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le colonel chabert

18 may 2016

I haven't "reviewed" a book by Balzac here before, though I've written pieces on Stendhal, Hugo, Zola, and several other 19th-century French writers, as well as a raft from the 20th century. I guess I don't read that much Balzac. I first read Old Goriot in the Penguin translation by Marion Ayton Crawford when I was in college, and was much impressed. I read it again in the original several years later, but couldn't really get into it upon a third reading more recently (though one line is indelible: "Monsieur, je ne m'appelle pas Rastignacorama").

"Couldn't really get into it," that sounds like a lame undergraduate reason for not re-reading something. But it's true enough. What has eventually tired me about Balzac are the long topical passages, meant to reflect contemporary life in all its ephemerality. They're why I don't like reading Jonathan Franzen, even though I recognize the stuff that Franzen writes about. When I don't have a clue what a writer is referring to, I like such topicality even less. And Balzac is the great master of it, the writer who most consistently "held a mirror up" to his society.

So I read the better-known Balzacs: Eugénie Grandet, Sarrasine, Le peau de chagrin; at least some of Cousine Bette, some of Le médecin de campagne … you see the pattern, it got to be some of a lot of books, because they tended to devolve into descriptions of customs and manners of their time, and they eventually lost me. I was most completely defeated by Une ténébreuse affaire, the proto-policier that was just way too ténébreuse for me.

Even though it was actually Stendhal who said "Un roman est un miroir qui se promène sur une grande route," I find that Stendhal, like Hugo and Zola, has dated far better than Balzac. Flaubert dates better than any of them, but he wrote sparingly and with a certain Olympian difficulty of approach. Though I love Madame Bovary and "Un cœur simple" as much as the next Flaubert fan, I can only read them every so often. And the fact that Salammbô is as fresh as it was in 1862 doesn't mean it's any more readable than it must have been in 1862.

As a result I missed Le colonel Chabert till just this year, when I learned that it was very short and was free on iBooks. I made one foray into it and gave up after a character started to read a protracted legal document about property redistribution after the Bourbon Restoration. A couple of months later, re-encouraged, I blew through the legal document in a few swipes, resorted to the "swipe faster" technique again at a few points where verisimilar detail threatened to inundate narrative, and was rewarded with a rich and bittersweet reading experience.

Colonel Chabert … well, may or may nor be Colonel Chabert. I'll set you up for a re-reading: he is Colonel Chabert. That's the keynote of Balzac's long story. In the hands of Poe, Melville, Maupassant, Thomas Hardy, or Henry James, the premise of a long-dead soldier purporting to be resurrected would be a mystery, and might even end in mystery. Such stories – the return-of-Martin-Guerre genre – are interesting when the claimant is an impostor. They are doubly interesting when no-one can ultimately decide whether the claimant is an impostor, or when the impostor, perhaps, believes that he isn't. But no, Chabert is unproblematically Chabert. He has his lawyer send away for some documents that prove his identity, and his wife recognizes him (not that that was a clincher in Martin Guerre; but here the recognition fits prosaically enough into the mix).

Left for dead after receiving an obviously mortal wound during a battle early in the Napoleonic Wars, Chabert, a hero of the Empire, has had a long convalescence and an even longer trip home across war-torn Europe. He arrives back in France to find his Emperor exiled, his wife remarried with children and climbing the social ladder of the restored Bourbon monarchy, his fortune commandeered and dispersed, his identity doubted, his pretensions mocked.

It's a sad story that, after taking a brief, gentle turn in the direction of happiness, descends into misery again. Yet its richness depends on the essential integrity of Chabert, the man who is, ironically, suspected of masquerading as himself, but who is able to accept rejection from society if it means being true to his identity and his nature. As the colonel puts it with tragic dignity:

Vous ne pouvez pas savoir jusqu'où va mon mépris pour cette vie extérieure à laquelle tiennent la plupart des hommes.

[You can't imagine the extent of my disdain for the outward things most people swear by.]

I often get the sense with Balzac that he was a great short-story writer who tended to spin stories to novella length and novellas to doorstop length. Stocking his work with topical details didn't help, though at least it matters less in shorter works like Chabert. Eugénie Grandet, too, is essentially an idea that Maupassant might have dealt with in twenty pages, but Balzac pads to many times that. Fortunately, 21st-century devices electronically enhance the process of speeding past the dull parts.

Balzac, Honoré de. Le colonel Chabert. 1832. Bibebook.