Nerval, Gérard de (Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)
Gérard de Nerval 1808-1855
(Born Gérard Labrunie) French poet, short story writer, dramatist, translator, novelist, essayist, and critic.
For additional information on Nerval's life and works, see .
Widely regarded as a precursor of the Symbolists and the Surrealists, Nerval was one of the first writers to explore the subconscious in fiction and poetry. Noted for his vivid delineation of hallucination and dreaming and for the far-reaching influence of his artistic vision, Nerval presented images in his works that originate from such diverse sources as art, mythology, religion, fantasy, and the occult. Plagued by mental illness for much of his life, Nerval is said to have derived his greatest creative energy from his madness, while the themes of his most highly esteemed works, notably Les chiméres (1854; The Chimeras) and Sylvie (1854; Sylvie: Recollections of Valois), are thought to have been directed by his several persistent personal obsessions.
Nerval was a small child when his mother died. He was raised by a great-uncle in the Valois, a rural region of France that appears in Sylvie and other works as an idyllic landscape. At age twenty he published a translation of Goethe's Faust, which Goethe himself acclaimed. Nerval became a member of the Jeune-France, a group of Romantic artists and writers who challenged the established classical school with radical artistic theories, flamboyant dress, and eccentric behavior. But Nerval's carefree bohemian life became troubled as increasingly severe money problems and mental difficulties befell him. Biographers suggest that Nerval's premature separation from his mother led to intense infatuations with women later in life; in his writing, women are depicted in various guises as unattainable embodiments of ideal femininity. The most enduring of these unrequited passions was for an actress named Jenny Colon, whose aloofness and early death hastened the deterioration of Nerval's mental health. Soon after her death, Nerval embarked on an extended journey through Egypt, Turkey, and Lebanon. This trip excited his imagination with mystical and exotic motifs and provided material for Voyage en Orient (1851; Journey to the Orient). Ironically, the madness that afflicted Nerval also heightened his artistic sensibility, and it was in his final, most painful years that he produced his greatest works. Nerval committed suicide by hanging himself from a railing in a Paris alley at the age of forty-six.
Nerval's first literary success came with his Journey to the Orient, a book of travel essays interjected with fictional elements. In 1854 Nerval published his first generally acclaimed masterwork, a compilation of short stories and poetry titled Les filles du feu (Daughters of Fire). Many of the minor narratives in this collection feature elements of fantasy and autobiography, as well as accounts of hallucinations, dreams, humor, and a treatment of the doppelgänger theme. The work also contains the story Sylvie. Merging fantasy with reality, the narrativ's protagonist, Gérard, struggles with his love for an imaginary, idealized woman, Aurelie-Adrienne, as well as the real Sylvie. Obsessed with the fantastic images of ideal women he fabricates in his mind, Gérard eventually destroys his chances of forming a relationship with the real woman. Also published as part of Les filles du feu, the sonnet sequence Les chiméres is considered by most critics to be Nerval's greatest poetic accomplishment. Each of the twelve sonnets is imbued with mythological and religious imagery, as well as themes derived from Nerval's own life. The poems of Les chiméres are interwoven, with recurring characters and allusions that parallel religious history and the alchemist's process of turning base metals into gold. The author's last published work, Aurélia (1855) suggests that each person lives a second life through his or her dreams. This story features a narrator who, after falling into a hallucinatory state, begins to see his doppelgänger. Using the figure of his double, Nerval in Aurélia presented his impressions of his own mental deterioration in a narrative he described as a symbolic "descent into hell."
Criticism of Nerval since his death has generally focused on the visionary quality of his writings and his influence on later writers. Charles Baudelaire and the Symbolists were inspired by his use of cryptic symbols and his fascination with hallucinatory states. The Surrealists celebrated Nerval as a spiritual ancestor, a courageous pioneer in the exploration of the subconscious. Also, Nerval's recreation of scenes from memory and reverie bears similarities to later stream-of-consciousness writing and prefigures the work of Marcel Proust, who called Nerval Aassuredly one of the three or four greatest writers of the nineteenth century. In recent years, scholars have begun to look more closely at Nerval's texts, particularly Sylvie, Les chiméres, and Aurélia, all of which were written during periods of madness. In these works critics commend Nerval's innovative use of dreams and visions, the semiotic qualities of his language, his copious references to mythology and religion, and the incorporation of events and people from his own life.
