The latest addition to my website is Maria Gabriela Llansol‘s Geografia de Rebeldes (Geography of Rebels trilogy). This is Llansol’s first work published in English. The first two books focus on Ana del Mercado y Peñalosa, a historical person and friend of St John of the Cross. Ana interacts with St John but also with other important characters, from European intellectual history, including, in particular, Thomas Müntzer. Her interaction is spiritual, not least as she was not a contemporary or many of these peoples. Through the use of imagery and the voices of the characters, she conveys the importance of these people in European intellectual life and history, while also conveying the role of community of women, the role of nature and a radical view of religion. It is a beautiful book, generally eschewing plot and other features of a conventional novel, which may make it challenging but very much worthwhile.
This blog and the associated website are called The Modern Novel for a good reason, namely because they are about the modern novel. Since the website has been going, I have read very few non-fiction works and, inevitably, none of them has figured on my website. However, like every other intelligent reader in the Western world, I have been following the coverage of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Given that the issues he raised in his book seemed to overlap with many of my concerns but that, obviously, he was able to express them with far more intellectual rigour and, in particular, depth of economic knowledge and analysis than I could ever hope to do, I felt that it was time to read the book and mention it here. While I do enjoy reading fiction and probably spend far too much time doing so, fiction is not my only concern. I have strongly felt political views and am very much concerned with what is happening in the world today, particularly the huge disparity in wealth and income between the very rich and the rest of us, the tax avoidance manoeuvres of the very rich (both individuals and companies), the rise in food prices which is particularly hurting the poorer people in the developing world and the exploitation of workers that I am seeing in the UK (which may well be happening elsewhere) such as zero hour contracts. Piketty is keen to point out that he does not have a political agenda (though he does – see below), saying that he he reached the age of eighteen at around the time the Soviet Union broke up and therefore has no love for Communism. (I neither follow that argument nor accept his view on Communism – see below).
Piketty says The communist revolution did indeed take place, but in the most backward country in Europe, Russia, where the Industrial Revolution had scarcely begun, whereas the most advanced European countries explored other, social democratic avenues—fortunately for their citizens. This clearly shows that Piketty does have a political agenda – the standard anti-communist one. Firstly, of course, communism did not happen in Russia (or China, Cuba, North Korea, Vietnam, etc.). The fact they called it communism does not make it communist, just as the fact that the British Labour Party calling itself socialist makes it socialist. What happened in Russia (and China, Cuba, North Korea, Vietnam, etc.) was totalitarianism, using a state capitalist model, not a communist model. Except perhaps in a very few isolated cases and, maybe, though we do not know, in prehistoric times, communism has never existed anywhere, even slightly, on this planet. The fact that Piketty naively thinks it did exist and existed in Russia shows a political naivety? ignorance? which risks colouring our views of his views. Fortunately, much of his book is based on impartial economic analysis and it is that that is its strength, why it has had its success and why, for the most part, I enjoyed and learned a lot from the book. BTW, I am not now and never have been a communist, as I enjoy the fruits of capitalism too much, even if Senator Joe McCarthy would not have liked my political views.
I am not going to nor am I am competent to summarise all of Piketty’s ideas. Though the book is aimed at the intelligent layman, which, I hope, includes me, it does have economic ideas and statistical tables and discussions which I hope that I more or less grasped but which I am not sure that I am competent to accurately summarise. Having said that, I shall outline some of the main ones, by which I mean the ones that I found most interesting. I have always found it surprising that successive politicians and business people have pushed for ever increasing rates of growth. Surely, I have thought, this is not sustainable. Yet politicians trumpet how they have brought about an era of prosperity by having growth rates of 3-4%. Those of us who were around at the time of the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth and Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful (you can read a pdf of the whole book here), both of which I avidly read, have sometimes wondered why their ideas seem to have taken a back seat. Well, it seems that they might have been right all along. Many people think that growth ought to be at least 3 or 4 percent per year. As noted, both history and logic show this to be illusory, says Piketty, not because of his political views but because, historically, growth has been zero or close to it. 3-4% growth is neither normal nor sustainable. He goes on to say This level of growth [1.2%] cannot be achieved, however, unless new sources of energy are developed to replace hydrocarbons, which are rapidly being depleted. And justifies it.
When Margaret Thatcher came to power in the UK and Ronald Reagan in the US, they led a conservative revolution – I would call it a brutal conservative revolution because I do not have to be objective. Labour issues such as the air traffic controllers in the US and the miners in the UK typified their approach, with their fierce and unrelenting attack on the unions. When growth rates in both countries rose, they and their supporters claimed it was because of their policies. Not so says Piketty. In fact, neither the economic liberalization that began around 1980 nor the state interventionism that began in 1945 deserves such praise or blame. The UK and US would have caught up with the other industrial democracies whatever happened, he says, as it was all part of the economic cycle.
