Balzac nailed it.

“I have learned so much practicing my profession! I have seen a father die in a garret without a sou or a stitch of clothing, abandoned by two daughters to whom he’d given 40,000 pounds income! I have seen wills burned. I have seen mothers rob their children; husbands steal from their wives; wives use love to kill their husbands or drive them mad–in order to live in peace with a lover. I have seen women teach their legitimate children tastes that will surely be the death of them, while favouring some love child. I cannot tell you everything I have seen because I have seen crimes that justice is powerless to rectify. In the end, none of the horrors that novelists believe they’ve invented can compare to the truth. You’ll soon become acquainted with such charming things yourself; as for me, I am moving to the country with my wife. I am sick of Paris.”

This is a speech made by the lawyer Derville to his clerk Godeschal at the very end of Balzac’s novella Colonel Chabert. In the first speech, taken from the book, those familiar with Balzac can identity some of the characters Derville refers to. There’s a similar speech in the film version, but it takes place much earlier in the film, and in this scene Derville (Fabrice Luchini) speaks to Chabert (Gerard Depardieu).

“Lawyers see worse things than writers can invent. I’ve seen wills burned, mothers despoil their lawful children on behalf of those bred in adultery, wives use their husbands’ love to murder them or drive them mad so as to live with their lovers. I’ve seen ugly quarrels over still-warm corpses. I have seen crimes, Sir, that human justice is powerless to punish. Our offices are sewers that no one can clean.”

The speech is altered but we get the point: Derville, in his professional capacity as a lawyer, has witnessed some horrendous acts of human behaviour.

Balzac’s novella is the story of a man who arrives in Paris claiming to be Colonel Chabert–one of Napoleon’s trusted soldiers who fell at the battle of Eylau. It’s been years since the battle, and the man who claims to be Chabert argues that due to his injuries he was unable to return earlier. Now back in Paris to claim his estate, he finds that his wife, a former prostitute, has married Count Ferraud, a Restoration society social climber. Since he can’t get his wife back, Chabert wants the return of his millions accumulated during Napoleon’s reign, but his wife is loath to give up a penny–plus to acknowledge Chabert’s claim will render the children she has with Count Ferraud bastards, the issue of a polygamous marriage. And this is where the lawyer Derville comes in…

I saw the film in 1994, and it remains one of my favourite films of all time–the acting, the scenery, the story are all incredible, but there’s something about the quote from Balzac’s novel (and the speech in the film version) that sticks with me. A day doesn’t go by without recalling these 2 scenes–one literary and the other cinematic. 1994 was some time ago–almost 20 years, and in this passage of time, I’ve seen some of the things Derville/Balzac describes.  I’ve known wills to be destroyed and the frantic post death looting of estates. I’ve seen wives longing for their diseased husbands to die, I’ve seen husbands dump their dying wives, I’ve seen husbands stealing from their wives, children stealing from their ancient parents, and I’ve seen people driven mad by their spouses. Ok, no garrets and the illegitimate thing doesn’t translate well to today’s world, but bottom line, Balzac nailed the “sewers” of human behaviour. Put money in the equation, and morality goes out the window.

And this brings me to Derville. Why does Derville decide to champion Chabert’s cause? Is this just a whimsical decision? I don’t think so. When Derville meets Chabert, he has just won “300 francs at cards,” and he tells Chabert “I can certainly use half of that to make a man happy.” He gives Chabert a daily allowance of 100 sous a day while he investigates the legitimacy of Chabert’s claim. Once Derville establishes the facts, he contacts Colonel Chabert’s wife who is now the Countess Ferraud, and the games begin….

Derville seems partly motivated by altruism and partly by curiosity. Does he want “justice“–whatever that is in this complex case to prevail? As he tells his clerk:

We see the same ill feelings repeated again and again, never corrected. Our offices are gutters that cannot be cleansed.

Himadri over at The Argumentative Old Git recently wrote a blog post about a passage from literature that he holds dear, and he suggested that others do the same. This is my contribution. Perhaps my choice isn’t so contemplative or as beautiful as Himadri’s passage from Anna Karenina, but my choice puts my life in perspective. I’m often told that I’m cynical, but then I think of Derville–one of my literary heroes and silently shrug. No wonder I admire Balzac’s work.


Filed under Balzac, Blogging, Fiction

28 responses to “Balzac nailed it.

  1. I suppose I’m rather cynical as well, so I can relate to the passage too.
    I haven’t seen as much as you seem to have witnessed but overall, greed and petty selfishness seem far too common to be noticed by most. Overall, I’m not impressed with human nature.
    As to Derville, I think he is a truly good character

  2. Great post Guy, sounds like an excellent book. I really should…
    …you know the rest 😉

  3. Bravo! Great review of , in my opinion, Balzac’s finest work of literature. This book along with Pere Goriot are the two reasons that I became a fan of Balzac. In fact, in my FB profile pic, I am standing next to his grave at Pere Lachaise cemetiere, the resting place of Old Goriot!

