The Black Sheep (Penguin Classics), by Honoré de Balzac, Penguin 1970(1842), 339pp.
From the long solitary childhood summers at my grandparents' house in Nantucket, I remember three books that stood out as unpromising at first, but which I finally tried out of sheer boredom. I don't think that kind of boredom is possible for kids today, with computers at their constant call. The books were: The Pickwick Papers (surely a tedious family saga -- but no! the funniest thing Dickens wrote); Beyond the Wall of Sleep (At first I though it was a worthy psychological tome -- but ichor and idiot gods lay within! How did my grandparents come by this book? I am sure they never read it. But it introduced me to Lovecraft. What a pity I threw away the dustcover on this first edition, broke the spine and rumpled the pages, as I also did to their first edition Hobbit as well); and finally Droll Stories by Balzac. I used to look at this on the shelf and think, maybe they mean Doll Stories -- that would really suck. But then I looked up "Droll". Also, I saw the naughty line drawings by Boris Artzybasheff.
So I remembered Balzac when it came to be my turn for book club, and I was in the mood for a classic again, and saw that Black Sheep was #12 on the Observer's List of 100 best novels of all time. I don't know how it came in above Madame Bovary. The incidental characters in Black Sheep are just paper decorations. The book is about two sons, Philippe and Joseph Bridau. Philippe, once high up and Napoleon's army, but brought low now that Napoleon is gone, is the true black sheep, even though his mother loves him better than Joseph, the odd-looking but sincere artist (meant to be Balzac himself?). Philippe's badness is unrelieved, and makes the first half of the book, set in Paris, a bit dull. It gets more interesting when the scene shifts to Issoudun, where the family tries to pry a legacy away from a relative.
Interestingly, the French title of the book is about Flore the "fisherwoman", the young lady who, together with her boyfriend Max, is scheming for the same legacy. Max is Grand Master of the Order of Idleness, a group that gets up to some odd and nasty tricks. The one spot of Dumas-like excitement comes when Max and Philippe have a duel.
Archie informed our book club that Balzac stories usually have more sex than this. I was interested to note that Balzac considered the beauty of the women of Trastevere, and of England, as proverbial.
I liked the asides on cooking, such as whether an omelette should have the egg whites beaten separately, and be cooked in a cagnard. And: "Flore had a natural gift for frying and roasting, two skills which cannot be acquired, either by observation or hard work." The gâteau d'Issoudun is "one of the greatest creations of French confectionery", but I can find no example of it on the web. Perhaps the nuns' secret has been lost. Now there's a human tragedy.