Book: The Black Sheep

February 25, 2019

This is a part of the list of read books which I maintain. See all of them. You can only find here a blob of notes from the book itself and some thoghts on them. More often than not the actual book is more useful than what you can see here.

Title: The Black Sheep
Author: Honoré de Balzac


In order to succeed in the world, a man must be ruthless in exploiting others.

‘If you have any real feeling, hide it like a treasure;

A mask must be worn, and never put down for a moment, by those who are eager to succeed.

Money, in Balzac’s eyes, is something more than the motive force of a capitalist world. It is power: the power to shape one’s life as one pleases, the symbol of the life force itself.

War is pure chance: at any moment the bravest and ablest of soldiers may be killed.

Like Homer, Balzac sees all, but does not judge.

The black sheep

In this career they grew rich and remained miserly: such is the way of many lives.

Descoings stupidly voiced his opinions (he thought there was free speech now!)

such as people experience when they have never seen Paris before.

nothing in life demands closer attention than the things which seem natural;

This is why you find men of experience, such as attorneys, judges, doctors and priests, laying enormous stress on the simple things in life: and people think they are overprecise!

it is easier for a woman to be a good wife than a good mother.

A widow has two tasks, with mutually contradictory obligations: she is a mother, yet must exercise paternal authority.

the strength of character of this great citizen who lived and died in obscurity.

As is the case with many shy people of limited intelligence, the fact that one single feeling had been hurt and her distrust aroused led her to carry a fault of character to such extreme lengths that that fault took on the stable appearance of a virtue.

she believed neither him, nor her aunt, nor the State; she would rely now only upon herself and her self-inflicted hardships.

for public education will never resolve the difficult problem of simultaneously developing the body and the mind.

too constant a fatality becomes a habit!

His restless face, whose originality could be mistaken for ugliness by people unaware of a face’s moral significance,

Go on, turn him into an imbecile, a man who will just amble through life as a wretched pen-pusher – and you will have committed a murder.

The word vocation means a call — it’s a call from God!

I believe boys must be governed with a firm hand.’

‘His father would not have done more than that,’ she would say.

was far from being offended by his mother’s preference for Philippe. On the contrary, he agreed with it,

Joseph, poor boy, had not yet learned that truly talented soldiers are as gentle and polite as any other superior class of people. In all circumstances genius is identical in its expression.

Alas! the colonel no longer loved anyone in the world except for one person and that person was himself.

In Philippe’s eyes, the whole universe began at his head and ended at his feet, and the sun shone only for him.


In the hazy excitement produced by a few bottles of wine and some small glasses of various liqueurs,

Outside the range of their feelings for one another, their mutual self-interest and their life together, everything seemed to them as it did in former times to the Romans and Jews: barbaric, foreign and hostile.

my brother is so stupid as to give his Mariette money? Those kind of women only ruin rich men.’

As always happens, Philippe, in his misfortunes, had reached the stage of loving Mariette despite her glaring infidelities;

The idea of committing suicide crossed his mind, not because people would eventually discover a deficit in his till, but because of his separation from Mariette and his exclusion from that atmosphere of pleasure in which he had been revelling for a year.

Punctuated by exclamations, the disastrous truth was revealed

All passions lead to excess!

it can only guess accurately when it looks things steadily in the face;

The two poor creatures had imagined that, by allowing this young man every comfort, he would love their home and would want to stay there.

Moreover, he was reading a great deal, and giving himself that deep and serious education which can only be had from within oneself, and to which all talented men have devoted themselves between twenty and thirty years of age.

Where is there today a social power that, for a mere forty sous, can keep you happy for five days and provide you with all the delights of civilization in an ideal form?

Such astuteness is rarely lacking in painters who for whole days work in the silence of their studios on paintings which to a certain extent leave the mind free.

he was constantly discovering a discrepancy between his total monthly expenses and the money remaining in the death’s-head. The 100 francs he had allocated for the month was disappearing at an incredible rate.

It looks as if my money has gone for a walk!

but when you think that Napoleon is at St Helena and is selling his silverware to make ends meet,

A soldier must fight, if he’s a soldier, for the love of the thing.

In the army, if a comrade dies, and he’s got a good pair of boots on and you’ve got a shoddy pair, you exchange.’

In other words, gambling, which refused to allow the rich, cool-minded gambler to play, devoured the substance of men stupid and obstinate enough to lose their heads at the sight of the rapid movement of the wheel.

a man who enjoyed smoking but had no tobacco.

In other words, he’s afraid of public opinion, afraid of being pointed at, of being called weak or sickly….

Who nowadays is keen to go and bury himself in an area where there is much good to be done but no glory to be achieved?

‘My dear Pierre, the affair is clear, you’ll have your head chopped off. Let that be a lesson to you.’

The one voice which attempted to save the monument found no echo anywhere,

‘Forewarned is forearmed!

went to bed noiselessly, saying to himself: ‘Tomorrow I shall be able to think more clearly.’

truth is frequently obscured; and before it does come to light, it is either so long in doing so that the truth or falsehood of the story has become a matter of indifference or else calls for the impartiality of a historian or other superior intellect, who view things from an elevated standpoint.

