Tag Archives: Thomas Piketty

Flaubert, Nabokov and Thomas Picketty– how did I get into such distinguished company??

I feel like I’m writing one of those essays for a college application. “If you could invite three authors to dinner…”

Let’s narrow this down to one book each:

  • Flaubert’s Madame Bovary
  • Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature (p. 125 to p. 178 on Flaubert)
  • Picketty’s Capital in the 21st Century

I decided to (re)read Madame Bovary because it was chosen for seminar discussion by my husband’s college alumni group. Also, we needed a long audiobook for the round trip drive to North Carolina.

Madame Bovary shows up on most lists of all time “great novels”. It’s regarded as a turning point in the development of the novel as a genre (Wikipedia). Flaubert wrote it in French in 1857. Professor and literary critic Nabokov, as fluent in French as in English (Russian was his cradle tongue), considers the translation he used while teaching at Wellesley and Cornell to be seriously flawed.

So what did I gain by reading Madame Bovary? It is so descriptive! Like watching a movie, or maybe a soap opera. It was originally released serially. The plot, set in rural France, is simple. Country doctor Charles Bovary marries Emma, the daughter of a patient. She yearns for a more exciting, romantic life. This starts with day dreams, moves on to a passionate but platonic friendship with a young clerk and then enters the realm of adultery with a rake from the local gentry. When that ends, she encounters the clerk again, and they begin a passionate affair. Emma begins borrowing money to support her lifestyle, and brings herself and her husband to financial ruin. Overwhelmed, she poisons herself with arsenic and dies in agony. Charles dies of grief, and their penniless daughter is sent to work in a factory.

Nabokov (1899 – 1977) wrote several novels, but his book Lectures on Literature (as well as Lectures on Russian Literature and Lectures on Don Quixote) is a compilation from classes he delivered at Cornell University. As such, it is not, perhaps, as polished as his novels. He analyzes Madame Bovary in therms of “structures…, thematic lines, style, poetry, and characters”. Nabokov asserts that only style and art matter in books.

One contemporary author who references Flaubert is Thomas Picketty, author of Capital in the Twenty-First Century, published in 2014 and one of those books many people argue about but few read. (I plead guilty, but my spouse worked his way through it. We discussed it extensively.) Picketty is a French academic political economist. He specializes in the study of “economic inequality, taking a historic and statistical approach” (Wikipedia). He cites literature to illustrate the impacts of income inequality, and mentions Flaubert and also Balzac.

Here’s my blog post on Thomas Picketty

Picketty makes clear the human and social costs of extreme income inequality. I think he refrains from suggesting alternatives, but he has become controversial because some readers interpret Capital as a call to revolution, or at least major reform.

Nabokov would probably disapprove of Flaubert’s name being brought into a discussion of economics. He makes it clear that “bourgeois” refers to low taste and character, not low (or middling) economic status.

If you read a novel covered in Nabokov’s lectures, I certainly recommend that you read Nabokov alongside it. You may not understand or agree with everything he says, but he will give you a great deal to ponder.

Keep an eye on Picketty. I expect he will continue to stir interest and controversy.



“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…

“New York 2140” by Kim Stanley Robinson

You have to admire an author who stands an academic/cultural trope on its head. We’ve all heard of The Tragedy of the Commons, right? Heavy. Very heavy. Robinson brings us…the COMEDY of the Commons! I love it. Among other fancies, he produces a new Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn duo, Stefan and Roberto, a pair of “water rats” who live by luck and their wits in a stolen Zodiac in the drowned city of Lower Manhattan.

This book reminds me of The Martian by Andy Weir. In The Martian, one man fights a planet for survival. In New York 2140 Robinson creates a crowd of lovable eccentrics and follows their struggles on the hard-to-recognize landscape of New York after sea level rise.

Robinson treats himself to a “chorus”, the presence of a non-participant (identified as “citizen” or “the city smartass”) who comments on the setting (the New York bight) and sometimes addresses the reader, as in the following rant:

“Because life is robust,

Because life is bigger than equations, stronger than money, stronger than guns and poison and bad zoning policy, stronger than capitalism,

Because Mother Nature bats last, and Mother Ocean is strong, and we live inside our mothers forever, and Life is tenacious and you can never kill it, you can never buy it,

So Life is going to dive down into your dark pools, Life is going to explode the enclosures and bring back the commons,

O you dark pools of money and law and quanitudinal(sic) stupidity, you over simple algorithms of greed, you desperate simpletons hoping for a story you can understand,

Hoping for safety, hoping for cessation of uncertainty, hoping for ownership of volatility, O you poor fearful jerks,

Life! Life! Life! Life is going to kick your ass!”

Robinson is channeling Walt Whitman here. (Whether I believe this or not is a question for another day.)

The basic scenario of New York 2140 is that sea level rise, happening in two “pulses” rather than slowly, has transpired and a great deal of land has been abandoned. But New York City is just too valuable, so it evolves into three zones – dry land in northern Manhattan, an “intertidal” zone and a marginally occupied, heavily damaged Lower Manhattan. The book takes place in the intertidal zone, which is starting to “gentrify”.

Robinson quotes a number of sources throughout the book, mostly at chapter headings. Robert Moses, for example, who ruthlessly imposed his vision on the New York infrastructure. Additionally, H L Mencken, Henry David Thoreau and Herman Melville, and assorted scientists and commentators. Some are worth checking out.

Robinson makes a “character” out of an existing building, the Met Life Tower on Madison Avenue. It is portrayed as having “personality”. In 2140, it is occupied by a housing cooperative. New York is very crowded, so successful professionals pay dearly for even a tiny bit of space, like a bunk in a dormitory.

Characters in New York 2140 make occasional reference to Thomas Piketty, whose book Capital in the 21st Century has been attracting attention recently. Piketty is a French academic who has studied the history of the distribution of wealth. Both Piketty and K S Robinson are asking how capitalism can be structured to benefit the citizens of a democratic nation. Believe it or not, there’s a copy of Piketty’s book in my livingroom. I plan to read at least some of it. Stay tuned!

I dashed excitedly through New York 2140 in a few days, and I’ve written this without consulting reviews. After I do that, I may learn that, one way or another, I’ve entirely missed the point.