Balzac: Le Colonel Chabert aka Colonel Chabert (1832/1844)

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.

Illustration de Le Colonel Chabert

(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?

Colonel Chabert (Hesperus Classics)

40 thoughts on “Balzac: Le Colonel Chabert aka Colonel Chabert (1832/1844)

    • I liked it but it isn’t his most typical. He is better in the longer form, I believe but the style is very good. Some of the longer ones have sloppy passages. Maybe they got rid of that in the translations?

    • La peau de chagrin is in the same book but I didn’t manage to read it so far. I thought that that was short and Le Colonel Chabert long. Anyway…. Everything is better than La fille aux yeux d’or.

  1. Pere Goriot is my favorite Balzac, although perhaps it is a sentimental favorite as it is the first I read and the one that hooked me on Balzac. I’ve read all the Comedie humaine, most more than once plus Droll Tales and whatever other odds and ends I could locate.

    • I would say that Le père Goriot is also the one that got me hooked. It is an incredible book, probabaly one in which most of the important characters appear or are mentioned. Well, I still have a lot before me. All of them is quite an achievement. I think there is one for every mood and every taste…

      • Exactly! Horace Bianchon goes on to appear in around twenty of the stories and slightly fewer for Eugene de Rastignac.

        Delphine Nucingen appears quite frequently, but her sister Anastasie de Restaud only one other time that I’ve noticed.

        Vautrin pops up several times and even Poiret and Michonneau have some further adventures.

          • No, Anastasie’s other appearance is in Gobseck (short novel about the money-lender and a favorite of mine). You may remember when she was off pawning stuff and borrowing money as her father lay dying–that is her connection in Gobseck.

            La Femme abandonnee is Madame de Beauseant. She is the relative of Eugene de Rastignac’s who, in Pere Goriot, flees Paris after her lover Ajuda-Pinto announces his engagement.

            Is it any wonder we recommend reading Pere Goriot first, lol.

            You’ll find Repertory Of The Comedie Humaine by Anatole Cerfberr and Jules François Christophe absolutely fascinating. It is biographies of the approximately two thousand characters appearing in the Comedie humaine. Of course it is loaded with spoilers, so that’s a warning since you haven’t read the entire work. I referred to it frequently before I had read the entire Comedie humaine, and it didn’t bother me. Usually I had forgotten by the time I read a particular work anyway.

            The Balzac group at Yahoo began reading the entire Comedie humaine in 2006 and are now coming down the home stretch. There is a lot of information in the files there and anyone who is interested is welcome to join.

            Or you can visit their blog
            which is new, but we’re slowly getting things added. It has a list of the characters and the stories in which they appear.

            • These are great resources, thanks a lot. After a while one mixes up the characters. Like you I wouldn’t mind spoilers in this case as I read him for other reasons than plot only. Thanks.

  2. Have you watched Unknown? a movie played by Liam Neeson? I really want to watch it but the issue in my country hasn’t been settled yet.

    Tho I haven’t watched it, but from what I saw in the trailer, what happened to Liam is almost the same with the colonel, I couldn’t stop thinking maybe it was inspired by this book.

    • I looked, the book isn’t credited but it is such a well-known and timeless story, it may very well have inspired Unknown. I would like to watch this. Hope your government will give up this law soon.

  3. I’ve never read anything by Balzac and don’t think I even have any of his books on hand. I will have to remedy that as this sounds really interesting, though I will start with Cousin Bette perhaps, as you recommend. I’ve not read a single classic this year and this really tempts me.

  4. I’m a Balzac fan and have enjoyed everything I’ve read by him. But I have a particular soft spot for Eugenie Grandet. I also liked La peau de chagrin, because the ideas about desire are so delightfully weird. I think Balzac’s life is fascinating too – if a graphic warning aginst the consumption of too much coffee!

