woman who even gives him the chance to recover financially, but he refuses, leaving town with only the birdcage and the singing bird.
While tramping throughout Canada searching for his daughter Zoe, he is told by an innkeeper of a dying woman to whom the bird might bring joy. He offers the bird as a gift and when it is delivered a shrill cry is heard. The dying woman is his wife.
She is buried shortly thereafter and he moves on, still in search of his daughter. After taking a fall, he is put into the care of a kind young doctor whom he eventually tells his story to. The doctor knows of his daughter: he buried her a month ago, after she was caught in a blizzard. But there is a grandchild.
He goes to claim the grandchild to take her “out West”, but the woman who has taken care of the child refuses to give her up. He has rights to the infant, as her grandfather, but surrenders them after the woman tells him she would “die fifty times for the child.”
In the end, he goes out West alone where he is eventually met by the woman who offered to save him financially. They find coal on his land he has out there and the story gives us our happy ending.
Now, there are tons of flaws in this tale. Namely religious morality that punishes the sinners and rewards the faithful. Also, there is some racism. The N word appears on one page in relation to someone’s heritidge and the Spanish are not portrayed positively. Despite the fact this story was written over a hundred years ago I cannot make excuses for these failures – nor would I have been particularly inclined to read the book had I known these shortcomings, but as it is, I bought the book because it was old and rare and I liked the title.
The style of writing was also to my liking – romantic.
But what I really liked was the portrait of a man who thinks he is a philosopher but lacks in experience and hard common sense. He took what he had for granted. He lost his love. He lost everything. I have lived that. More than once.
And so the book stuck to my ribs and left me with the feeling of having lived an unbroken dream, which is what fiction does. It takes us on a journey.
This journey reminded me that we can’t change the past. We can’t go back and appreciate what we took for granted, and we can’t be anything other than what we are at the time, which is often self-centered.
There is, however, the future. And when we read stories of other’s mistakes we come to know ourselves better and are better prepared to avoid making the same mistakes.
The wise ones say there are no new stories, only old stories told differently. This is the tao of human nature. We are flawed. We do lose what we have. Nothing lasts. I suppose this novel had a very French flair in that sense. If you remove the Catholic retribution from the plot and zoom out, you see a life like any other: one that has its regrets. And that’s life.
But the more we learn the nature of being human, the better we become at life – or at least the better we can convince ourselves.