NERVAL, Gerard de (LITERATURE)

Born: Gerard Labrunie in Paris, France, 22 May 1808. Education: Educated at Lycee Charlemagne, Paris, 1820-28; possibly apprenticed to a printer and studied law; studied medicine to 1834. Career: Led a life of wandering; after inheriting money from his grandfather in 1834 founded Le Monde Dramatique, 1835; drama critic, La Presse, and contributor to other journals from 1838. Suffered first mental breakdown in 1841; hospitalized in mental clinics, 1849, 1851, 1853, 1854. Died: (suicide) 26 January 1855.

Publications

Collections

Oeuvres completes, edited by Aristide Marie, Jules Marsan, and Edouard Champion. 6 vols., 1926-32.

Oeuvres complementaires, edited by Jean Richer. 1959-.

Oeuvres, edited by Jean Guillaume and Claude Pichois. 3 vols., 1984-93.

Aurelia and Other Writings, translated by Geoffrey Wagner, Robert Duncan and Marc Lowenthal. 1996.

Selected Writings, translated with an introduction by Richard Sieburth. 1999.

Verse

Elegies nationales. 1826.

Les Chimeres, in Les Filles du feu. 1854; edited by Norma Rinsler, 1973; as The Chimeras, translated by Andrew Hoyem, 1966; also translated by Derek Mahon, 1982; Peter Jay, 1984; translated by William Stone, 1999.

Fortune’s Fool: Thirty-Five Poems, translated by Brian Hill. 1959.


Plays

Piquillo, with Alexandre Dumas pere, music by Hippolyte Monpou (produced 1837). 1837.

Leo Burckart, with Alexandre Dumas pere (produced 1839). 1839.

L’Alchimiste, with Alexandre Dumas pere (produced 1839). 1839.

Les Montenegrins, with E. Alboize, music by Armand Limnander (produced 1849). 1849.

Le Chariot d’enfant, with Joseph Mery (produced 1850).

L’Imagier de Harlem, with Joseph Mery and Bernard Lopez, music by Adolphe de Groot (produced 1851). 1852.

Fiction

Le Marquis de Fayolle. 1849.

Contes et faceties. 1852.

Les Filles du feu. 1854; as Daughters of Fire, translated by James Whitall, 1923.

Aurelia. 1855; as Aurelia, translated by Richard Aldington, 1932; as Dreams and Life, translated by Vyvyan Holland, 1933; translated by Geoffrey Wagner, 1996; translated by Monique DiDonna, 2001.

Le Prince des Sots, edited by Louis Ulbach. 1866.

Other

Voyage en Orient. 1851; in part as The Women of Cairo, translated anonymously, 1929; as Journey to the Orient, edited by Norman Glass, 1972.

Les Illumines; ou, Les Precurseurs du socialisme. 1852.

Lorely. 1852.

Petits chateaux de Boheme: Prose etpoesie. 1853.

Promenades et souvenirs. 1854.

Selected Writings, edited by G. Wagner. 1958.

Le Carnet de Dolbreuse, edited by Jean Richer. 1967.

Editor, Choix des poesies de Ronsard. 1830.

Editor and translator, Choix de poesies allemandes. 1830.


Translator, Faust, by Goethe. 1828; enlarged edition, Faust, et Le Second Faust, 1840.

Critical Studies:

Nerval: LHomme et I’oeuvre by Leon Cellier, 1956; Nerval par lui-meme by Raymond Jean, 1964; Nerval and the German Heritage by Alfred Dubruck, 1965; Gerard de Nerval by Norma Rinsler, 1973; The Disinherited: The Life of Nerval by Benn Sowerby, 1973; The Style of Nerval’s Aurelia by William Beauchamp, 1976; Nerval’s Double: A Structural Study by Claire Gilbert, 1979; Gerard de Nerval’s Dilemma: The Mystic’s Dilemma by Bettina L. Knapp, 1980; There and Here: A Meditation on Gerard de Nerval by David Miller, 1982; Gerard de Nerval: The Poet as Social Visionary by Kari Lokke, 1987; Critical Fictions: Nerval’s Les Illumines by Meryl Tyers, 1998; Subjects of Terror: Nerval, Hegel, and the Modern Self by Jonathan Strauss, 1998.

Gerard de Nerval, who belonged to the generation of the younger Romantics, published his first volumes of verse while still at school, and translated Goethe’s Faust before he was 20. His precocious and graceful talent was threatened from his early thirties onwards by bouts of alternating depression and elation which led to several periods of treatment in clinics and to a widespread belief among his contemporaries that he was incurably mad. This reputation bedevilled criticism of his achievement for at least a century, since the more difficult of his works were labelled as incoherent or insane.

More recently it has become clear that late texts such as Aurelia (Dreams and Life) and ”Pandora” are accounts of a mind obsessed by the search for the ideal, distracted by guilt for its human failings, but lucidly aware of the sources of its problems. Early in the 20th century, Nerval was best known as a poet; his sonnets, Les Chimeres (The Chimeras), were rediscovered by the French Symbolists and acclaimed in both France and England as examples of ”pure” poetry. A more judicious approach to these immensely dense and complex poems may be attempted by way of the prose pieces in Les Filles du feu (Daughters of Fire), with which they were originally published: in ”Sylvie,” he offers a penetrating analysis of the dilemma of the French Romantics, torn between their heritage of 18th-century rationalism, their daily experience of social and political disorder, and their frustrated idealism; the clash between religion and reason appears again in ”Isis,” and also in the study of ”Quintus Aucler” in Les Illumines [The Illuminati]. Dreams and Life explores the role of dream as a non-rational mode of knowledge, and Nerval concludes that reason alone is not the road to salvation. ”Les Chimeres” means ”illusions,” but illusions may be consciously preferred, may indeed be necessary; and the world of the illusory ideal is brilliantly explored both in the sonnets and in ”Sylvie,” where the dream-like course of the narrative mirrors the theme.

Nerval’s writings are interrelated to a quite remarkable extent; almost every work finds echoes and inversions of its themes and images in other works ranging over the whole of his career. His concerns are deeply serious, but he is never solemn. Nor is he only a dreamer: fantasy, humour, and compassion are blended with sharp observation in ”Les Nuits d’octobre” [October Nights], in ”Angelique,” in Promenades et Souvenirs [Excursions and Memories], and in his travel books. The sonnets are technically very interesting, using a method of juxtaposition later much favoured by the Surrealists, but creating thereby a coherent network of musical echoes and resonant images which maps a mental landscape, engaging the reader’s understanding without asking for his indulgence. Difficult poetry, in the sense that they demand very close attention to syntax and to what the words are actually saying, the sonnets are tightly organized structures which a relaxed and ”lyrical” reading will fail to grasp; but dignified and approachable poetry in which, Nerval believed, he had managed to say what was most important to him, and in which he offers his account of a ”descent into Hell” as a modest guide and encouragement to others. ”The experience of each of us,” he said, ”is treasure for us all.”

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