Faust de Göthe [translator] (poetry) 1828
Léo Burckart (drama) 1839
Voyage en Orient [Journey to the Orient] (travel essays) 1851
Les illuminés (sketches) 1852
Lorely: souvenirs d'Allemagne (travel essays) 1852
*Les filles du feu [Daughters of Fire] (short stories and poetry) 1854
†La rêve et la vie [Dreams and Life] (poetry and short stories) 1855
Selected Writings (poetry and short stories) 1957
Œuvres complètes. 10 vols. 1926-32
Œuvres. 2 vols. 1960-61
* Includes the short story Sylvie (translated as Sylvie: Recollections of Valois in 1887) and the collection of poems titled Les chiméres (translated as The Chimeras in 1933).
†Includes the short story Aurélia (translated as Aurelia in 1932).
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SOURCE: Introduction to Selected Writings of Gérard de Nerval, translated and with a Critical Introduction and Notes by Geoffrey Wagner, Grove Press, 1957, pp. 5-46.
[In the following excerpt, Wagner offers a survey of Nerval's works and a summary of his influence.]
Il n'y a qu'un problème philosophique vraiment sérieux: c'est le suicide. Juger que la vie vaut ou ne vaut pas la peine d'être vécue, c'est répondre à la question fondamentale de la philosophie.
Albert Camus, Le Mythe de Sisyphe
More than most writers Gérard de Nerval has suffered from failing to fall into any very definite period or genre. His influence has been wider than his appeal and he has not always come off well in the rather arid region of literary history for his work, like the work of any mystic poet, resists classification. André Gide, of all writers, has lately been referred to as a mystic and in the sense that his work was always concerned with spiritual values this surprising judgment is just enough. But if Nerval is anything, he is that rarity, a natural French mystic poet, and it was this aspect of his genius that demanded from him that withdrawal from what we call the social ego, that attempt to mount higher "pour nous isoler de la foule," as he put it, which has meant much to the surrealist writers of our century....
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SOURCE: "World of a Visionary," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 2933, May 16, 1958, pp. 261-62.
[In the following excerpt from an anonymous review of The Selected Writings of Gérard de Nerval, the critic comments on the wide appeal that Nerval's work has held for readers and critics over time.]
Gérard de Nerval's quasi-canonical status, attained in recent years, depends on a bewildering variety of appeals, exercised at different times and in different ways: the erotic pastoral of the tales associated with the scenery of the Île de France; the Bohemian note that attracted Andrew Lang; the blander landscapes of Giraudoux's "Théocrite d'outre-terre"; the dream images that caught the eye of Éluard and Breton; the esoteric hints and gestures, always sure of a small following; the pathetic witness to the power of repentance which Albert Béguin so persuasively (and so influentially) presents—the list is not exhaustive. Each decade of the present century has added to it, bringing into new focus one of the ten or so principal titles (Sylvie, Les Nuits du Ramazan, Les Chiméres, Aurélia. . .) and forming round it new perspectives. If we accept all these claims, then Nerval is a very considerable writer; if we challenge some, Nerval adepts have still much to rejoice over.
To his contemporaries, Gérard was simply a delightful journalist, half-successful...
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SOURCE: "An Approach to Nerval," in Imagination and Language: Collected Essays on Constant, Baudelaire, Nerval and Flaubert, Cambridge University Press, 1981, pp. 271-87.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1961, Fairlie discusses the prevailing themes and images in Nerval's Les Chimeres and Sylvie.]
The immensely increasing volume of detailed and often valuable research on Nerval has made it difficult for any but the most impenitent specialist to pretend to an understanding or an appreciation of his works. A generation ago it was easier to enjoy him with a clear conscience, and he was no recognized part of academic studies. Since then he has made a triumphal progress from log cabin to White House, and academic consecration was reached when he became a set author for the Agrégation. Even then, the Sorbonne seemed unhappy about how he might best be approached, for to their list of recommended reading they added the unusual, suggestive and badly-needed cautionary footnote: 'De valeur très inégale.'
When affectionate condescension for the charming minor romantic with a touching love-life and engaging eccentricities gave way to apotheosis, the results were at first chaotic and often unfortunate. The Nerval of the 1940s was often seen as a seer, communicating a gospel of transcendental value. Instead of his lobster on a blue ribbon he now held as obligatory attribute...
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SOURCE: "The Function of the Theater in the Work of Nerval," Modern Language Notes, Vol. 80, 1965, pp. 610-17.
[In the following essay, Sullivan examines Nerval's use of the theater as a religious and metaphysical image in his writing.]
Nerval is obsessed by the theatre. As if reflected in the pieces of a shattered mirror, the theater's every aspect—the stage, the actress, the play, the idea of the play—casts its particular image. The poet's attraction to the theater and his pervasive use of theatrical imagery have been related to biographical sources as various as these aspects of the theater themselves. The unsuccessful dramatist, the drama critic, and the "seigneur poète" of Sylvie stand well accounted for, and Nerval's impossible love for Jenny Colon must be a cornerstone for any interpretation of his work. But discussions of the theater in Nerval have stopped at this point; the mirror has remained shattered and the theater has been read as an abstract and disparate symbolism. On the assumption that the significance of the theater terminates in the psychological complex which forms it, a major Nervalian theme has passed unrecognized.
