Authors: Gérard de Nerval

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

French poet and short-story writer

Author Works

Poetry:

Elégies nationales, 1826

Poésies allemandes, 1830 (translation)

Petits Châteaux de Bohème, 1853 (includes poetry and prose)

Les Chimères, 1854 (English translation, 1965; also known as Chimeras, 1966)

Fortune’s Fool: Selected Poems, 1959

Short Fiction:

Les Illuminés, 1852

“Sylvie,” 1853 (English translation, 1922)

Les Filles du feu, 1854 (Daughters of Fire, 1922)

Drama:

Faust, pb. 1827, enlarged pb. 1840 (translation of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s play)

Piquillo, pb. 1837 (with Alexandre Dumas, père)

Léo Burckart, pr., pb. 1839 (with Dumas, père)

Alchimiste, pb. 1839 (with Dumas, père)

Chariot d’enfant, pb. 1850 (with Joseph Méry)

L’Imagier de Harlem, pr. 1851

Nonfiction:

Voyage en Orient, 1851 (Journey to the Orient, 1972)

Promenades et souvenirs, 1854-1856

Aurélia, 1855 (English translation, 1932)

Miscellaneous:

Selected Writings, 1957

Biography

Many writers’ lives reflect a spiritual quest. Rarely, however, do personal experience, history, myth, and dream fuse so completely as they did in the life of Gérard de Nerval (nehr-vahl). Wide literary explorations, particularly into metaphysical German Romanticism; fascination with the occult, coupled with an enduring interest in the strangely evocative simplicity of folk song and legend; an insatiable wanderlust, leading to extended travels in Italy, Germany, and the Middle East (documented in Journey to the Orient), and many excursions in and about Paris (Promenades et souvenirs); intense probing of the half-perceived realm where, according to his friend Théophile Gautier, “the soul becomes aware of invisible relationships, of previously unnoticed coincidences”–reflected in his writings, all these paths led him to “states of supernaturalistic revery” in which barriers of time and identity dissolved.{$I[AN]9810000414}{$I[A]Nerval, Gérard de}{$S[A]Labrunie, Gérard;Nerval, Gérard de}{$I[geo]FRANCE;Nerval, Gérard de}{$I[tim]1808;Nerval, Gérard de}

Gérard de Nerval

(Library of Congress)

Born Gérard Labrunie in 1808, as a writer Nerval differs from his Romantic contemporaries in transmuting his personal experiences and literary and occult gleanings into a highly complex personal mythology. In his distilled reminiscences survive some of the most richly musical, hauntingly suggestive yet lucid prose and poetry of the pre-Symbolist period. Through translations he played an important role in introducing the folk-like ballads of G. A. Bürger, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Heinrich Heine to the French public. His own early poetry, collected as Les Odelettes, reveals a gift for form at once simple, delicate, and firm. Yet his taste for simplicity of expression blended with the vision of a mystic. The Germany of Friedrich Hölderlin and Jean-Paul Richter, and of the fantastic tales of E. T. A. Hoffmann, had a powerful appeal to him. At the age of eighteen he was at work on his translation of Faust, a poetic accomplishment that won the praises of Goethe. The drama Léo Burckart, written in collaboration with Alexandre Dumas, père, is an attempt to evoke the atmosphere of the cabalistic societies that were widespread in Germany early in the nineteenth century.

The focal point of Nerval’s quest is a lifelong pursuit of that one woman who would be at once spouse, virgin, and goddess: would be, above all, the mother who had died before he was two. During his childhood, spent with an uncle in the Valois region, he met the first of the women who would later contribute to his feminine myth. Sophie Dawes, Baronne Adrien de Feuchères, appears as “Adrienne” in the poetic short story “Sylvie,” inspiring the youthful author-narrator with an “impossible and vague love” that makes him forget his childhood love for Sylvie.

Most important among his loves was Jenny Colon, a moderately talented light-opera performer. In 1835, shortly after discovering her, he founded a review, Le Monde dramatique, in which to sing her praises. The venture ended with the exhaustion of his small inheritance. Although still other women caught his fancy, none became truly his until long after definitive separation. The real, the attainable could never satisfy Nerval.

Jenny Colon provided the prototype for the central figure of Aurélia, a reincarnation of the fabled queen of Sheba and of Isis, the goddess of love and death. In this, his final and major prose work, he recounts the visions through which he lived during his recurrent bouts with madness. As the world of dreams and symbols became more and more clearly a “second life” for him, he came to see himself moving in a Pythagorean universe of recurrent archetypal patterns. Poetry, dream, and reality combine with most haunting effect in Les Chimères, a set of sonnets in which Nerval’s profoundest personal experiences take on mythical stature in the half-light of mysticism. In recording the “infinite delights of the imagination” freed from “what men call sanity” he was partaking in that freemasonry of writers, from William Blake and Edgar Allan Poe to Richter and even Nikolai Gogol, who dared to explore the subconscious.

Nerval’s best works did not find their public until the twentieth century, and his influence was greatest for such later poets as Charles Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé, and T. S. Eliot. Nevertheless, Nerval could, by his mid-forties, look with pride on a respectable number of published works and a certain literary reputation. His real goal, however, remained not literary fame but the Beloved One who would lead him, like Dante Alighieri’s Beatrice, to his Truth. After Jenny Colon’s premature death, closely following that of Sophie Dawes, Nerval began to see in these events the promise that only in the shadowy realm “beyond the Acheron,” a realm he was convinced of having already visited twice in his fits of madness, would he find the object of his quest. One morning in January, 1855, he was found hanged from a lamppost in the Rue de la Vieille-Lanterne in Paris.

BibliographyBehdad, Ali. “Orientalist Desire, Desire of the Orient.” French Forum 15, no. 1 (January, 1990): 37-51. This article provides useful background on the psychological implications of Nerval’s fascination with the East. The story of Adoniram is discussed in relationship to its context in the storytelling tradition of Constantinople. The veiled women of the East symbolize another aspect of the separation between Nerval and the woman who represents his ideal, and the author sees this concealment as increasing desire.Dubruck, Alfred. Gérard de Nerval and the German Heritage. The Hague: Mouton, 1965. This study of German influences in Nerval’s work cites E. T. A. Hoffmann, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Heinrich Heine. Chapter 2, “The Fantastic Tale,” traces the evolution of stories featuring illusions and dreams which, partly because of Hoffmann’s influence, became popular in France and encouraged Nerval’s use of fantasy and doubled characters.Dunn, Susan. “Nerval and Money: The Currency of Dreams.” Nineteenth-Century French Studies 19, no. 1 (Fall, 1990): 54-64. This discussion of “Sylvie” relates money to the distinctions of social class that separate the characters. Nerval’s own attitude is described as ambivalent in that he is torn between a bohemian disdain for money and a regard for its importance in conferring status. This dualism distinguishes the narrator of “Sylvie” from Nerval himself. The article also comments on money in “Angélique” and “La Pandora.”Jones, Robert Emmet. Gérard de Nerval. New York: Twayne, 1974. This volume situates Nerval within the Romantic movement in France. The section on Nerval’s prose begins with an analysis of the Journey to the Orient including elements from the story of Adoniram that parallel those of Nerval’s life. “The Eternal Woman” discusses stories from Daughters of Fire, and “Quest, Dreams and Transcendence” discusses the psychology revealed in Aurélia.Knapp, Bettina L. Gérard de Nerval: The Mystic’s Dilemma. University: The University of Alabama Press, 1980. Organized as a biography, Knapp’s study includes chapters on Nerval’s principal stories. Chapter 13, “The Queen of Sheba and Adoniram,” shows how Nerval modified the original biblical story of Solomon. Chapters 17 through 19, “Angélique,” “Sylvie,” and “Isis, the Cult of the Madonna,” trace mythic elements in Daughters of Fire and ways in which Nerval used them and identified with them. Chapter 21, “Aurélia,” traces parallels with Nerval’s illness.Lokke, Kari. Gérard de Nerval: The Poet as Social Visionary. Lexington, Ky.: French Forum, 1987. This thematic study uses Nerval’s stories to define the nature of his hallucinations and his concept of “the other.” Chapter 2, “Woman: The Other as Sister,” draws chiefly on the stories of Daughters of Fire.MacLennan, George. Lucid Interval: Subjective Writing and Madness in History. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1992. A history of literature and mental illness with particular attention to the work of Nerval. Includes bibliographical references and index.Rhodes, S. A. Gérard de Nerval 1808-1855: Poet, Traveler, Dreamer. New York: Philosophical Library, 1951. This biography offers useful background on Jenny Colon and how Nerval linked her to the Queen of Sheba. Chapter 13 treats the story of Adoniram as a minor part of Nerval’s trip to the East. Chapters 21 through 25 go into more detail on the stories of Daughters of Fire in the context of Nerval’s mental state.Rinsler, Norma. Gérard de Nerval. London: Athlone Press, 1973. This volume begins with a brief biography. Chapter 5 summarizes plots and discusses structures in Daughters of Fire. Chapter 6 on “La Pandora” considers separately this story that Nerval had thought to include in the previous collection. Both chapters stress Nerval’s relationships with women. Chapter 7, on Aurélia, shifts to an emphasis on his illness.Strauss, Jonathan. “Death-Based Subjectivity in the Creation of Nerval’s Lyric Self.” Espirit Créateur 35, no. 4 (Winter, 1995): 83-94. Strauss focuses on Nerval’s lyric poetry, specifically his most famous sonnet, “El Desdichado,” in the context of the influence of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. This discussion raises issues of the author’s alienation from himself that illuminate the use of doubled characters in the short stories.Strauss, Jonathan. Subjects of Terror: Nerval, Hegel, and the Modern Self. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1998. Despite the mention of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel in the title, this is a book about Nerval. The first two chapters deal with Hegel and other influences in order to put Nerval’s madness in context in chapter 3, ending with an overview of Daughters of Fire. Chapter 4 focuses on “Les Faux Saulniers,” an extract from “L’Abbé de Bucquoy” from Les Illuminés.Tyers, Meryl. Critical Fictions: Nerval’s “Les Illuminés.” Oxford, England: Legenda, 1998. Provides the background for Nerval’s publication of the collected volume Les Illuminés and an outline of the six previously published pieces collected to make up the volume. Analyzes the critical and scholarly reception of Nerval from his own time onward.
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