Their scruples arise from self-interest, not from any feeling of what is good or beautiful.

virtue is an adjunct of prosperity and is rooted in education.

There are two kinds of timidity: timidity of mind and timidity of the nerves, physical and moral timidity.

When both kinds of timidity are found in one and the same individual, that man will be worthless throughout his life. Complete timidity of this kind is found in the people whom we call idiots.

Desire, which loosens so many tongues, used to freeze his.

Passion which, let it be noted, has a wit entirely of its own, can confer a kind of intelligence upon idiots, fools and imbeciles, particularly when they are young.

Too much sleep dulls and befogs the mind.

You may seem stupid but you’ve got more malice in you than the nastiest men….

At his age, he would only be married for his money, and even more cruelly exploited by his legitimate wife than by Flore.

And because he had always been known for his extremely limited intelligence, no one noticed the constant degeneration of his mental faculties.

Tall, dry, thin, with a yellow complexion, saying and reading little, never tiring himself and as punctilious as any Oriental, he ran his household along the most austere lines, even measuring out his family’s food and drink.

who confronted her creditors with that axiom of ancient jurisprudence: Women are minors.

And so the joke still persisted, for no joke grows stale in the provinces.

two rooms, where rats and mice reigned supreme;

ceremoniously cut another round, sliced it into two halves, put it on to a plate and passed the plate across the table to the young painter with the silent stoicism of an old soldier who says to himself before a battle: ‘Anyway, today I may be killed.’

he replied with the verve and gaiety of a man who has decided the attitude he will adopt.

‘Let us render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.

it does seem as if war educates young men.

never indulges in any amusement that won’t assist his own ends,

‘My advice is: forgo the pleasure of seeing him.’ ‘Nothing would please me more,’

By appearing generous and disinterested, he hoped to be thought of as a fool, whilst all the time encircling his adversary and aiming to obtain his uncle’s inheritance; whereas his mother and brother, who in fact were so disinterested, generous and great, had been accused of calculation when they were acting with naïve simplicity.

If you want to inherit a fortune, you must earn it.

From these legal documents you will see whether you can play the fool with me,

‘Yes, but it’s the only way of mastering women and horses. That is how a man makes himself feared, loved and respected.

for we are living in a century where children have to educate their grandparents.’

Women are like naughty children. They are inferior animals to men, and you must make them afraid of you, for the worst plight that can befall us is to be governed by the brutes!’

‘people used to say that wolf doesn’t eat wolf.

‘or else we would make you swallow your tongue – and without sauce, either!’

‘Better be a knave than a fool.’

Experts in the art of killing know that the cleverer of two opponents can get the upper hand – to use a metaphorical phrase which conveys the impression of the hilt-guard held high in the air.

This posture, which to some extent enables a man to anticipate his antagonist’s moves, so clearly indicates a first-rate duellist that a feeling of inferiority overwhelmed Max and produced that mental disorganization which demoralizes both gamblers and sportsmen when, faced with a master of the game or a man who is in luck, they falter and play below their usual standard.

Religion is religion; submit to the authority of the Church, practise the virtue of resignation; that will immediately calm you; it will cure you almost as effectively as my drugs.

three months’ imprisonment in the Luxembourg knocks some sense into your head;

Nature works in a way which is considered the highest expression of Art in works of genius: its method of operation is self-interest, whose motive power is money.

for Flore fell under this man’s domination as completely as France fell under Napoleon’s.

In this exceedingly free and easy world, Madame Rouget was in her element;

he did not earn enough to maintain the luxurious standard of living demanded both by his social connexions and his distinguished position within the new school of painting.

Middle-class people, who have the money nowadays, never spend a penny to support anyone whose talent is considered controversial,

You haven’t given a thought to your mother once in five years! That is not right.

what consoles me in my struggles is the fact that I have a good mother; she is everything that an artist’s wife must be, she takes care of everything,

so that his poor mother’s heart would be enveloped in a shroud threaded with illusions.

The less family I have, the better will be my position.

You have too much common sense not to understand my position,

I am a self-made man, my dear fellow, and I know it.

The rascal will wish for my death, I fully expect that, or else he won’t be my son.’

Monster, my poor mother has died from the shock caused by your letter; go into mourning for her, but pretend to be ill. I do not wish her assassin to be beside me at her coffin.


artist who no longer felt he had the strength to paint, though in his deep grief he perhaps needed the kind of mechanical distraction which work affords, was surrounded by his friends who agreed never to leave him alone.

Elle aimait trop le bal et c’est ce qui l’a tuée (she loved dancing too much, and that is what killed her),

The patient died, less because of the operation’s after-effects than because of the physical weakness caused by her poverty.

‘If you are Goliath, I have my catapult and I’m not short of pebbles.’

a look which meant: ‘The money’s ours.’

‘A man’s appetite grows as he paints!’

Andrei Glingeanu

Andrei Glingeanu's notes and thoughts. You should follow him on Twitter, Instagram or contact via email. The stuff he loves to read can be found here on this site or on goodreads. Wanna vent?