Monday, February 19, 2018

Colonel Chabert by Honoré de Balzac

An old war horse returns from the dead
Colonel Chabert, a novel by Honoré de Balzac, was first published in 1832 under the title La Transaction in the Parisian literary journal L’Artiste. In subsequent publications Balzac changed the title to the one it now bears. Balzac classified this work under the category of Scenes from Private Life in his grand multi-volume series of novels and stories, the Comédie Humaine.

The title character is a cavalry officer who fought for Napoleon at the Battle of Eylau in 1807. During the combat with the Russians he was struck on the head with a sabre blow, presumed dead, and tossed into a mass grave. Coming to his senses, he climbs out from under the dead bodies of his comrades and is taken in by a local family. For the better part of a decade after that, Chabert slowly makes his way towards Paris—sometimes ill, sometimes imprisoned, always penniless—trying to regain his former life. As the story opens, he seeks assistance at the office of a lawyer, Maitre Derville, who will be recognizable to Balzac regulars as the attorney from Père Goriot, Gobseck, and other novels of the Comédie Humaine. Chabert informs Derville that he has notified his wife of his existence, but she has refused to acknowledge him or grant him a penny of his former estate. Madame Chabert has since married a count to become the Comtesse Ferraud. She has two children by her new husband and enjoys the social status of being espoused to an upwardly mobile councillor of state under the new monarchy. Since Chabert has been declared dead, he has no legal right over her. The old colonel begs Derville to help him reclaim his wife and his identity, and the lawyer agrees to take his case.

Despite the heavy subject matter, Balzac keeps the proceedings relatively lighthearted for most of the story’s length. Humorous scenes of banter between legal clerks provide comic relief. (Balzac, himself once a clerk in a law office, no doubt wrote those passages from his own experience.) The predicament of Colonel Chabert makes for a very compelling narrative, but one can’t exactly call the resolution satisfying. Balzac wrote this novella as a commentary on the Bourbon Restoration of 1814 to 1830. Chabert embodies the principles of honor and glory that characterized the reign of Napoleon, while his wife represents the rampant greed and vapid social climbing of French society under the new regime of Louis XVIII. Balzac’s satirizing of the hypocrisy of the age brings forth humor, but it also brings frustration. In shaping the plot to prove his sociopolitical points, Balzac leaves the reader feeling a little robbed. The story ultimately becomes a conflict between what is honorable and what is right. While readers of the 21st century would likely put right before honor, that would not have been the case in France 200 years ago. The very definition of honor has also changed over the past two centuries. From today’s perspective, the personal code Chabert lives by comes across as an antiquated and foolish mode of chivalry.

Nevertheless, the characters are indelible, the storytelling is top-notch, and one can’t help but be moved by Chabert’s plight. Balzac writes the kind of stories that stick in your mind for years afterward. You may not recall the names of the players from among the bountiful ensemble cast of the Comédie Humaine, but the moral lessons remain entrenched in your psyche. I wouldn’t count Colonel Chabert as one of Balzac’s absolute best works, but even his lesser efforts usually qualify as exceptional literature, and this is certainly no lesser effort.
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