Sunday 13 October 2013

'Le Colonel Chabert' by Honoré de Balzac (Review)

When I decided to take part in the Christmas Humbook event, organised by Emma and Guy, it seemed a fairly easy thing to commit to.  Reading three books over the following year, two chosen by a fellow blogger, one by the host - no worries, right?  Except that nine months on, I had yet to try one...

Time to get cracking then, and today sees me review one of those three books, the one Emma and Guy chose for me.  Unfortunately though, even this isn't quite as straightforward as it should be.  You see, they chose a classic by Honoré de Balzac, Eugenie Grandet - but I decided to go for something else instead (I had my reasons...)

Le Colonel Chabert (Colonel Chabert) is a novella which takes place in and around Paris, just after the Napoleonic wars.  The story starts with banter in a lawyer's office where some clerks are making fun of an old man waiting to see their employer.  Once they deign to talk to the man, the fun continues - until they happen to ask his name:
"Monsieur, lui dit Boucard, voulez-vous avoir la complaisance de nous donner votre nom, afin que le patron sache si...
- Chabert.
-Est-ce le colonel mort à Eylau? demanda Hulé qui n'yant encore rien dit était jaloux d'ajouter une raillerie à toutes les autres.
- Lui-même, monsieur," répondit le bonhomme avec une simplicité antique.  Et il se retira.

"Sir,"  said Boucard, "would you be so kind as to give us your name, so that our employer might know whether..."
"Isn't that the colonel who died at Eylau?" asked Hulé who, not having said anything to that point, was keen to add a barb to all the others.
"The very same, sir," the old man replied with old-fashioned simplicity.  And he left.***

As surprised as the clerks are by the mysterious stranger's answer to their question, that is nothing compared to what their boss, Monsieur Derville, feels when he hears the full story.  The truth of the matter is that somehow, miraculously, the famous colonel, long thought dead in battle, has managed to survive and has returned to reclaim his life, his riches and his wife.  Now, if only his wife can be made to comply...

I decided to try Le Colonel Chabert after seeing it mentioned in some books I read this year.  It comes up a couple of times in Sebald's Austerlitz, but it actually forms a vital component of Javier Marías' most recent novel, The Infatuations, another story about secrets from beyond the grave.  In his novel, Marías poses the question as to whether a woman who has lost her husband would really want him to return from the grave after a long absence, and this question forms the whole basis of Balzac's story.

The physical description of Chabert at his first meeting with his lawyer is a telling one.  He literally looks like a corpse - and it's little wonder considering the ordeals he's gone through.  He's a man who has been buried alive, only to escape from the earth as naked as the day he was born.  It's a twisted kind of rebirth:
"Mais, avec une rage que vous devez concevoir, je me mis à travailler les cadavres qui me séparaient de la couche de terre sans doute jetée sur nous, je dis nous, comme s'il y eut eu des vivants!  J'y allais ferme, monsieur, car moi aussi!  Mais je ne sais pas aujourd'hui comment j'ai pu parvenir à percer la couverture de chair qui mettait une barrière entre la vie et moi."

"But, with a rage that you can imagine, I set to work on the cadavers which separated me from the layer of earth which had undoubtedly been thrown upon us, I say us, as if there was anyone alive down there!  I put my back into it, sir, for I was alive too!  But today I couldn't tell you how I managed to break through the covering of flesh which formed a barrier between life and me."
It's a tall tale though - who could ever believe him?

Certainly not his wife...  She has benefited financially from his death and is now married once more, with two young children at home.  Having risen in the world thanks to her new husband, she is terrified of losing him (and her station) - which is actually quite possible, as he suspects that her humble origins are beginning to hold him back.  In short, she is willing to do anything to stop the poor war hero from being recognised as a living, breathing soul.

There are also political complications to Chabert's quest to have his existence recognised.  While the colonel was a favourite of the Emperor, times have changed, and far from being welcome, his return from the grave would probably be little more than an inconvenience.  He is a throw-back to the old Napoleonic era, with its ethics and old-fashioned honour code, and the writer makes it clear that very different values rule now.  The restoration has brought about an age of commercialism, where getting ahead at any cost is more important than moral niceties.

A further problem is the financial reality of the old soldier's predicament.  To regain his position and fortune, he will need to go through the courts - but how can you prove a point in law without status or money?  In short, Chabert is a man in a void, a creature that others would rather see vanish:
"J'ai été enterré sous des morts, mais maintenant je suis enterré sous des vivants, sous des actes, sous des faits, sous la société tout entière, qui veut me faire rentrer sous terre!"

"I was buried beneath the dead, but now I am buried beneath the living, beneath files, beneath facts, beneath all of society, which would have me six feet under again!"
I challenge the reader not to feel sympathy with his plight...

Le Colonel Chabert is more like a play than a novella; its long, conversation-dominated scenes seem perfect for the stage, and with the exception of the final part, the story mostly keeps to the unities of time, place and plot (well, loosely, anyway!).  Occasionally, though, Balzac does escape into prose and waxes lyrical, particularly in describing certain aspects of the novel.  Chief among these are the spectral appearance Chabert makes at Derville's chambers, the vivid escape the colonel makes from the grave, and a detailed look at the rundown house where he lodges (a passage which brings back memories of the minutely-detailed start to Le Père Goriot).

It's not giving too much away to hint that things don't end as the reader would like them to, but Le Colonel Chabert is much more than a sad story of a poor soul betrayed by an ungrateful loved one (it's no coincidence that Derville also represented Old Goriot in the previous novel).  A horror story, then?  Yes, but as Derville himself points out, no novelistic creation could ever match up to the terrors of reality.  Poor Chabert is doomed to unhappiness from the moment he claws his way through the soil separating the land of the living from the realm of the dead:
- Les morts ont donc bien tort de revenir?

"So the dead are wrong to want to come back to life?"
Unfortunately, the answer Balzac (and Marías) would reluctantly give is yes...

*** All translations into English are my own, misguided, attempts (with one kind correction, courtesy of Richard McCarthy, AKA @Barsacq)