Herman Melville: Bartleby the Scrivener. A Story of Wall Street (1853)


Academics hail it as the beginning of modernism, but to readers around the world—even those daunted by Moby-Dick—BARTLEBY THE SCRIVENER is simply one of the most absorbing and moving novellas ever. Set in the mid-19th century on New York City’s Wall Street, it was also, perhaps, Herman Melville’s most prescient story: what if a young man caught up in the rat race of commerce finally just said, “I would prefer not to”?

There is a specific reason, why I read Melville’s novella Bartleby. I have just read and reviewed Delerm’s novel Quelque chose en lui de Bartleby and since it was obviously inspired by Melville’s story, I had to read it.

I was never tempted to read Moby Dick although my parents had a copy with beautiful etchings. I can’t tell you why but some books just do not sound like you would like them.

Reading Bartleby I was very surprised how humorous it is. The characters are very eccentric and so is the story. It is basically the story of a young man called Bartleby who just doesn’t want to comply. Like the raven, in Poe’s eponymous poem, he has his stereotypical sentence which is “I would prefer not to.” Whatever it is he is asked to do, Bartleby invariably refuses it uttering the sentence I just quoted.

Bartleby is told in the first person peripheral, by a lawyer who has his office on the Wall Street. He once hired Bartleby as a copyist or scrivener. He already had three different copyists, each one of them with his own eccentricities, that’s why at first he didn’t pay too much attention when Bartleby declares that “he would prefer not to” read the copies together with anyone else.

The lawyer thinks at first that this is just a whim but soon enough it is obvious that there is more to it. While in the beginning he doesn’t want to read with the others, never goes out or seems to eat, after a certain time Bartleby stops working altogether. On a Sunday morning the lawyer makes another discovery which leaves him quite fazed. Bartleby never leaves the office. He stays there over night and during the weekends.

As much as he threatens him, offers him money, tries to negotiate, Bartleby doesn’t work anymore and he doesn’t leave either. If he wants to get rid of him, the lawyer has to take extreme measures. After some time and many frustrations, he decides to change the office and move away from Wall Street.

Not long after he has moved, he hears complaints by the new lawyer about Bartleby. The man is still there and haunts the building.

I’m not going to tell you the end in all its details, it should just suffice to say that the narrator tells the reader, that he thinks he might have found out what drove Bartleby to this extreme behavior. Bartleby used to work for another lawyer handling “Dead Letters”. I must admit I had no idea what “dead letters” are. It reminded me vaguely of Gogol’s Dead Souls and it proved that the association wasn’t totally wrong. “Dead letters” are letters that never reach their recipient because he has died or disappeared or left without leaving an address.

While reading this novella I was reminded of many other books. Not only Poe’s The Raven came to mind but some of Poe’s other writings. He didn’t only write Tales of Mystery and Imagination but a fair amount of absurd tales like we find them again in Kafka’s work. The already mentioned Gogol came to mind as well. I was also reminded of the first scene in Balzac’s Le Colonel Chabert (see my review in which the clerks bicker and quarrel.

Bartleby is the tale of someone who gives up on life, who stops participating and contributing. He is tired of it all. I often wonder when I see beggars in the streets how many chose to live like that. I met Clochards in Paris who told me that the hassle of a job, an apartment, a wife and children was just too much for them and they found it easier to live on the street. At first this may seem absurd but thinking of it for a while, it may make sense.

If it hadn’t been for Delerm, I wouldn’t have read this novella but I’m glad I did. It’s surprisingly modern. It is interesting to discover its intertextuality and a  more thorough analysis would be fascinating. I’m sure Kafka read it, as sure as I am that Melville was influenced by Poe, Gogol and maybe Balzac. However, I must say, I don’t think that Delerm’s Spitzweg and Bartleby have much in common.

Yves Angelo’s Le Colonel Chabert (1994)

I am really glad I have watched this movie. I liked every minute of it. It’s beautifully filmed, the interiors are wonderful, the actors are extremely good.

One of the problems I usually have when a movie is based on a book is that so much I liked has been left out. Le Colonel Chabert is an example of the opposite. Where the book gives us just a few details, the movie elaborates them. The character portraits are much more interesting; the Countess Ferraud and the lawyer Derville, have more depth and complexity and also the Count Ferraud, who is more or less just a distant presence in the book, becomes a real person.

I will not summarize the plot, I have already done this in the review of the novel, I will rather point out a few differences and how the film director managed to put into pictures what has before been put into words.

The movie starts with a view of the battlefield. This isn’t easy to watch. I mentioned somewhere else the problems I had with the movie Waterloo because of the dead horses. The amount of wasted horses is heartbreaking. The scene is very graphic; bodies of men and horses are piled up high and disposed of, just like garbage. There are three instances like this in the movie. They are falshbacks and represent what the Colonel Chabert remembers from the battle of Eylau where he was so severely wounded that he was reported dead.

While the book is rightly called Le Colonel Chabert, the movie could also have been called The Countess Ferraud. There is much more emphasis on her and the role and fate of women in the French society in the 19th century. She is not only greedy and ambitious like the Countess in the novel but she is also a woman who fights for her survival in the society. The movie shows that they are just pawns in a game and that “love” mostly equals lust and where that ends, “love” stops. A woman must constantly fear to be replaced by another one that is either more attractive or more likely to bring a man the social status or wealth he craves or the son he needs. I am not a fan of Fanny Ardant but she is excellent in this movie.

Derville’s role is also much more substantial. I like the way he speaks about his profession and how it made him unvover the ugliest in human society. The avarice, the greed, the fighting over money. Derville is truly a good person. He has seen so many vile acts that it seems to have transformed him into a better human being. There is not much to gain for him, in helping the Colonel, yet he does it anyway. Fabrice Luchini plays this incredibly well. The scene in which he visits the Colonel in his filthy abode is priceless.

Le Colonel Chabert is beautifully filmed. The decor, interiors and costumes are really worth watching. I particularly liked how the lawyer’s chambers were shown and the filthy backyard in which the Colonel lives.

Gerard Depardieu will always be one of my favourite actors no matter how often he parodies himself. I love his voice and he is often great. He is great in period drama but he excels in modern movies. The final scene of  Le Colonel Chabert shows him at his very best. This alone would have made this movie worth watching for me. On the other hand I have to point out that whoever is familiar with French cinema of the 80s and 90s knows that there is one thing to deplore. Whenever there was a big budget movie, it was more than likely he was casted. This makes it occasionally difficult to see the character and not the actor and his former roles. When I saw Chabert I also saw Rodin, the Count of Monte Christo, Cyrano de Bergerac, Vidocq, Vatel, Valjean, Columbus, Maheu, Jean de Florette and Balzac.

Unfortunately I couldn’t find a trailer. I attached a few film stills instead.

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)