The Balzac Problem: A Quick Look at The Black Sheep and A Daughter of Eve

Jane Fonda as Lillian Hellman In "Julia"

Jane Fonda as Lillian Hellman in “Julia” can write anywhere, but this beach house looks nice….  And I think I need a cigarette.

Blogging can be boring. Same-o, same-o. Like a journalist, I can bang out a 700-word post anywhere:  at Starbucks, in a bubble bath, or the wilds of the Wisconsin woods.

I often do.

There was the daily diary. Deleted it. There was Frisbee: A Book Journal (still twirling in cyberspace) and  Mirabile Dictu since the end of 2012.

Does anyone really want to read about my daily reading?

More important, do I want to write about it?

Is blogging performance art?

And where are the new book blogs? I swear, every blogroll features the same blogs.  Are we all in some eerie network? Trapped in cyberspace?  And, if so, how did that happen?

And, as a break from these difficult questions,  I am banging out a “postette” on The Balzac Problem instead of a longish book post.



It was going to be the Year of Balzac.  Actually, I said it might be.  His entertaining novels center on the mesmerizing schemes and unpredictable exploits of misers, courtesans, politicians, journalists, spinsters, coquettes, and con men.  His psychological analyses are penetrating and incisive.

In his 95-volume magnum opus, La Comédie humaine, he manically attempted to portray every type of human being  and chart every niche of society.

I love Balzac. My favorites are Cousin Bette, Lost Illusions, Pere Goriot, Modeste Mignon, and A Harlot High and Low.

But now I’m leaving behind the Penguin classics and have reached the no-man’s-land of what I call DEEP Balzac.  (It’s a little like Deep Throat in All the President’s Men.)   I am perusing the lesser-known books, the ones translated by Clara Bell and Ellen Marriage in the late nineteenth-century.

And when a Victorian translator scribbles too fast and clumsily for quick money (they were paid little), you get to know Balzac’s formulas and tricks almost too well.  There’s the phrenology and physiology,  which so many 19th-century writers took so seriously; the endless exposition (When WILL he start the story?);  then the frenetic unrolling of the plot to make up for lost time; and the blunt narration when he tires of constructing the story.

It’s Balzac’s world.

black-sheep-balzacAnd. much as I wanted to read all 95 novels and stories, I have no desire to write about the entire Human Comedy.  I am behind:  In December I read  The Black Sheep (available in Penguin) and A Daughter of Eve (free at Project Gutenberg), and though both novels are thoroughly enjoyable, they are uneven, with abrupt transitions.    I suggest you read and enjoy these two without thinking too hard.


In The Black Sheep, Balzac creates an Oedipal triangle consisting of a mother and two sons. At the apex is Philippe, a gambler/thief/murderer/spendthrift,  the favorite son of his widowed mother, Agathe.  Her less beloved son, Joseph, is a successful artist who financially supports his mother when, on so many occasions, she is bankrupted by Phillippe.  She underrates his success.

But how can Joseph protect her from Phillipe?

Early on, we learn that the generous aunt who shares their flat gambles on a small scale:  she  buys a lottery ticket with the same number every day for years and years.  So perhaps the gambling is in the family.  Phillippe, too, is addicted to gambling.  He steals from his aunt and horrifyingly deprives her of the winnings when her lottery number finally comes up. The family’s rented rooms shrink with their new poverty,, and Agathe, ironically,  takes a job managing a lottery office.  And finally Philippe robs the till at work, gets involved in a political mess, and goes to prison.

Agathe and Joseph enter a new chapter of their lives then:  they travel to the provinces to try to save a pecarious legacy her brother should have saved for her from their father. Well, it is a struggle, and they fail.   The last part of the novel weirdly veers away from Agathe and Joseph, while  Philippe  attempts to win the  inheritance for himself.  And lets’ just say, there is violence and the usual theft and ruining of live.

countess-illustration-the-daughter-of-eve-013A Daughter of Eve is simple and slight, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.  It starts out like a fairy tale.  Two virtuous sisters grow up in total innocence and are shocked when it comes time to marry.

Here’s an excerpt:

Marie-Angelique and Marie Eugenie de Granville reached the period of their marriage—the first at eighteen, the second at twenty years of age—without ever leaving the domestic zone where the rigid maternal eye controlled them. Up to that time they had never been to a play; the churches of Paris were their theatre. Their education in their mother’s house had been as rigorous as it would have been in a convent. From infancy they had slept in a room adjoining that of the Comtesse de Granville, the door of which stood always open. The time not occupied by the care of their persons, their religious duties and the studies considered necessary for well-bred young ladies, was spent in needlework done for the poor, or in walks like those an Englishwoman allows herself on Sunday, saying, apparently, “Not so fast, or we shall seem to be amusing ourselves.”

