Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Spirit of the Epoch


In his 1920 preface to the collection of stories in A Set of Six, Joseph Conrad wrote about the background of "The Duel" (which was adapted to film by a young Ridley Scott in 1977 and retitiled The Duellists [1]): "I had heard in my boyhood a good deal of the great Napoleonic legend. I had a genuine feeling that I would find myself at home in it, and "The Duel" is the result of that feeling, or, if the reader prefers, of that presumption."

Conrad, whose command of French was as enthusiastic - if not as dedicated - as his command of English (to the extent that some critics, like Arnold Bennett, could detect a decidedly French turn of phrase in his writing), found the idea for the story in a "small provincial paper" in the south of France. A report mentioned a fatal duel between two well-known men, and compared it to a series of duels between two officers in Napoleon's army. From this obscure reference Conrad set about to write "a bit of historical fiction" that, he hoped, might capture the "Spirit of the Epoch - never purely militarist in the long clash of arms, youthful, almost childlike in ite exaltation of sentiment - naively heroic in its faith."

As tempting as it is to see Conrad's story as a bit of quixotic nonsense - a fantasy of roguish honor set during a period of constantly shifting loyalties, when contests of arms, either on a national or a personal scale, were an all-too-common fact of life for most Europeans, I think it can be viewed today as a subtle satire of the era when duelling, which was seen as a horrifically stupid waste of manhood when Conrad wrote his story, was commonplace. You can find duels in so many 19th century novels, and the influence of Byronism that drove both Pushkin and Lermontov to die in duels was pernicious. Certainly the villain of Conrad's story, Feraud, is depicted by Conrad as a completely unreasoning lout who would never be satisfied until D'Hubert or himself were dead.

If you want a story that captures the true spirit of an epoch marked in equal measure by extremes of honor and brutality, with the map of Europe pitted with battlefields on which thousands of men perished and were buried in mass graves, you should read the novel Colonel Chabert by Honore De Balzac. Balzac was, after all, a contemporary of the epoch, and his story recounts the strange fate of a Colonel in Napoleon's cavalry who fought, and was apparently killed at the battle of Eylau on February 8, 1807.

Balzac's choice of Eylau, or Preussich-Eylau, in what is now Poland, couldn't have been better for his purposes. Ending in a virtual stalemate, it was one of the most savage and pointless battles of the whole bloody era. In the words of Napoleon's private secretary and biographer, Fauvelet de Bourrienne, "The battle of Eylau was terrible. Nearly the whole French army was engaged in [it] - one of the most sanguinary ever fought in Europe." The American historian, William Sloane, wrote that "the losses were virtually equal - about eighteen thousand men on each side. The dead were strewn thick over the field, and in someplaces were piled in heaps. On the white background of a Northern winter the carnage was terribly apparent."

In Balzac's novel, a man turns up in the offices of a young Parisian attorney named Derville, identifying himself as Chabert. Derville asks him, "The Colonel who was killed at Eylau?" "The same, monsieur," he replies simply. When the Colonel removes his hat before Derville, he reveals a hideous scar "beginning at the nape of the neck and ending over the right eye." He then relates to the attorney how he got the scar, in an account that is so strange and horrible that it could only be the truth:

"You know, perhaps," said the dead man, "that I commanded a cavalry regiment at Eylau. I was of important service to the success of Murat's famous charge which decided the victory. Unhappily for me, my death is a historical fact, recorded in Victoires et Conquetes, where it is related in full detail. We cut through the three Russian lines, which at once closed up and formed again, so that we had to repeat the movement back again. At the moment when we were nearing the Emperor, after having scattered the Russians, I came against a squadron of the enemy's cavalry. I rushed at the obstinate brutes. Two Russian officers, perfect giants, attacked me both at once. One of them gave me a cut across the head that crashed through everything, even a black silk cap I wore next my head, and cut deep into the skull. I fell from my horse. Murat came up to support me. He rode over my body, he and all his men, fifteen hundred of them—there might have been more! My death was announced to the Emperor, who as a precaution—for he was fond of me, was the master—wished to know if there were no hope of saving the man he had to thank for such a vigorous attack. He sent two surgeons to identify me and bring me into Hospital, saying, perhaps too carelessly, for he was very busy, 'Go and see whether by any chance poor Chabert is still alive.' These rascally saw-bones, who had just seen me lying under the hoofs of the horses of two regiments, no doubt did not trouble themselves to feel my pulse, and reported that I was quite dead. The certificate of death was probably made out in accordance with the rules of military jurisprudence.

