Étienne, nicknamed Sept-Epées for his expertise with metalwork, is a young man in mid-1800s France. He belongs to the lower class, but dreams of one day escaping poverty and the doldrums of daily work to live in the Upper Town above him. Only one thing can hold him back in the Black City where the lower class lives: love. And unfortunately, Sept-Epées loves a woman named Tonine. He must decide which is more important to him – love and happiness, or wealth and ambition.
When I first began to read The Black City, I expected this book was going to go one of two ways. Possibly Sept-Epées would take what we might call the Thomas Hardy route, shunning his feelings and working himself into the ground, only to find out that his lofty aim was either unattainable, or not as wonderful as he expected. Or, perhaps, it would follow what I like to call the “Of Human Bondage/Keep the Aspidistra Flying” route, where he pushes and pushes against his lot in life until he eventually gives in and accepts reality and responsibility.
George Sand surprised me. This was the first of her books I’ve read. Not too many have been translated into English and as far as I’m aware, none of them are widely available. Sand is quite popular in France and she was a very prolific writer. I’ve wanted to read one of her books ever since visiting her house at Nohant back in 1999. About a year ago, I saw The Black City at a Half Price Books and snatched it up. I didn’t know anything about the book itself, but I wanted to take the chance. It’s not often that you see her books around for the taking!
The Black City, despite being written in the 1800s, was surprisingly easy to read. It was fun, fast, and a great character study. It was far more optimistic than I expected (though I won’t tell you which of the two paths mentioned above – if either – that it follows), and there was quite a bit of commentary on idealistic socialist societies. There was also a great emphasis on the strength of women. In fact, without the women, absolutely nothing in this book ever would have been done well. The women are strong, self-sufficient, and decisive, helping their husbands, fathers, boyfriends, and friends to cope with the world around them.
I had so much fun reading this. Compared to other classics I’ve read on similar themes, this was a bit too idealistic and heavy-handed for my tastes when it comes to the literary aspects. However, the plot itself was enjoyable and I really liked the characters. In the end, I didn’t mind the idealism as much as I would have normally, because it was such an interesting ride along the way. I really do hope that I get a chance to read more from Sand!