Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Chabert against the Record

In preparation for a class presentation, which will make use of our Napoleon collection, I recently read Honoré de Balzac’s Colonel Chabert (published in 1836). Chabert, one of Napoleon’s marshals, is believed to have died at the battle of Eylau. But he returns to Pairs during the Restoration to reclaim his fame, fortune, wife, and life. But the record denies him: “Unfortunately for me,” Chabert says to his lawyer, “my death is a matter of historical record, reported in detail in Victoires et Conquêtes.” He continues:
when I, a dead man, rise up against a death certificate, marriage licenses, and birth certificates, they show me the door … I’m buried beneath the living; beneath certificates, facts—the whole society would rather have me buried underground!

Although Chabert reestablishes his existence through various Prussian legal forms, documents cannot restore his life. In the end he disappears, resolving to remain dead and “no longer fearing the power of some document.”