Certain circumstances, known, I suppose to no one but the Almighty, compel me to speak of some things as hypothetical. The wounds I had received must presumably have produced tetanus, or have thrown me into a state analogous to that of a disease called, I believe, catalepsy. Otherwise how is it conceivable that I should have been stripped, as is the custom in time of the war, and thrown into the common grave by the men ordered to bury the dead?

When I came to myself, monsieur, I was in a position and an atmosphere of which I could give you no idea if I talked till to-morrow. The little air there was to breathe was foul. I wanted to move, and found no room. I opened my eyes, and saw nothing. The most alarming circumstance was the lack of air, and this enlightened me as to my situation. I understood that no fresh air could penetrate to me, and that I must die. This thought took off the sense of intolerable pain which had aroused me. There was a violent singing in my ears. I heard—or I thought I heard, I will assert nothing—groans from the world of dead among whom I was lying. Some nights I still think I hear those stifled moans; though the remembrance of that time is very obscure, and my memory very indistinct, in spite of my impressions of far more acute suffering I was fated to go through, and which have confused my ideas.

"But there was something more awful than cries; there was a silence such as I have never known elsewhere—literally, the silence of the grave. At last, by raising my hands and feeling the dead, I discerned a vacant space between my head and the human carrion above. I could thus measure the space, granted by a chance of which I knew not the cause. It would seem that, thanks to the carelessness and the haste with which we had been pitched into the trench, two dead bodies had leaned across and against each other, forming an angle like that made by two cards when a child is building a card castle. Feeling about me at once, for there was no time for play, I happily felt an arm lying detached, the arm of a Hercules! A stout bone, to which I owed my rescue. But for this unhoped-for help, I must have perished. But with a fury you may imagine, I began to work my way through the bodies which separated me from the layer of earth which had no doubt been thrown over us—I say us, as if there had been others living! I worked with a will, monsieur, for here I am! But to this day I do not know how I succeeded in getting through the pile of flesh which formed a barrier between me and life. You will say I had three arms. This crowbar, which I used cleverly enough, opened out a little air between the bodies I moved, and I economized my breath. At last I saw daylight, but through snow!

"At that moment I perceived that my head was cut open. Happily my blood, or that of my comrades, or perhaps the torn skin of my horse, who knows, had in coagulating formed a sort of natural plaster. But, in spite of it, I fainted away when my head came into contact with the snow. However, the little warmth left in me melted the snow about me; and when I recovered consciousness, I found myself in the middle of a round hole, where I stood shouting as long as I could. But the sun was rising, so I had very little chance of being heard. Was there any one in the fields yet? I pulled myself up, using my feet as a spring, resting on one of the dead, whose ribs were firm. You may suppose that this was not the moment for saying, 'Respect courage in misfortune!' In short, monsieur, after enduring the anguish, if the word is strong enough for my frenzy, of seeing for a long time, yes, quite a long time, those cursed Germans flying from a voice they heard where they could see no one, I was dug out by a woman, who was brave or curious enough to come close to my head, which must have looked as though it had sprouted from the ground like a mushroom. This woman went to fetch her husband, and between them they got me to their poor hovel.

"It would seem that I must have again fallen into a catalepsy—allow me to use the word to describe a state of which I have no idea, but which, from the account given by my hosts, I suppose to have been the effect of that malady. I remained for six months between life and death; not speaking, or, if I spoke, talking in delirium. At last, my hosts got me admitted to the hospital at Heilsberg.