Marie Eugenie marries a rich banker, Mr. Nucinigen,  and Marie-Angelique marries a count. They thrive for a number of years–it’s better than living along– until one day, after years of virtuous marriage,  Countess Marie de Vandenesse  takes a lover, the journalist Raoul Nathan.  And this becomes a problem, because soon everybody, especially Nathan, will need money.

Fun to read!

And now I say Adieux for the weekend, so I can catch up with my TV-watching!

11 thoughts on “The Balzac Problem: A Quick Look at The Black Sheep and A Daughter of Eve

  1. I am not a Balzac fan, but I read a quote from him where he praises coffee. It stimulated his writing, producing legions of ideas marching through his brain. My brain is not as powerful as his was, but without coffee it would not function at all.


  2. I understand what you’re saying about blogging. I enjoy reading your blog and some others because of the kinds of books the bloggers read (mostly older books) and because I enjoy the glimpses into the lives of other people, without prying. I’m lazy and I’d much rather read than write, so I don’t blog about all the books I read. I’d rather just get on to the next book.
    I have Pere Goriot lying next to my reading chair and hope to start that now that life after the holidays has calmed down.


  3. The nature of blogging has changed over the 15 years or so since the blogosphere emerged. I find I blog less because more is expected: it is a form of privately-run mostly unpaid journalism, especially if you write about books where your reader is probably literate and wants good information and insight. I try for four a week, and know I invent projects — the way other bloggers join in webring marathons: let’s all read but more importantly write about a specific author or books published in a specific year around March 15th; let’s all blog about this kind of movie or by this director in March. These are planned and controlled performances where a social world you belong to is also presented.

    I’m not bored with what I do. I pick projects that I love to develop: read about, write about as I learn what I’m thinking, enrich my experience by writing, it’s almost as if I didn’t have the experience or make it real to myself unless I write. But it’s hard to balance this with say my teaching, or doing papers for conferences, or going out to do something. There is a conflict: I would read more if I wrote less, watch another movie. i find I also respond to the audience: so if a particular topic gets more clicks I develop it more — though I don’t do the topic to get an audience and that is important.

    This is an interesting topic:self-reflexive, about blogs.

    I am not a Balzac reader; I’ve tried a couple of times, but he is so gripped by what happens in the social world as all important his text seethes with characters so intensely concerned with what is so unpleasant about life. The books read like the older character sketches of types so prevalent in the 17th and 18th century that have moved into psychological stories.. While I “get” the bitter satires, I find myself remembering Wordsworth (“the world is too much with us, late and soon” &c). Maybe his novel on the opposite side of the continuum is Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse?. What would he have made of us bloggers?


    • Your blogs continue to be thoughtful and erudite, but I agree that blogs have changed. I write longer posts at Mirabile Dictu than I did at Frisbee: I didn’t intend it; it just comes out that way. There is still enthusiasm, but the spontaneous post is dead. When I interviewed bloggers and writers in my “series” about the blog a few years ago, Susan at Pages Turned mentioned that she enjoyed blogging much more before people tried to turn their blog posts into “reviews.” Alas, Susan no longer blogs. Bloggers often write the equivalent of good “undergraduate essays” which fall somewhere between the short post and a professional reviw. For instance, no one is interested in MY subject, classics, and if I write about it I get almost no readers. I love reading and write about many other kinds of books, but do not call them “reviews” because I do not structure them as reviews. They are a blog.

      The problem with Balzac is that there IS little to write about. I’m sure his characters stand for more than the characters alone, but it does not come across in the way that Flaubert or Zola (who is like the better Balzac!) write. His work seems less sophisticated, at least in English.

      Andt, yes, there is a lot of social reading at blogs. I often go on record as questioning the point of reading books from a loose category , because it is German/Japanese/women’s/Virago/Persephone montth, etc.) People are not reading the same book so it generates little discussion. You and I are of the more formal teaching/discussion/research-oriented generation. Yahoo groups/AOL book groups were places for people of different ranges of knowledge about specific books to exchange ideas. Now it’s quick comments. It’s for fun, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but I a too earnest, or old-school, or something!

      Another tirade from Ka!


  4. I’ll enjoy reading about your progress with this project. 95: wow. I only have one Balzac on my list (one of your faves, Cousin Bette) for this year, but it’s been on my list before and I’ve successfully avoided it (for no good reason, really) so maybe it’ll remain unread after all. However, there is also the film to look forward to. What TV do you need to catch up with? Do you have current favourites or are you enjoying some reviewing? This year I’ve decided to track my viewing more diligently (have tried before, but unlike logging books, it’s a habit I’ve found very hard to maintain for more than a week at a go)….


    • BIP, Balzac is fun, but not all his books are great literature, so I may have to rethink this. I just watched Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, and loved it. Each episode is an hour and a half, so it was a lot of wathcing!


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