For Nerval, any symbol, any image, is incarnate; any symbol, any image performs a function in the poet's existential quest for salvation and possesses a basic unity in relation to that function. The theater fully partakes of this...
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SOURCE: "Comedy, Tragedy, and Madness in Nerval's Roman Tragique" Modern Language Notes, Vol. 89, No. 4, May, 1974, pp. 600-13.
[In the following essay, Zuckerman analyzes Nerval's difficulty with presenting a tragic vision in his novel Roman Tragique.]
Nerval presents the Roman tragique within the introduction to Les Filles du Feu as an illustration of his inability to write a novel from a comic perspective. The unfinished state of the Roman tragique, however, indicates that for Nerval writing a novel from a tragic perspective is equally problematic. In fact, the tragic novel continually puts its own structure into question, suggesting that for Nerval the language of the novel and a tragic vision of the world are in some sense incompatible.
The narrator of the Roman tragique begins his story by showing ways in which he is different from Destin, a character in Scarron's Roman comique; he concludes by showing ways in which he is different from Racine's tragic heroes. The problematic relationship between these two perspectives, and the narrator's inability to govern his passage from one to the other, provide the basic framework for the story. While the narrator describes himself as a comedian for whom comedy has disappeared, he is equally unable to identify with the position of the tragic hero. The language by means of which...
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SOURCE: "Nerval's Privileged Enclosures," in The Romantic Prison: The French Tradition, Princeton University Press, 1978, pp. 120-32.
[In the following essay, Brombert investigates "motifs of enclosure, escape, and freedom" in Nerval's work.]
"Politique (1831)," originally entitled "Cour de prison," is one of the most graceful poems of Petits Châteaux de Bohème. Its wistful sadness and flexible workmanship bring to mind Verlaine.
Sous ce règne élargie,
Où, rêveur et pensif,
Je vis captif,
Pas une herbe ne pousse
Et pas un brin de mousse
Le long des murs grillés
Et frais taillés!
Oiseau qui fends l'espace . . .
Et toi, brise, qui passe
Sur l'étroit horizon
De la prison,
Dans votre vol superbe,
Apportez-moi quelque herbe,
Quelque gramen, mouvant
Sa tête au vent!
Qu 'à mes pieds tourbillonne
Une feuille d'automne
Peinte de cent couleurs
Comme les fleurs!
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SOURCE: "Hakem," in Nerval's Double: A Structural Study," Romance Monographs, 1979, pp. 46-58.
[In the following essay, Gilbert analyzes the figure of the double in Nerval's story "L'Histoire du Calife Hakem."]
Two Nervalian heroes, Hakem and Spifame, were confined to an asylum for insanity, apparently as victims of a type of schizophrenia. They both have autoscopic experiences, a hallucinatory perception of one's own body image projected into external space.1 For both, there exist historical models which Nerval altered to fit his own experience. In providing the details of their speech and life, with obvious sympathy, Nerval invites his reader to examine these figures as projections of his own existential dilemma.
Hakem's story presents the most explicit treatment of the double, or autoscopic experience, in Nerval's writings; it forms the core model whose transformations can be traced in his other works. "L'Histoire du Calife Hakem," first published in 1847, appears in the Voyage en Orient. It was written six years after Nerval's first psychotic crisis in 1841, and was based on his 1843 trip to Egypt, Libya, and Turkey.
The historical Hakem was the ruler, or calife, of Cairo in the medieval period (993-1021). Besides his secular powers, he claimed godhood. The religion which became the Druse sect was founded to worship him (1017) by Darazi (hence the...
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SOURCE: "The Aesthetics of Madness," in Madness in Literature, Princeton University Press, 1980, pp. 247-78.
[In the following excerpt, Feder explicates Aurélia as a work depicting madness as a process of self-creation and discovery for Nerval]
The Aesthetics of Madness
The extremes of Gérard de Nerval's individual transformation of certain Romantic modes, like Nietzsche's, make his work, especially his prose, anomalous within its literary and historical period. Except for this characteristic, which seems a peculiar modernism, the two writers are utterly different, even in their visionary grandiosity. Despite the narcissistic isolation to which Nietzsche considers himself consigned as the last adherent of instinctual release in a repressive and decadent society, his concept of Dionysiac frenzy is a social one, a reformer's vision. But the madness that Nerval describes as his own experience has little to do with social or psychic reformation; it is an interpretation of the self within the cosmos through dreams and hallucinations. In Aurélia [citations from the Société D'Edition D'Enseignement Supérieor edition, 1971], the work in which his madness is his subject, he employs the primitivism, mysticism, and exoticism characteristic of much Romantic literature to develop a metamorphic style that recreates the processes of mental pathology, particularly...