"You will understand, Monsieur, that I came out of the womb of the grave as naked as I came from my mother's; so that six months afterwards, when I remembered, one fine morning, that I had been Colonel Chabert, and when, on recovering my wits, I tried to exact from my nurse rather more respect than she paid to any poor devil, all my companions in the ward began to laugh. Luckily for me, the surgeon, out of professional pride, had answered for my cure, and was naturally interested in his patient. When I told him coherently about my former life, this good man, named Sparchmann, signed a deposition, drawn up in the legal form of his country, giving an account of the miraculous way in which I had escaped from the trench dug for the dead, the day and hour when I had been found by my benefactress and her husband, the nature and exact spot of my injuries, adding to these documents a description of my person.”


The Colonel had come to the attorney not only to establish that he was alive but also to get back some of the fortune that his widow had inherited. Chabert had written to his widow, who was now remarried and carried the title (coincidentally with Conrad's story) of "Countess Ferraud," but he was dismissed as a meddlesome lunatic. Charenton, the notorious French lunatic asylum, was of course a place that Chabert wanted to stay out of. The only thing that Derville could promise him was some kind of settlement from his widow - whose second marriage, if Chabert were proved to be alive, would therefore have been illegal. After many months of legal maneuvering, which included a face to face meeting between Chabert and his wife, Derville closed his case in defeat. Years later - in 1840 - he was visiting Bicetre, an old age infirmary in which he discovered Chabert, now very old and senile, was one of its inmates. When they approach the old man, Derville tells his assistant, "That old man is a whole poem, or, as the romantics say, a drama."

"Halfway up the avenue [at Bicetre] they found the old man sitting on the trunk of a felled tree. With his stick in one hand, he was amusing himself with drawing lines in the sand. . . ." They gave him two twenty-franc coins, to which he says,

"'Brave troopers!' He ported arms, pretending to take aim at them, and shouted with a smile: 'Fire! both arms! Vive Napoleon!' And he drew a flourish in the air with his stick."

"What a destiny!" exclaimed Derville. "Taken out of the Foundling Hospital to die in the Infirmary for the Aged, after helping Napoleon between whiles to conquer Egypt and Europe."


Balzac made no claims for capturing the Spirit of the Epoch in that old man's panache, but how much closer it gets, I think, to the true face of the Napoleonic era. He closes the novel with an honest confession from Derville:

"Do you know, my dear fellow," Derville went on after a pause, "there are in modern society three men who can never think well of the world—the priest, the doctor, and the man of law? And they wear black robes, perhaps because they are in mourning for every virtue and every illusion. The most hapless of the three is the lawyer. When a man comes in search of the priest, he is prompted by repentance, by remorse, by beliefs which make him interesting, which elevate him and comfort the soul of the intercessor whose task will bring him a sort of gladness; he purifies, repairs and reconciles. But we lawyers, we see the same evil feelings repeated again and again, nothing can correct them; our offices are sewers which can never be cleansed.

"How many things have I learned in the exercise of my profession! I have seen a father die in a garret, deserted by two daughters, to whom he had given forty thousand francs a year! I have known wills burned; I have seen mothers robbing their children, wives killing their husbands, and working on the love they could inspire to make the men idiotic or mad, that they might live in peace with a lover. I have seen women teaching the child of their marriage such tastes as must bring it to the grave in order to benefit the child of an illicit affection. I could not tell you all I have seen, for I have seen crimes against which justice is impotent."


(1) The hero of Scott's film is neither D'Hubert nor Feraud (played, inexplicably, by two Americans - the colorless Keith Carradine and the original "bad lieutenant," Harvey Keitel), but the cinematographer Frank Tidy, who conjures up vistas, especially in the film's last astonishing scene, that match the romantic atmosphere of the story.
(2) Colonel Chabert, too, was made into a film in 1943 with Raimu and in 1994, with Gerard Depardieu in the title role. Depardieu was marvelous, but how I wish I could see Raimu in the role.

No comments: