Tag Archives: Honore de Balzac

Those French!

Is it any wonder that not one but two words in English for a social climber—arriviste and parvenu—come from the French? Our language is peppered with borrowed terms that provide nuanced derision in respect to class and wealth: nouveau riche, bourgeois, and gauche are but a few.

I can see why the French economist Thomas Picketty, who has made his name with a study of wealth inequality, was fascinated with Honoré de Balzac’s novel Père Goriot. It’s as if Balzac’s characters epitomize many of these class-based pejoratives.

Balzac by Rodin Photo Credit: Musée Rodin

Balzac by Rodin
Photo Credit: Musée Rodin

Balzac was one of the great fathers of the realistic novel. In The Human Comedy, a series of eighteen novels in which characters appear and reappear, he depicts the complexities of French society between Napoleon’s reign and the Revolution of 1848. As Dickens dramatized life in the sooty, foggy, wretched, have-and-have-not world of Victorian London, so Balzac documented the pompous, greedy, stratified and amoral society of Paris during the Bourbon Restoration. The French Revolution may have toppled the ancien régime, but deference to status and wealth never disappeared.

In Cousin Bette, my favorite of his novels, Balzac targets the power struggle between the sexes. Men may wield power through the laws and purse strings, but clever women survive by charming and manipulating them—husbands and lovers alike. As Balzac sees it, men are vain, foolish and lustful, making them easy marks of feminine guile.

In Père Goriot, Balzac’s focus is on love and money. Old Goriot, a widowed vermicelli merchant now living in a seedy boarding house, has doted on his two daughters all his life. Because of the large dowries Goriot provided them, both are married to noblemen and treat their father with shameful ingratitude.

578367Enter Eugène Rastignac, a law student from a “good” but impoverished family, who arrives in Paris to make his fortune. Settling into the same boarding house, he befriends old Goriot. Eugène’s one distant relation in the capital happens to be a baroness, and he relies on her to make his debut into high society. At a ball hosted by the baroness he meets one of Goriot’s daughters, the Madame de Restaud, and becomes determined to win her heart. When rebuffed (she already has a lover), he takes aim with a vengeance at the other daughter, the Madame de Nucingen.

It’s a cynical and very French interpretation of love that Balzac puts forth. Eugène—so intent on gaining a foothold in society—convinces himself that he loves Madame de Nucingen. And Goriot, in his fondness for Eugène and his antipathy for his sons-in-law, encourages Eugène in his seduction. Goriot hopes Eugène’s attentions will make his daughter happy and enable him to see her more often, or at least hear about her from Eugène.

Meanwhile, one of the more interesting characters in the book, the shady criminal Vautrin who also lives in the boarding house, expounds a truly cynical worldview. Counseling Eugène to marry an heiress (which he is willing to arrange for a fee), Vautrin whispers like the devil in his ear:

There are fifty thousand young men in your position at this moment, all bent as you are on solving one and the same problem—how to acquire a fortune rapidly. You are but a unit in the aggregate. You can guess, therefore, what efforts you must make, how desperate the struggle is. There are not fifty thousand good positions for you; you must fight and devour one another like spiders in a pot. Do you know how a man makes his way here? By brilliant genius or by skillful corruption. You must either cut your way through these masses of men like a cannon ball, or steal among them like a plague. Honesty is nothing to the purpose.

Vautrin nearly persuades the young student: “Vautrin is right, success is virtue!” Eugène says to himself in a moment of financial frustration. But he subsequently convinces himself that with Madame de Nucingen he can find both love and fortune; it’s this naiveté that Balzac gradually chips away through the course of the novel. No one comes away unscathed, except perhaps old Goriot, whose devotion to his daughters in the face of the most heartless cruelty is the least credible aspect of this retelling of King Lear.

Early on, Balzac hints at his theme in a description of the garden of the boarding house where Eugène, Vautrin and old Goriot live:

On the opposite wall, at the further end of the graveled walk, a green marble arch was painted once upon a time by a local artist, and in this semblance of a shrine a statue representing Cupid is installed; a Parisian Cupid, so blistered and disfigured that he looks like a candidate for one of the adjacent hospitals, and might suggest an allegory to lovers of symbolism.