    • Eugénie Grandet is special, I like the story very much but I prefer his Parisian settings. What you say about La peau de chagrin makes me curious now. Yes, his coffee addiction is something quite incredible. I wonder occasionally how prolific he would have been without it.

  5. La Peau de Chagrin is a fascinating book. I can still remember the first time I read the description of the antique shop. Very memorable. I did find parts of it quite tedious though. You can find a link to an etext of the Ellen Marriage Victorian translation at the Balzac group’s blog near the bottom where it says “read it here”.

    I once saw an old tv production of it on one of those anthology series. This would probably have been in the early 60s. It was titled The Skin of the Ass, or something like that. I was unaware of Balzac at the time, but the story stuck with me all those years.

    • I think bookaroundthecorner found it quite tedious. After your and litlove’s comment I am more inclined to try it though. How did you like La recherche de l’absolu? Thanks for the link.

        • I always take your opinion into account. 🙂
          That seems to be one of those cases in which a teacher has done great harm to a book. From what Madame Vauquer says I still deduce there might at least be tedious passages in it… At present it is not on the top of my TBR Balzac pile. La Rabouilleuse will come first.

          • La Rabouilleuse–now there is a great read–no tedious parts at all, lol. I think I’ve read it three times without an ounce of boredom that I recall. I don’t know why it isn’t better known.

            • I don’t know but that is maybe only outside of France. I think it is well known and liked in France. Never to the extent of La cousine Bette or Le père Goriot but still. I remember Guy’s review and didn’t even realize at the time time which book he was reviewing. The title is quite different in English.

              • La Rabouilleuse has more English translations than any other Balzac that I’ve noticed. And as you say, quite different. I knew it under the titles of two Victorian translations: A Bachelor’s Establishment and The Two Brothers. I was quite excited the first time I saw The Black Sheep because I thought I’d found a “new” Balzac, lol.

                  • Ah, so the German title fits in with La Rabouilleuse. I think I read somewhere that Balzac might have changed the title himself at some point.He was always reworking things. I’ll look at the info in the Yahoo group Balzac and see if it says anything about it.

                  • That was easy. At some point Balzac had also titled it Un Menage de Garcon.

                    George Saintsbury wrote in a complete edition of English translations (circa 1900): “He changed his title a good deal, and in that manuscript correction of a copy of the Comedie which has been taken, perhaps without absolutely decisive authority, as the basis of the Edition Definitive, he adopted La Rabouilleuse as his latest favorite.”

                    • I can’t blame him. I find titles absolutely tricky. Whenever I write the tiniest story I struggle to find a title. And names.
                      As long as I haven’t read La rabouilleuse I can’t follow his line of thinking, I’m afraid. Once I”ve read it I will realize why he opted for such different names.

      • For me La Recherche de l’Absolu must have been one of those books which depended on my mood at the time of reading. I don’t recall being all that impressed with it the first time I read it, but the second time, yes, I enjoyed it immensely. It could have been because I knew where the story was going and it was interesting watching for clues in the development.

        There is a summary and etext link at the balzacbooks blog

        All in all though, I prefer La Peau de chagrin to La Recherche de l’Absolu, even though La Peau has two quite lengthy parts which I found tedious.
        Or maybe I should say only one, as one I found tedious even the first time I read La Peau, and the other was only tedious on a reread. I seem to remember that part being quite entertaining on my first reading.

        The entire Comedie humaine is available as free etexts at Project Gutenberg. My PG buddy John in New Zealand and I prepared over ninety of them (then we got to work on one of his favorite authors, H. Rider Haggard).

        You can find them by searching at Project Gutenberg or going to The Works Of Balzac by Honore de Balzac
        compiled by David Widger
        which is “A linked index to all Project Gutenberg editions”.

  6. Pingback: Yves Angelo’s Le Colonel Chabert (1994) « Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

  7. Pingback: Herman Melville: Bartleby the Scrivener. A Story of Wall Street (1853) « Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

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