Orkney tales and Balzac’s black sheep

It’s been a while since I posted. Work and other things have kind of taken over in recent weeks, and my inspiration to set down my thoughts has been flagging. Events have also restricted my reading time. What I did read didn’t altogether enthuse me:

George Mackay Brown, Christmas Stories (2021)

These short stories were originally published in Scots newspapers at Christmas time. Each one deals with a yuletide theme in the atmospheric setting of the Orkneys. They all contain a message to illustrate the significance of this season in a Christian context. It’s not always clear when in history the stories are set – there’s a timeless feel to them, as in folk tales. I’m afraid my interest flagged after the first few, but the depiction of life in this remote archipelago was refreshing. There’s a strange blend of pagan and Christian traditions. The book was a gift from a friend who clearly loved it – I hate it when someone’s recommendation doesn’t chime with me.

Honoré de Balzac, The Black Sheep.

This ancient Penguin Classics edition (1972) of a novel first published in French as La Rabouilleuse in 1842 was translated by Donald Adamson. I’m not familiar with that French word; online searches came up with the not very helpful translations ‘the roughneck’ or ‘the sweeper’. Maybe the former is more appropriate. I don’t recall any sweeping in the narrative.

I rescued this battered book from the library of a college where I taught when they were having a stock clear-out. Some of the pages were falling out. It was quite a chore to read the very small font.

This difficulty was compounded by the content of the novel. The story is ok – sort of. Two brothers have contrasting characters: Joseph is a gifted artist, virtuous and self-effacing, hard-working and innocent. Philippe is the titular rogue – a ‘scapegrace’, a swaggering, drunken ex-soldier, a gambler, debaucher and thief (he even steals from his own mother). The rambling plot involves Philippe’s devious scheme to regain a family inheritance from a scoundrel as amoral and wicked as he is.

There are too many long digressions on the history of places where the tale is set, the complicated politics of the time, and other rather arcane matters that slow down the narrative. I trudged through to the end, but found it a bit of a slog. The mother’s ridiculous preference for the scoundrel son was annoying – as it was supposed to be, I assume.

Meanwhile I’m part of the way through a novel by a Ukrainian author that’s far more promising.

Now I have to go and see how the workmen are getting on as they replace our defunct gas boiler. I can hear angry-sounding drills and ominous crashes, followed by even more worrying silences.

Autumn has blown in with a vengeance, ending our brief spell of hot weather after a dull, damp summer here in Cornwall.

6 thoughts on “Orkney tales and Balzac’s black sheep

  1. I rather liked Black Sheep…
    A case of ‘set a thief to catch a thief’ and yes, the chicanery that takes place while Philippe tries to oust Flore and Max is complex, but I found it entertaining.
    Mind you, Balzac is an acquired taste!

    • Lisa: yes, the chicanery is quite entertaining, but I thought the narrative pace was too often halted by the not so interesting digressions. I’ve not read Balzac for a long time, and have previously enjoyed his fiction, so this was an unexpected disappointment.

  2. Yikes! Boiler issues are always so stressful – good to get it sorted out before things get any nippier.

    As for your reading, I’m sorry neither of these worked for you. I’m not convinced they would have for me either. But I’m glad you’ve found something more enjoyable to embark on!

    • Looks like the gas fitters will be here all week. The new boiler arrived today – and is the wrong one! Replacement coming tomorrow. Yes, these two books didn’t engage me entirely, but both had their merits.

  3. I enjoyed reading Eugene Grandet last year, which I remember being packed full of story but I recognise your description of Black Sheep; I suppose someone who writes so many novels must have dips somewhere – and that tiny print is never a help is it?!

    • I also read E Grandet a long time ago and recall enjoying it a lot – so yes, Balzac’s output was so huge he can’t always have hit the heights. Like Trollope (though so far I’ve found his novels consistently readable).

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