The most interesting approach is the one that shows that in the Western industrial countries, wealth had almost disappeared by the middle of the last century, as upheavals, particularly World War II, had wiped it out. At the national level, the capital/income ratio (capital stock divided by national income) had fallen by almost two thirds by 1945. What this means is that for the first part of the last century, wealth levels were high, owned, of course, by the rich, but the Depression and world wars severely cut them back. However, by now they are back at the same levels or even higher. You may be better off than your parents were but, unless you are on this list – and I am guessing that they don’t read this blog – you are many, many times less well off than these people. It had been thought, particularly by Simon Kuznets and his curve that we had been heading for a period of greater income equalty. Not a bit of it. Broadly speaking, it was the wars of the twentieth century that wiped away the past to create the illusion that capitalism had been structurally transformed. Capitalism has not changed. The rich are getting richer and, as Piketty says, this is a problem. Kuznets had been thought to have resolved this problem, with his very detailed analysis and study of the figures but as Pliketty now points out, he did not. Not even vaguely. Which mean that they – the economists, the conservatives, the Conservatives, him, him and him – not only got it wrong but are faced with a problem they are unwilling and unable to deal with.
But now the rich are very rich. Wealth is still extremely concentrated today: the upper decile own 60 percent of Europe’s wealth and more than 70 percent in the United States. And the poorer half of the population are as poor today as they were in the past, with barely 5 percent of total wealth in 2010, just as in 1910. Basically, all the middle class managed to get its hands on was a few crumbs: scarcely more than a third of Europe’s wealth and barely a quarter in the United States. This middle group has four times as many members as the top decile yet only one-half to one-third as much wealth. It is tempting to conclude that nothing has really changed: inequalities in the ownership of capital are still extreme. He qualifies this by saying that the few crumbs we (i.e. the not very rich middle class) got are not insignificant. However, the very rich may be even richer than we thought as, as we know, a lot of them are hiding their assets offshore and not paying all their taxes. And they are getting richer. The top thousandth enjoy a 6 percent rate of return on their wealth, while average global wealth grows at only 2 percent a year.
The big change he sees is To a large extent, we have gone from a society of rentiers to a society of managers, that is, from a society in which the top centile is dominated by rentiers (people who own enough capital to live on the annual income from their wealth) to a society in which the top of the income hierarchy, including the upper centile, consists mainly of highly paid individuals who live on income from labour. Their salaries have grown enormously – A stunning new phenomenon emerged in France in the 1990s: the very top salaries, and especially the pay packages awarded to the top executives of the largest companies and financial firms, reached astonishing heights — somewhat less astonishing in France, for the time being, than in the United States, but still, it would be wrong to neglect this new development. Interestingly, one of the reasons for this is because tax rates have dropped. In the 1950s-1970s, the UK and US led the way by having income tax rates of 80-90%. As a result, the top earners did not fight for increases, as they would all be eaten up in tax. When the tax rates were dropped, as a result of the conservative revolution and because the UK and US felt that they were not competing with Europe and Japan, the top earners asked for and got more. And this was not a good thing. In my view, there is absolutely no doubt that the increase of inequality in the United States contributed to the nation’s financial instability. Interestingly, the situation is worse (or better if you are super-rich) in the English-speaking countries. The upper centile’s share is nearly 20 percent in the United States, compared with 14–15 percent in Britain and Canada.
He has a solution. The ideal policy for avoiding an endless inegalitarian spiral and regaining control over the dynamics of accumulation would be a progressive global tax on capital. Contrary to some views, this would bring in a lot of revenue. The next point is important, and I want to insist on it: given the very high level of private wealth in Europe today, a progressive annual tax on wealth at modest rates could bring in significant revenue. Education would also help. By the same token, if the United States (or France) invested more heavily in high-quality professional training and advanced educational opportunities and allowed broader segments of the population to have access to them, this would surely be the most effective way of increasing wages at the low to medium end of the scale and decreasing the upper decile’s share of both wages and total income. All signs are that the Scandinavian countries, where wage inequality is more moderate than elsewhere, owe this result in large part to the fact that their educational system is relatively egalitarian and inclusive. He is highly critical of the fact that access to higher education is relatively costly in the US and UK. More efforts against tax avoidance are needed and he welcomes the US FATCA and castigates the EU for its feeble attempts in this area.
This is a stunningly simplified account of the points he makes. The book is nearly 700 pages long and full of incredible and fascinating details, tables, statistics, arguments and proposals. It is also a fascinating historical review and a literary one. Literary one? Piketty makes numerous references to books, film and TV (Mad Men!) in his book but the two authors who are referred to most are Jane Austen and Honoré de Balzac, who illustrate very well how the bourgeoisie lived, spent, earned and sought out money. He clearly know his Père Goriot and his Sense and Sensibility.
