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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Black Sheep

Honoré de Balzac

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To purchase The Black Sheep

Title: The Black Sheep
Author: Honoré de Balzac
Genre: Novel
Written: 1842 (Eng. 1970)
Length: 339 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Black Sheep - US
The Black Sheep - UK
The Black Sheep - Canada
La Rabouilleuse - Canada
The Black Sheep - India
La Rabouilleuse - France
  • French title: La Rabouilleuse
  • Translated by Donald Adamson
  • Previously translated as The Two Brothers by Katharine Prescott Wormeley (1887), La Rabouilleuse by George Burnham Ives (1897), and A Bachelor's Establishment by Clara Bell (1898)

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Our Assessment:

B+ : a bit fast and loose, but ultimately satisfyingly substantial

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       La Rabouilleuse has been translated into English under a number of titles: The Two Brothers and A Bachelor's Establishment (taken respectively from Balzac's headings for the first and second of this three-part novel), and, in the Penguin Classic edition under review here, The Black Sheep. None of the titles -- nor actually the French original (which yet another of the English translations also kept as the title) -- can quite capture the sprawling story; indeed, in their efforts at a sort of pinpointing they miss, or at least mislead about the much bigger story. So, for example, 'the Fisherwoman' of that original title (so the translation of 'rabouilleuse' here) only appears well into the book, properly introduced only in the second of the novel's three parts, while the brother who is best described as the black sheep disappears from view for an extended part of the novel.
       The story of The Black Sheep begins with Dr.Rouget, in the city of Issoudun. He has a son, Jean-Jacques, and then a daughter, Agathe. Convinced Agathe isn't his off-spring, he has her raised by others, and has practically nothing to with her. He dotes only on Jean-Jacques -- but keeps the boy and then the man very much under his thumb. Much later, the old doctor takes in the waifish, beautiful young girl, Flore Brazier -- whose 'Fisherwoman' nickname remains her popular designation. Jean-Jacques, enjoying all the attention and then the wealth of his father, never makes much of himself, and lives a life of simple luxury and comfort after he inherits -- but the bachelor also loves still young Flore, and keeps her in the household after his father's death.
       Over the years until then, Agathe has a much harder time of it in Paris. Losing her husband, she struggles to raise her two boys on her limited funds. There's Joseph, the would-be painter and artist, and there's Philippe, the apple of her eye -- and the bad seed. Made for the military life he enjoys brief success, as his father had, under Napoleon, but with the change of regime refuses to serve under the Bourbons. He is, and remains: "coarse, rowdy, and actually without any merit other than the vulgar bravado of a dashing cavalry officer", but Agathe remains blind to his faults for a long time.
       Among Philippe's adventures is even a costly expedition to Texas -- the failed Champ d'Asile -- but he's back soon enough. Typically for this wide-ranging novel, Balzac treats the expedition as barely more than a brief tangent, hardly having anything to say about it (even as it surely offers material for novels of equal length). Philippe loses money, steals money -- even from his family -- and gambles away money, without the least qualms. The effect on Agathe and her longtime companion Madame Descoings is devastating, and it's only when his mother is pretty much truly down and out that Philippe is more or less out of their lives. And at least Joseph earns a bit of money as he hones his craft, and is -- perhaps a bit over-optimistically -- certain of a brighter future.
       The first part of the novel focuses on widowed Agathe's life and her concerns about her sons, but the focus shifts when she is alerted to the fact that a little hussy seems to be winning over her brother and looks set to cheat her out of an inheritance which would be her due. So the scene shifts from Paris to Issoudun, as Agathe returns there with Joseph to see what exactly is going on, and what they can do.
       Jean-Jacques is indeed completely under the spell of the bewitching Fisherwoman Flore -- but she has meanwhile also managed to install the love of her life, another no-good rascal named Maxence Gilet, in the household. Max leads a local group who call themselves the Knights of Idleness, and Balzac has good fun describing the nasty tricks they play on the locals. Together, Flore and Max see wonderful opportunities for fleecing Jean-Jacques out of much or all of his sizeable fortune.
       There's a bit of back and forth like in a game of chess as the different parties try to outmaneuver one another, but of course it's no surprise that Agathe and Joseph fall back on the big guns in the end, calling in the one person who is Max's equal in devious, amoral scheming. The build-up to the showdown is marvelously entertaining, as Balzac revels in his anti-heroes' revels. The outcome comes as little surprise -- including Agathe and Joseph's questionable wisdom in relying on Philippe, the son and brother who has always thought only of himself and his own advantage, to set things right ... -- but Balzac ties everything up quite satisfyingly in the end.
       The Black Sheep is crammed with lives and events, and often Balzac rushes to explain years of life and (mis)fortunes in the smallest spaces. Many characters disappear from view, are shoved into the background, or meet success and failure off-stage. Yet elsewhere he goes into minute detail. The money-matters -- especially Agathe and Madame Descoings' juggling of their affairs after each setback -- are precisely accounted, as Balzac likes to put a figure to every annuity, half-pay, commission for painting a copy of a picture, or lottery costs (and potential winnings). What he also enjoys is describing in detail the nasty betrayals and cruel more-than-pranks that characters such as Philippe and Max get up to. Inventive and often almost unbearably cruel, Balzac presents the misdeeds of these immoral hearts particularly well.
       Modern conventions suggest The Black Sheep is almost unacceptably messy -- in how the story shifts, and how characters in turn move to the fore and are cast aside. The focus seems to get lost occasionally, Balzac getting caught up in what seems incidental minutiae. Yet much of the detail-work is especially inspired, from Philippe's thefts to everything the Knights of Idleness get up to. It is very much a piece of the Comédie humaine -- various smaller pieces that are part of a bigger picture, which itself is then part of the much bigger picture Balzac is creating with his multi-volume series.
       It's a different kind of reading experience than what readers find in contemporary fiction, but The Black Sheep is ultimately an impressive and enjoyable work -- shocking and funny.

- M.A.Orthofer, 17 March 2015

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The Black Sheep: Reviews: Honoré de Balzac: Other books by Honoré de Balzac under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       The great French author Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) is best known for his multi-volume 'Human Comedy'.

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