The Colonel at the center of this novella by Balzac was left for dead and buried in a mass grave during the Napoleonic battle at Eylau. After miraculously digging himself out and being ever-so-slowly nursed back to health by a farmer couple, he returns to Paris where he discovers that his wife has remarried, and that she treats the news of his survival as the scheme of an imposter and would-be usurper of her (his) fortune. Chabert is penniless, physically disfigured, and ridiculed by those who hear him tell of his battlefield experience. He convinces a lawyer to take his case in the fight to restore his name and fortune, but his dignity and honor are no match for human avarice and callous disregard.
This powerful moral tale, told in Balzac’s capable yarn-spinning style, contains some of the darkest views of humanity to be found anywhere in his multivolume The Human Comedy. That the human condition has not improved since then can be readily confirmed by a casual glance at the daily newspaper. The book ends with the last encounter between the destitute and raving Chabert and his lawyer, Derville, who gives Chabert some alms and afterward tells an associate that he is leaving the practice of law and bitterly condemns the egregious behavior he has seen throughout his career, the multitude of “crimes that justice is powerless to rectify.”
I picked up Colonel Chabert after reading about it at length in Javier Marías’s recently translated book The Infatuations – a novel that opens with a shocking murder and is deeply concerned with questions of desire, moral erosion and the slippery slope of rationalized self-interest. The Infatuations also features some beautiful writing about grief. I encourage you to read both.