Balzac in Texas: A Review of Le Colonel Chabert

Approaching a giant of French literature like Balzac is always intimidating. So many writers have turned to Balzac to learn the craft of fiction. My friend Renaud from Bordeaux likes to proclaim that 19th century French literature was the golden age; it would never again reach such heights.

I remember the first time I attempted to read Balzac’s Le Père Goriot in French.  I struggled with it but finally emerged victorious, having lost an arm and gained a brain cell, which was worth it.

Upon reading Le Colonel Chabert, the story of a colonel that returns to Paris to reclaim his position after being presumed dead in one of the battles during Napoleon’s campaign, immediately reminded me of the Spanish novella El coronel no tiene quien le escriba  by Márquez, who was influenced by Faulkner, a great admirer of Balzac. The story of dejected soldiers that return from war expecting a reward or their former lives is one that has been explored by many of our finest writers.

Overall, the pacing of the novella impressed me. At under 170 pages, the novella explores the legal quandary that Chabert confronts. How to prove that you are who you say you are when you have no documentation to prove it? A decorated soldier whose pension has been passed to his wife, Chabert returns to find a changed Paris, one where his wife has remarried and had children.

Chabert almost reaches a legal agreement with his wife, only to ruin it himself by attempting to see his wife when she refuses to see him. There are so many gems in the novella, so many small pieces of prose that stun and awe like this one: ‘Misfortune is a kind of talisman whose virtue consists in corroborating our primitive constitution: it heightens the defiance and wickedness with certain men, just like it increases kindness in those who have an excellent heart’ (142).

I suppose what really fascinates me is trying to figure out certain choices Balzac makes in his novellas.

  1. The character Chabert recounts his story of resurrection (the war and his presumed death) to his lawyer in a dialogue instead of the narrator just describing it, which makes his story seem more urgent than if the narrator would have.
  2. There is a leap in time from when Chabert finally refuses his wife’s agreement because he discovers she wants to send him to an insane asylum and when the lawyers see him on the streets of Paris as a homeless man.

Perhaps I am acting too timidly in confronting Balzac and giving him a just review. I thoroughly enjoyed the book even if at its core is a legal story of a soldier out of time and place. It really speaks to the way soldiers are treated, like tragi-comic characters that society has to put up with instead of take care of.

Despite whatever service they performed for their country, they are relegated to whatever place society has left over for them. While Balzac’s novella may seems like a distant story of 1832, it is not too different from the way we treat our soldiers who return home from wars they barely understand. With PTSD and other injuries, soldiers return from the dead unable to play their former parts as husbands and citizens. The greatest crimes, as Pierre Barbéris writes in the preface to the novella, are the legal ones that happen behind closed doors. Modernity is one where the true drama is tied to some legal system, not one of dying kings and bloodshed.

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