An allegory, indeed. But not just for Parisians. Which may explain why so many of those derisive French words have entered our own language.

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Austen, Balzac and the “dismal science”

I’m about halfway through a light summer read—French economist Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which so far has been thoroughly accessible and engaging.

18736925Piketty’s surprise bestseller, which in 577 heavily footnoted pages analyzes centuries of data, is an important new assessment of economic growth, capital formation, wealth and income distribution. As you might expect from the title’s nod to Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, the book has been praised by liberals and attacked by conservatives, although it seems to me those who have nitpicked Piketty’s data are overlooking the forest for the trees.

As Piketty says numerous times in the book, even if you disagree with the exact percentages, the trends are difficult to refute. Over time, the distribution of wealth has followed a U-shaped curve. From the start of the Industrial Revolution to the eve of World War 1, wealth and income inequality remained at consistently high levels. Then, between 1913 and 1970, due to the century’s political, social and economic cataclysms, both values declined to their lowest levels. But since 1980 they have risen again, according to Piketty to levels approaching those at the end of the 19th century. Whether inequality is good, bad or inconsequential remains to be seen, but I suspect Piketty will spend the second half of the book arguing that it’s bad.

My appreciation of Piketty’s presentation has been enhanced by his use of literature to supplement his research, in particular Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park and Honoré de Balzac’s Père Goriot. There’s something reassuring about an economist who finds anecdotal evidence for his thesis in the humanities.

Jane Austen (1775-1817)

Jane Austen (1775-1817)

The point Piketty makes is that Austen and Balzac demonstrated an acute awareness of money—especially the amounts of wealth and income needed to be a person of means—that readers of the time would not fail to understand implicitly.

“In eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novels, money was everywhere,” Piketty writes, “not only as an abstract force but above all as a palpable, concrete magnitude. Writers frequently described the income and wealth of their characters in francs or pounds, not to overwhelm us with numbers but because these quantities established a character’s social status in the mind of the reader. Everyone knew what standard of living these numbers represented.”

Austen’s protagonists, for instance, fully understood the levels of wealth and kinds of income, whether from rents or investments (certainly not from labor among the upper class), their suitors possessed. Piketty asserts that modern-day writers, after a century of inflation and the consequential loss of our monetary bearings, cannot assume their readers share the same understanding of money. (I remember worrying about this when writing Under a False Flag; the 1972 dollar amounts of CIA covert actions in Chile seemed so paltry, I was afraid they would look ludicrous to the reader.)

Honoré de Balzac

Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850)

Piketty continues: “One could easily multiply examples by drawing on American, German and Italian novels, as well as the literature of all the other countries that experienced this long period of monetary stability. Until World War I, money had meaning, and novelists did not fail to exploit it, explore it, and turn it into a literary subject.”

Money does sometimes play an important role in modern novels, but in a way that probably strengthens Piketty’s argument. Think The Great Gatsby, where Gatsby’s wealth must be shown through the commodities consumed—shirts and cars and house size. And in more contemporary novels, money is often imbued with nebulous, shifting, post-modern meaning. Think JR by William Gaddis or Money by Martin Amis. Money becomes a concept, an illusion, that has little to do with defining social status and everything to do with gaming the system or the reader.

Piketty is not arguing for a return to the gold standard; he is simply making the point, in preparation for other more important points to come, that economic growth before World War 1 was slower, inflation was virtually non-existent, and investment income (the return on capital) grew faster than income from labor, thus enabling wealth and income inequality to remain high. It’s a situation he fears we are returning to, as most economic forecasts for developed nations indicate a slowdown in growth to rates approximating those of earlier centuries.

It’s complicated stuff, and there’s much more to it than I have touched on here. Piketty does a fine job explaining his thesis, building a persuasive argument in clear, logical steps, but perhaps what we need is a new Austen or Balzac to show us what this rise in wealth and income inequality really means to society. Or is one already out there? If you think so, please let me know. Meanwhile, I may go back to the originals with newfound appreciation.

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