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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Colonel Chabert

Honoré de Balzac

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To purchase Colonel Chabert

Title: Colonel Chabert
Author: Honoré de Balzac
Genre: Novel
Written: 1832 (Eng. 1997)
Length: 101 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Colonel Chabert - US
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Le Colonel Chabert - Canada
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  • French title: Le Colonel Chabert
  • Translated by Carol Cosman
  • Colonel Chabert has been translated numerous times, including by Andrew Brown (2003)
  • Colonel Chabert has been filmed numerous times, including the 1994 film directed by Yves Angelo and starring Gérard Depardieu and Fanny Ardant

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Our Assessment:

A- : quick but effective

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Colonel Chabert is a slim novella, barely more than a sketch -- and yet Balzac's strokes are so assured that it is a resonant work of considerable depth and power.
       The story is a simple one: Colonel Chabert had fought under Napoleon, and was "instrumental in the success of Murat's famous charge" in the Battle of Eylau (1807); a hero, everyone has come -- quite reasonably -- to believe that he died in the battle. But, against all odds, he survived. Long incapacitated, he was unable to convince anyone that he was who he claimed he was, everyone certain that Chabert was dead. And so he was: "rebuffed for ten years by his wife, by the law, by the whole social world", with his wife even remarrying in the meantime (her second marriage, to Count Ferraud, one where: "her vanity was satisfied as much as her passion").
       Finding his way eventually to an ambitious young lawyer, Derville -- who happens to be his widow's lawyer -- Chabert makes his case, and Derville is sufficiently convinced to agree to try to get him out of this fix. The law being the law, his estate having been settled, and Countess Ferraud now having two children by her new husband there is no easy solution, but Derville figures he can get the parties -- the former Mme. Chabert is essential to the proceedings -- to come to some arrangement. But Chabert's idealism (and/or naïveté‎), and his wife's deviousness, complicate matters.
       Ultimately, the new society will not have the Napoleonic hero. By the end, the resigned Chabert acknowledges:

I am no longer a man, I am number 164, room 7.
       With some colorful detail -- from Derville's late-night work habits to Chabert's choice of domiciles as Derville works on revivifying him -- as well as that great premise, Colonel Chabert is a quick but thoroughly entertaining read. One might wish for more embellishment -- much more could be made out of this story -- but even as is it packs a nice punch.
       As part of Balzac's Comédie humaine several of the figures in Colonel Chabert are also familiar from other works in the series, and it's amusing to see, for example, Godeschal just starting his career here as a lowly third clerk in Derville's office.
       An excellent and powerful little work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 18 October 2013

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Colonel Chabert: Reviews: Honoré de Balzac: Other books by Honoré de Balzac under review: Books about Honoré de Balzac under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       The great French author Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) is best known for his multi-volume 'Human Comedy'.

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