Tag Archives: Balzac

“Father Goriot” by Honore de Balzac

Piketty (see blog post dated April 14) cites the novelist Balzac as providing insight into the impact of income inequality in France around 1820. Balzac had that and a great deal more on his mind! The plot of Father Goriot is wildly melodramatic. There’s a touch of Shakespeare – Father Goriot reminds one of King Lear, but with no good, loving Cordelia to offset the wiles of the two conniving daughters. And Father Goriot never really acknowledges his daughters moral failings.

Wikipedia describes Balzac as “one of the founders of realism in European literature”. He is sometimes compared to Dickens. His descriptions of people and the urban streetscape are so vivid, I felt like I was watching a movie the whole time I was reading. The dismal, poverty stricken boardinghouse he described made my skin crawl. Father Goriot is part of Balzac’s panoramic Human Comedy.

Balzac explores in detail the relationship between wealth and social status, especially as it related to women. The daughters of old Goriot always want MORE, and are willing to lie and take great risks to maintain appearances. Goriot was a working class entrepreneur, a pasta maker and a speculator in grain. He thought, when he married his daughters to men with aristocratic titles, that his troubles were over. He died penniless.

Not only is this book translated (from French) but it includes occasionally obscure and archaic concepts. I shared a confusing paragraph with a friend, who said my problem was lack of familiarity with the “theory of humours”. You know, what happens if you have too much “black bile”. “Humours” were used to explain both health and disposition. Best to just keep reading…

This is a book which showcases the problems of a society that encompasses great extremes of wealth and poverty. Would I want to live in the world he describes? No way!

Balzac deserves far more careful attention than I am giving him here. If your currently book choice category is “filling in the blanks in my literary education”, I highly recommend Balzac’s Father Goriot.

“Capital in the Twenty-First Century” by Thomas Piketty

I mentioned Piketty in my review of New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson, blog post dated April 5.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century falls into several interesting categories:

  • I didn’t read it. I made substantial use of an informant (to use journalistic jargon) who happens to be a member of my household. I have never taken an economics course. I’ve probably read half a dozen popular books about economics.
  • The edition in hand was translated from French. I always assume that something could be lost (or gained) in translation. This book was published in French in 2013 and in English translation by Arthur Goldhammer in 2014, by Harvard University Press.
  • It’s been reviewed positively in venues I respect, like The New Yorker and The Guardian.

What have we got here?

  • Genre – nonfiction (academic research)
  • Text 578 pages
  • Notes 79 pages
  • 18 tables
  • 7 illustrations
  • About 100 figures

This heavy academic tome is a best seller! Amazon.com lists it as #1 in Comparative Economics. It has 1,761 customer reviews! Reviewers praise it as the most important economics book of the decade.

Piketty’s area of specialization is (the history of) wealth and income inequality. I’ll bet he saw OCCUPY WALL STREET coming, and many of our current political controversies.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century is a (surprisingly?) readable book. Piketty and Goldhammer have avoided most economics jargon. The exception? You must understand the term “rentier”. Perhaps it could also be translated as “owner”. A “rentier” makes money from money or land or assets, not from work. Got it? If you have any investments, you are a rentier (fem. “rentiere”, I think). If you read Robinson’s New York 2140, you remember that the RENT STRIKE was a tool of political activism.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century deals with questions that feel very real and immediate – how should capitalism be regulated? How should wealth be distributed? Who is helped/harmed by globalization?

Capital in the Twenty-First Century is based on data, and written so that trends can be compared between countries. Piketty points out that some of our economic assumptions are based on “deviant” circumstances that no longer apply. This is important, since economists often seem to argue from opinion, rather than data.

In addition to analyzing reams of data, Piketty occasionally refers to the literature of the times he studies, offering examples of how the distribution of wealth impacts human lives. Two authors he cites are Jane Austen and Honore de Balzac. Jane Austen is familiar territory for me, but Balzac? I borrowed two of his short novels from the library. We started listening to Pere Goriot on a recent car trip.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century is not Piketty’s last word. He published another book in 2015 and two more in 2016. He makes use of other forums, like TED.com.

My goal is to read the introduction (39 pages) and the eight page conclusion. Then I’ll decide about making a serious assault on the whole volume…