“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.