Gérard de Nerval Essay - Critical Essays

Gérard Labrunie


The definition of Gérard de Nerval’s style as a short-story writer involves distinguishing reality from fiction. In a variety of first-person narratives, Nerval alternates between autobiography and fantasy while concentrating, in both modes, on similar themes concerning a connection with a mythic past and the pursuit of an idealized woman.

Because of his mental illness, Nerval himself may not have separated his life from his fantasies. The exploitation of madness for literary inspiration follows readily from the views of the Romantic poets, both in France and in England, who tended to see their work as a result of inspired visions. Nerval, in turn, closely parallels usages of the French Symbolists. Arthur Rimbaud especially, both in poetry in “The Drunken Boat” and in prose in Une Saison en enfer (1873; A Season in Hell, 1932), described an unreal world he claimed to have derived from a “deranging of his senses.”

Because an element of madness was so closely associated with genius, Nerval found both personal and professional support and even governmental appointments that sponsored his travel. While he was fascinated by the Orient and invoked its ancient gods in the poems of Les Chimères, the prose turns more frequently to material from the early history of France. Nerval felt he had a deep connection to noble ancestors who had lived heroic lives. The references to traditional songs and dances as well as the descriptions of old manor houses and antique furniture that decorate his stories are all reminders of this mythic past.

The sense of continuity with the past underlines the stories of Les Illuminés. Daughters of Fire, presenting a series of idealized female characters, shows aspects of the eternally elusive woman who is separated from Nerval variously by marriage to another, by social constraints, or even by having lived in the past.

“Les Confidences de Nicolas”

“Les Confidences de Nicolas” typifies the collection Les Illuminés, to which Nerval gave the subtitle “Precursors of Socialism.” These are stories based on actual figures from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries but highly fictionalized with the creation of subordinate characters and considerable dialogue.

This is the story of the eighteenth century author Nicolas-Edmé Restif de la Bretonne, usually referred to as “Restif” but whom Nerval familiarly calls “Nicolas” through most of the story. The name is significant both in that it separates the fiction from historical passages where Nerval uses “Restif” and in that the alliteration with Nerval’s own name parallels a link of his beloved Jenny Colon to the “Jeannette” of the story.

The plot follows the loves of Nicolas for a series of women: first an actress he admires; then Jeannette, from whom he is...

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