I do urge you to read this book as it looks likely to be be one of the most important books about our world to appear in recent years and even if, like me, you have no economics training, you should be able to get through most of it. However, it does require close study so do not think that you will read it one evening after work. It has taken me five days, reading it, thinking about it, discussing it with my family, checking some of his facts, but five days I consider very well spent and I feel much more knowledgeable than I did before reading it. Indeed, I expect that I will probably reread it in a year or so. I think that I may leave non-fiction for a while though, I must say, I am tempted by The Vagenda. Obviously, because financial and economics statistics generally do not differentiate by sex, Piketty does not discuss gender issues. However, I expect that most of the very rich are men and most of those that have suffered and continue to suffer because the rich have taken all the resources are women. Maybe someone could write a book on that.
If you know anything about French politics, you will know that the title of this post – DSK – stands for Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a man who famously had two of the top jobs within his grasp as well as a very rich wife and managed to lose all three for, allegedly, a bit of sexual titillation. I say allegedly because the case against him collapsed because of the unreliability of the maid he allegedly assaulted, so he was not convicted. However, since that event, other women have come forward, claiming to have been sexually assaulted by him and he is currently facing prosecution for pimping, a charge he denies. Whether any or all the allegations are true, what is certain is that he lost his job as Managing Director of the IMF, that he had to abandon his candidacy for the French presidency (though that could be revived) and he and his wife divorced. What has this got to do with literature? According to Le Figaro, there are now 58 books about him. Some of these include novels – I have read one of these, though written by a Spanish, not a French writer. I had been quite reluctant to read the book but I thought it was brilliant; it should be translated into English but probably won’t be.
There are several other novels about DSK, written by French writers and, as far as I can tell, none has been translated into English. Currently the most famous is Régis Jauffret (link is to English Wikipedia site which does not have the DSK on it). His book, La ballade de Rikers Island is about DSK and DSK is suing him for this. Jauffret has form in this area. His book Sévère was about the banker Edouard Stern and his murder. His family tried to have the book banned but later withdrew their demands (details here – French only). His book Claustria, on the Fritzl case was also controversial. Another writer who has faced the wrath of DSK is Marcela Iacub, an Argentina-born French writer. She wrote a book about an affair she had with a famous person, wittily called La Bella et la Bête [Beauty and the Beast]. His name was not mentioned but, later, in an interview she said that the man was DSK. She also said that he was half-pig, half-man. DSK sued, and her publisher and the Nouvel Observateur, which had published an extract, were fined and the publisher had to insert a leaflet in each copy of the book outlining DSK’s position. Iacub’s stance was not helped by the fact that, earlier, she had written articles in favour of DSK, without mentioning that they were having an affair. Stéphane Zagdanski’s Chaos brûlant [Burning Chaos] recounts the reactions of the DSK affair to the patients at the Manhattan Psychiatric Center, while Marc Weitzmann’s Une matière inflammable [An Inflammable Affair] tells the story of a young man who works for a highly successful couple who are clearly based on DSK and Anne Sinclair. Doubtless there will be others, though Michel Taubmann’s Le Roman vrai de DSK [The True Novel of DSK] is, in fact, non-fiction.
France has had plenty of cases of writers, particularly autofiction writers, writing about real people and getting into trouble for it. Christine Angot wrote about her ex-lover. His previous partner recognised herself in Angot’s books and sued. Raphaël Duroy was a bit annoyed to find, in a book by his father, Lionel Duroy, an actual email he had sent to his father. He sued the publisher. Christine Fizscher’s novel La Dernière Femme de sa vie [The Last Woman of His Life]. Dan Franck’s novel La Séparation was about his separation from his wife, Elisabeth. The result was that she asked for a divorce. Anasthasie Tudieshe, however, sued her ex Nicolas Fargues for the portrait of her in his J’étais derrière toi [I Was Behind You] but lost. However when Catherine Breillat wrote of Christophe Rocancourt that he scratched his balls on the sofa, he won 1 Euro damages. There have been many more, with the rise in autofiction, some of which have ended up in court and some have just ended in tears. Which is one reason why, on the whole, I do not like autofiction but prefer a novel made up entirely from the imagination. However, the DSK story is larger than life – after all even lovers of novelists are unlikely to lose two major world jobs and a very rich wife for a bit of sexual titillation, so I have read one DSK novel and may well try one or two others.
