Balzac’s radiant story recounts the history of Colonel Chabert, a disenfranchised hero of the Napoleonic wars. Left for dead on the battlefield of Eylau, Chabert has spent years as an amnesiac in an asylum. The novel begins with his return to the life he left behind: only to discover that in his absence, his entire life – family, society, identity – has changed. With Napoleon deposed, France’s aristocracy has returned to power ‘as if the Revolution never occurred’. With Chabert supposedly dead, his wife is now married to a Count. Sickened by his wife’s pretence not to recognise him, and the titled society which spurns his former meritorious deeds, Chabert vows to recover his money, his reputation and his name.
A few years back I went through an intense Balzac phase reading one of his novels after the other. Still there are so many left I haven’t read and one of them was Le Colonel Chabert (or Colonel Chabert in English). I always thought it was much longer, probably because the edition I have contains other books as well. Or because of its notoriety. I think it is one of the most famous of his works.
Le Colonel Chabert is one of the books from the Scènes de la vie privée. Those who are familiar with Balzac know that the vast canvas of his work which he called La Comédie Humaine is organized in groups depending on the setting or themes.
Balzac has written an impressive amount of books. Some were serialized and written for the newspaper, like Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes, and the writing is not subtle at all. As wonderful as his plots, characters and topics usually are, his style is occasionally lacking. I was pleased to see that Le Colonel Chabert is, from a purely literary point of view, one of his best. It was published twice, first in 1832 under the name La transaction and then again in 1844.
Colonel Chabert is one of Balzac’s most tragic figures, a man who had everything and lost it all. To a certain extent the figure of Colonel Chabert whose fate is tied to that of Napoléon, also mirrors the emperor’s fate. Like Napoléon himself, he knew fame and glory and lost it all.
The novel opens on a scene of lively banter among several clerks who work for a young and promising lawyer. This scene is Balzac at his very best. With a few words he captures mediocrity. Into this setting enters a man who looks like a ghost. An old and broken man, poorly dressed, weak and ailing. When he asks to see Derville, the young lawyer, they make fun of him. And even more so when he tells them that he is the Colonel Chabert. Everybody knows that this cannot be as the Colonel has died in the battle of Eylau. His much deplored death has even been confirmed by Napoléon himself. His wife has remarried and born two children to a new husband. His fortune has been divided. The man standing in front of them cannot be the dashing looking colonel. This is an old man who seems to have seen nothing but poverty and misery.
The clerks who do not believe the old man send him away and tell him to return at one in the morning, the only hour during which the lawyer receives his clients.
When Chabert returns Derville is gruff at first but he is not only an ambitious young man, he is also very intelligent and kind-hearted. He pities the poor man and allows him to tell his story.
The Colonel who has shown Derville the deep scar on his skull, tells him how he was mortally wounded by a sabre, who almost split his skull in two. Buried under his horse who had been killed, he wasn’t trampled by the fleeing army but left unconscious. When they finally discovered him, they declared him dead and buried him. He regained consciousness later in the grave and managed to dig himself out from underneath corpses, earth and snow. This is a truly creepy scene that reminded me of an Edgar Allan Poe story.
(La bataille d’Eylau by Antoine-Jean Gros)
Ten years have passed since that episode. Ten years of suffering and erring during which the Colonel wrote to his wife a few times. Hoping to make a better marriage she pretends not to believe that he is alive. Chabert finally decides to ask for help and wants the young lawyer’s assistance in claiming back his wife and his considerable fortune.
His former wife, now the Countess Ferraud, is one of the ugliest characters of Balzac whose novels are full of greedy, vile people.
I will stop my summary here and just tell you that the outcome isn’t exactly what we expect.
I am not sure if it would be ideal to start reading Balzac with Le Colonel Chabert. I usually recommend Le père Goriot or La cousine Bette. Once you are more familiar with Balzac’s themes and characters you will realize how unique this book is. It is very short but extremely complex and a lot of allusions to French history are almost crammed into it. To fully comprehend the story it is good to know something about French history.
I’m looking forward to watch the movie one of these days as it seems to be very good as Guy Savage writes in his review of the book.
My favourite Balzac is Les illusions perdues aka Lost illusions, followed by La cousine Bette aka Cousin Bette. Which one do you like?