More Balzac, Please: “Colonel Chabert,” A Breathtaking Novella

Balzac

If you are are always asking for “more Balzac, please,” you comb every bookstore for his books. Is Honoré de Balzac the best French writer of the 19th century? Some might say Flaubert, and they might be right, but few books are more entertaining than Balzac’s series, La Comedie Humaine.

Some months ago when a used bookstore employee asked if she could help me, I whimsically asked, “Do you have any Balzac?” Most stores have a few of his masterpieces, but I hoped to find something I hadn’t read.

“Balzac?” She led me to the shelves filled with sets. “Well,” she said brightly, “looks like we’ve got a set right from the 19th century.”

I didn’t want to squash her kindness, but I am allergic to old books with uncut pages that flake in my hands. The old paper makes my hands raw. One day I’ll find some old books in mint condition!

Perhaps fifteen or twenty of Balzac’s books are in-print, among them such masterpieces as Cousin Pons and Old Goriot,but a few years ago I did come across a new-to-me novella, Colonel Chabert, published in 1997 by New Directions and translated by Carol Cosman. I read this poignant, compelling novella over the holidays. And I loved it.

The gallant Colonel Chabert, a Napoleonic war veteran, is one of Balzac’s most endearing characters. One morning he shows up in despair at a lawyer’s office. He wears a filthy ragged coat, and the clerks mock him and call him “Old Greatcoat.” One clerk even throws pellets of bread at him. The colonel doesn’t care if they mock him: when they claim the lawyer Derville is only in the office after midnight, Chabert is unfazed. He shows up at midnight, and Derville happens to drop in for a minute in his evening clothes.

Derville, a clever lawyer, is fascinated by the case. Colonel Chabert was declared dead after a battle, and his pension and fortune went to his widow, who has remarried and had two children. She is so greedy that she pretends not to recognize him when he tries to recoup his losses, as well as get her back. And the bureaucratic error that has stolen his identity and fortune cannot be reversed.

Fortunately, Derville thinks he can twist the judicial system and win. The biggest problem: Chabert still loves his wife.

Balzac’s descriptions of characters are always sharply-depicted, and his portrait of Chabert is painterly.

Colonel Chabert sat perfectly still, like one of the wax figures Godeschal had wanted to show his fellow clerks. This stillness would not have been so astonishing had it not completed the
otherworldly impression made by the man’s whole person. The old soldier was dry and lean. His forehead, deliberately hidden under the hat of his smooth wig, gave him a mysterious look. His eyes seemed covered with a transparent film or dirty enamel, whose bluish cast gleamed in the moonlight. The pale face, ghostly and knifelike–if I may use such an odd expression–seemed almost dead. His neck was tightly wound with a shabby black silk cravat. Beneath this rag his body was so well hidden in darkness that a man of imagination would have thought the head itself was just a play of shadows, or maybe an unframed Rembrandt….

Illustration of Colonel Chabert

This gorgeous novella is intriguing, breathtaking, and believable. Darling Colonel Chabert! I will certainly reread this.

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