I have just uploaded a list of Wende novels (i.e. novels about the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification in 1989-1990). If you look at the lists of books I have created, you will see quite a few are novels with political/historical backgrounds. Clearly the Wende, as I shall now call it, was the most important event in German history since World War II and it is not surprising that it has preoccupied German writers, particularly those from the former East Germany. It does not, however, seem to have preoccupied writers from other countries, as D G Myers points out in his blog, at least as regards the USA (and I think that few other countries have bothered much with it in their literature). Interestingly enough, the events of 11 September 2001 have preoccupied both US novelists and those of other countries though it would seem to me that die Wende was more important politically than 9/11. C Max Magee, of the Millions blog stated I would argue that nearly every serious novel written since 9/11 is a “9/11 novel”, presumably either meaning every US novel or being just supremely arrogant about the importance of the event to the world. If 9/11 is assessed purely in terms of number of deaths, it pales with other events in recent US history. To give just one example, far more Palestinians have died (at US taxpayer expense) than were killed in 9/11. I could also mention the Korean War (which produced several novels) and the Vietnam War (which produced lots more novels), not to mention US support of dictators from Mobutu to Pinochet, from the Shah of Iran to Trujillo, few of which produced any US novels of significance, the Vietnam war excepted. However, the point of this post is not to indicate the relative importance of historical events in terms of death or destruction but how a political event influenced novelists
World War I is probably the event of the past 100+ years that most influenced novelists and poets and, of course, produced many first-class novels, from all the major participant countries. These novels were not just about the conflict itself – though many dealt with the grizzly business of fighting – but also about the social and political consequences of the War, with novels such as Parade’s End, Die Schlafwandler (The Sleepwalkers), The Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight and Доктор Живаго (Doctor Zhivago). World War I gave us the Russian Revolution, the end of the Ottoman Empire, the beginning of the end of the British Empire and the end of the beginning of the rise of the US Empire, the conversion of countries such as the UK from being primarily rural to being primarily urban, the creation of several new countries and, as many novelists have indicated, a loss of innocence, which may be more imagined than real but was still potent for these novelists. In Britain, at least, it indirectly led to Irish independence, the rise of the Labour Party and women’s suffrage.
I have always thought that politically and historically World War I was more important than World War II, though I am well aware that World War II led to the creation of the Soviet Empire and other huge consequences. However, purely from the literary point of view, I do feel that WWI produced better novels than WWII. I have started a list of WWII novels but it is a long way from completion and I do not know when or even if I shall complete it. There are many other lists out there, such as World War II in Fiction. See my Historical fiction – specific periods for more (towards the bottom of the page). As the picture on the left, a bit above, shows, I consider The Underground City to be one of the best WWII novels, better than, say, The Naked and the Dead or From Here to Eternity. However, there are several other fine WWII novels, such as Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum), Catch-22 and several Japanese novels such as 野火 (Fires on the Plain).
A quick look at my My Lists page will show that I have something of a mild obsession with civil wars. This is certainly the case. I have traipsed over many civil war battlefields in the USA and read numerous books on the subject, fiction though mainly non-fiction, as well as studying in some detail the civil wars in Mexico, Spain, Ireland and Russia. If you twisted my arm I would say that The Fathers is my favourite American Civil War novel and I think that Mazurca para dos muertos (Mazurka for Two Dead Men) is a wonderful novel of the Spanish Civil War that deserves to be better-known. Not only is there an English translation but it is amazingly in print in the US and readily available second-hand in the UK. The fascinating thing about civil wars and the literature associated with them is that they are still being fought and written about. Any foreigner who thinks that the American or Spanish or Mexican or Irish civil wars are over is sorely mistaken. All of these civil wars still produce a stream of novels. Indeed, despite the fact the Spanish Civil War ended seventy-four years ago and, therefore, most of the participants are either dead or nearly so, it almost seems that, as a Spanish novelist, at least one civil war novel is obligatory.
A friend commented on my list of Thatcher novels, knowing that my views were not exactly pro-Thatcher. Many of these novels are anti-Thatcher, as she clearly attracted a visceral hatred. The picture at left shows the cover of What a Carve Up! (US: The Winshaw Legacy). The UK title comes from the title of a film mentioned in the book (as does the photo on the cover), which, of course, is a play on words, as the book is about the Thatcherite carve-up of the UK. US audiences, for some odd reason, are clearly not considered able to make this link and given an anodyne and meaningless title. This book and the brilliant Running Wild show that a novel can take a strong political view and still be a first-class book.
I don’t think that there is any doubt that the political movel will be here for sometime and, while some may infuriate us either because they are so badly written or simply do not reflect my (or your) political point of view, clearly many of the great novels of the past are political. Events like the Wende or our next favourite civil war will produce more interesting novels. I am already looking forward to the great Euro crash novel. Probably in Spanish.
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