  4. Ian

    I often read your posts, but rarely comment. But I ‘ve also been thinking about “Le Colonel Chabert’ recently, having watched the film a couple of weeks ago. A bit like Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le Noir, one of the main themes seems to be- the heroic age of Napoleon has been replaced by something far more cynical, more mediocre. Under Napoleon a child – Chabert- who grew up in an orphanage could become a general, and in return would revere the Emperor as the only father he ever knew. Under the new regime, those same old soldiers, those heroes of Napoleon’s campaigns, are rejected by a society which values status above all else, including love.

    Derville’s words read like Balzac’s own words. Derville is one of those characters who keeps cropping up in Balzac’s work- he’s Balzac’s representative ‘good lawyer’ especially where there are underhand financial machinations. And like Balzac he sees the worst of human nature. The ‘father who dies in a garret’ sounds a lot like Pere Goriot.

    • One of my favourite scenes in the film (and there are a lot) is when Col. Chabert is in his home drinking (champagne, wine?) in full uniform with this crazy sort of gluttony while he’s laughing and whooping it up. There’s that idea of pillage as well as the notion that someone who thrived under Napoleon would be out in the cold under the next government and that brings to mind BLACK SHEEP–another fav. Balzac.

      Zola makes a point of showing the corruption and cynicism and the handing out of titles under N in HIS EXCELLENCY. Highly recommended. It makes you wonder what the revolution was all about… well the passing of stuff from one lot to another, I suppose.

      • Ian

        “N. in His Excellency”- that’d be Napoleon III, in the 1860s , but the corruption and social climbing satirized by Zola in the court and society of Napoleon le Petit (if you see Zola as satire, rather than just ‘realism’) is exactly the same as what Balzac was describing 40 years earlier. I’m trying to work my way through the Rougon Macquard series chronologically, but I admit I got stuck on “His Excellency”- the political novel. I should give it another go.

        • I mix up the Napoleons. Wished they’d thought of using another name (yes, I know that DY-Nasty stuff), but it’s like calling all your dogs Spot.

          I liked His Excellency–not one of the best, but I’d consider it one of the middle level books. I really got the sense of titles being passed back and forth. It can’t have been easy to stay in a soft spot through all the turmoil and change. You have a lot of the really good books to look forward to, I think.

  5. leroyhunter

    Great post. Must check the Old Git’s as well – great idea for a series.
    I’ve read hardly any Balzac but this is one I want to get to.

  6. I’m constantly surprised by how much the law was present in 19th century literature; it’s this new world that’s strange and bizarre that writers had to explore. I wonder if it was that strongly felt in French books as it was in English ones, in particular those of Wilkie Collins. If you compare Agatha Christie’s crime novels to those of Simenon, you’d find so much importance on the legal technicalities in the former which are barely considered in almost any of the Simenon I’ve read. I rarely recall the presence of a lawyer in a Maigret story.
    Regardless, I really enjoyed your post, I think the quote from the book is much better than that of the movie, nevertheless, I will try to get a hold of the movie version.

    • Do you think that the lack of legal technicalities in Simenon may be because sometimes Simenon’s characters run into their own sort of justice in the form of fate? In other words, does Simenon see the legal side of things as almost beside the point?

      • Yes I definitely think so. Even when Maigret cracks a case, it’s never justice that he is interested in, but the psychology of people. That said, it would be interesting to know how present was the law and its regulations present in French society at that period.

        • I read a book called THE CRIMES OF PARIS by Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler. The book is built around the 1911 theft of the Mona Lisa (surprisingly easy), and then goes into how crime detection developed in France including various methods criminal detection, infamous crimes and some of the seminal characters in the field. A good read if you’re at all interested in the subject.

  7. Thanks for the great review, Guy. (I’m from the Balzac blog.) I’m headed to Netflix to see if I can find the film – I was unaware of it!!

  8. Great post, I need to write my contribution to Himadri’s meme.

    I think Lucchini is the best choice to play Derville and even if I haven’t witnessed as many horrible behaviours as you seem to have, I have no illusion whatsoever about humanity. Greed turns human into beasts.

  9. PS: Jane Austen nailed it too in that incredible scene in Sense & Sensibility when Fanny persuades her husband that he doesn’t have to respect his father’s will so generously and grant a comfortable income to his step-mother and step-daughters.
    This passage stayed with me. It’s brilliant. She always has a romantic tag but she can be very caustic.

  10. Pingback: Sunday Caught My Interest « Reflections from the Hinterland

  11. Weird, I just read this thinking it was a new post but it’s from back in November. The email must have been buried somehow and just emerged.

    I’ve read this one and liked it a great deal. I should reread it, though I have so much unread Balzac of course. I should also definitely watch the film, which I’d forgotten about.

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