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The Black Sheep by Honoré de Balzac
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This is quite the tale of greed, selfishness, gambling, thievery, corruption, plot and counterplot -- and art. Balzac tells the story of a good and a bad brother (said to be based somewhat on his brother and himself, although there is no way his brother could have been as evil as Philippe), their widowed mother Agathe, and various relatives and hangers-on, including his mother's brother who has received the entire inheritance of their father because he erroneously believed that Agathe was not his child.

The story starts in Paris: after their father's death, Joseph (the good brother) and Philippe received educations because their father, a high-level clerk, had been a big supporter of Napoleon. Philippe served brilliantly in the army under Napoleon, but refused to serve under the Bourbons after Napoleon's defeat, and is at loose ends, not able to hold down a job because of his drinking, womanizing, general carousing, and gambling. Joseph, on the other hand, is becoming an artist, having first become entranced by the art students at a local school. Agathe loves Philippe the most, because of his glorious military career and because he is handsome; she doesn't understand the world of art that so attracts Joseph and finds him unattractive (he is described as being ugly). Soon, Philippe runs out of money and so steals from his mother and brother, neither of whom have very much to begin with, and from their aunt who basically lives with the family. As the first part ends, the aunt has died from the shock of the theft and Agathe has for once turned against Philippe; Philippe is basically homeless and in the gutter when he is arrested as a participant in a plot against the king.

The scene shifts in the second part, as Agathe and Joseph travel to the provinces where the uncle with the money lives. Staying with Agathe's godmother, who lives in the house next door, they learn that the uncle, Jean-Jacques, has come under the influence of his housekeeper-mistress, Flore, who rules the household with an iron hand, even to the point of allowing her lover, Max, to live with them. Of course, they are trying to fleece him of his money. Max is the head of a secret group of young men, called the Knights of Idleness, that wreaks havoc in the town of Issoudun through their nightly "pranks"; like Philippe, he is a former army officer from the Napoleonic era and, also like Philippe, he is a man who is only out for himself. Agathe and Joseph prove to be no match for Max and Flore, and return to Paris without the inheritance and after some horrifying episodes. In the last part, Philippe is paroled to Issoudun, where needless to say he worms his way into the Jean-Jacques household, setting off an inevitable clash between the two evil geniuses of this novel (or three, including Flore). I will not reveal the end result, so as to avoid spoilers, but I will say that as a reader I had to suspend disbelief about the change in Philippe from a weak man at the mercy of his vices to a disciplined plotter. But thoroughly no good throughout!

This was an all-around fun read, although it dragged in a few places (for example, the detailed description of the history and geography of Issoudun). Balzac created some truly evil characters and let them try to outwit each other, with much opportunity for treachery and dastardly deeds. And some of the other characters, like a lawyer friend of Joseph's and the miserly husband of Agathe's godmother, are also well drawn. Along the way, the book provides insight into the politics and economics of post-Napoleonic France, the pitiless attitude towards poor people, the struggle of artists, the role of lawyers, the mutual disdain of Parisians and people living in the provinces, and the everyone-knows-everything atmosphere of small towns. I first heard about this novel here on LT, and I'm glad I read it.

ETA My edition could really have benefited from end notes, as I was driven to Wikipedia frequently to look up historical and literary references; Penguin editions often have them, but this one didn't.
5 vote rebeccanyc | Apr 20, 2014 |
[The Black Sheep] tells the story of two brothers living in Paris at the beginning of the 19th century, at the end of the Napoleonic wars. One, Joseph, is a gifted painter of good heart and upright character. The other, Phillipe, is a one-time soldier and all-around scoundrel. It is Phillipe who is the mother Agathe’s favourite, however, despite his drinking and gambling habits dragging his family into ruin. Phillipe’s depredations are the subject of the first part of the book; in the second part Joseph and his mother leave Paris for the small town of Issoudun in an attempt to claim the inheritance that rightfully belongs to Agathe, but which her brother is in danger of leaving to his housekeeper-mistress Flore and her lover Max, another thoroughly rotten character. Joseph and Agathe prove too naïve and straightforward to contend with the machinations of Flore and Max, but when Phillipe appears, Max may have finally met his match…

Treachery and double-crossing abound in this novel, and there is an exciting duel at the end as well. Villainy ultimately meets with vengeance, but virtue is by no means always rewarded. Balzac is not entirely cynical but he does paint a cruel picture of a world dominated by greed and social schemers.

This is the first book I’ve ever read by Balzac. I enjoyed it although it was a tiny bit heavy-going at times and felt very much like a period novel. According to the introduction, Balzac considered himself at least as much a historian as a novelist, and though the action moves along rapidly the author provides exhaustive details about battles and Bourbons, geography of the provinces, and, most of all, financial arrangements from the Parisian lottery to the fine points of inheritance law. Expect to see an awful lot of calculations in francs. This will appeal most to readers interested in the historical setting of post-Napoleonic France. ( )
  Erratic_Charmer | Feb 13, 2014 |
Although full of action and entertaining, "The Black Sheep" is something more. This is a story of two brothers and a mother, very similar to my own family situation, and apparently like Balzac's home life as well - speaking from personal experience, the novel has a good deal of verisimilitude: the competition for the affection of the mother, the changing fortunes of the brothers - one plodding slowly along, the other a bright but erratic star - the physical prowess and weakness of each - these are not just fictional devices. Balzac speaks broadly to the reality of life, all the while set in the delightful atmosphere of early 19th century France, it really is a treat. ( )
  Stbalbach | Jul 9, 2007 |
Rip-roaring and full of sex. Fab. ( )
  stephenmurphy | Feb 20, 2007 |
Please shoot me rather than make me read de Balzac again. It seemed like it could have been decent if it just weren't so mind-numbingly boring. ( )
  eslee | Apr 14, 2006 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Balzac, Honoré deprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Adamson, DonaldIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Adamson, DonaldTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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In the year 1792 the townsfolk of Issoudun were fortunate enough to have a doctor of the name of Rouget, who had the reputation of being an extremely wily man.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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A fantastic novel by French novelist and playwright Honore de Balzac.

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