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SOURCE: "Angelique" and "Sylvie," in Gérard de Nerval: The Mystic's Dilemma, University of Alabama Press, 1980, pp. 203-11; 211-25
[In the following excerpt, Knapp interprets the myths that Nerval created in Angelique and Sylvie, relating them to Nerval's own psychological states.]
Love that moves the sun and the other stars . . .
Dante, Divine Comedy, Paradise.
The Daughters of Fire,1 a remarkable work, includes a veritable metaphysics of fire, which takes on mythical and philosophical ramifications. The heroines of the tales in this volume—Angélique, Sylvie, Octavie, Isis, Corilla, Emilie—are all fire spirits, descendants of "that cursed race."
Fire is associated with solar symbolism and heroes: Helios or Phoebus Apollo; the worshippers of Mithra who looked upon the Sun as a conqueror: Sol Invictus. Because of the sun's daily rise and fall, it came to represent death and resurrection of the hero—the eternal repetition of life. The sun is a heroic force, synonymous with vital heat, creative energy, and a guide to man in his daily ventures. Heraclitus considered it a "mediator" between the created and the uncreated.2 Its energy (both spiritual and animal) makes it a catalyzing force capable of "transmuting" people and things,...
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SOURCE: "The 'Last Madness' of Gérard de Nerval," The Georgia Review, Vol. XXXVII, No. 1, Spring, 1983, pp. 131-38.
[In the following essay, Warren surveys prominent themes and images in Nerval's poetry and fiction.]
When Gérard de Nerval hanged himself on the night of 25 January 1855 in Rue de la Vieille Lanterne, a sordid Parisian alley, he inscribed himself into an already hackneyed romantic mythology which mingles poetry with death in a peculiar eros. In life he had already demonstrated himself picturesquely mad, walking his pet lobster on a blue ribbon in the park of the Palais-Royal; his death by hanging from the Queen of Sheba's garter (an old apron string), was more fantastic still. His contemporaries were not slow to respond to the event. In that year Gustave Dor created his famous lithograph depicting the slightly paunchy poet dangling from a grille fence while his female soul, of Rubenesque proportions, leans lovingly over him; a trumpet-playing skeleton pulls her up out of the shadows into what appears to be a cataract of heavenly ladies in negligé whooshing from a Gothic cathedral. So Nerval entered the ranks of the romantically insane, the martyrs to art. Years later, it was this stereotypical image of the poet that the young Mallarmé exorcised in "Le Guignon," in which the romantic poets, after a life of insult and torment, "ridiculously hang themselves from lamp posts." And it was as...
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SOURCE: "Nerval's 'Artemis,'" in Textual Analysis: Some Readers Reading, edited by Mary Ann Caws, The Modern Language Association of America, 1986, pp. 26-32.
[In the following essay, Kneller studies the language, imagery, and literary devices used in 'Artemis."]
The approaches to Les chimères of Gérard de Nerval have followed rather than anticipated the successive stages of literary criticism in France, Great Britian, and the United States. In brief, they have been extrinsic, intrinsic, and structural. For current purposes, extrinsic method will be synonymous with projection; intrinsic procedure will also go by the name of explication or commentary; and structural system will include not only structuralism but also semiotics and theories of reading.
After the thunderous silence of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Lansonian literary historians, who hardly mentioned Nerval in their manuals, practitioners of extrinsic methods prevailed after World War II and took two different courses. Some applied techniques of other fields, such as psychiatry, biography, astrology, and alchemy. Others attempted to use texts or parts of texts as a means of obtaining access to obscure parts of the poet's life. The first group, in their procrustean determination to make the evidence fit the theory, often stretched the text to death or cut off its head and feet. The second, by...
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SOURCE: "Woman: The Other as Sister,"in Gérard de Nerval: The Poet as Social Visionary, French Forum Publishers, 1987, pp. 65-103.
[In the following excerpt, Lokke discusses Nerval's social, psychological, and mythological portrayal of women in his prose.]
One glance at the titles of Nerval's major works shows women to be the heart, the center, of his fictional and poetic universe: Les Filles du feu (Angélique, Sylvie, Jemmy, Octavie, Isis, Corilla, Emilie), Pandora, Aurélia, Les Chimères ("Myrtho," "Delfica," "Artémis"). Even the Voyage en Orient seems less a travelogue than an attempt to come to terms with the feminine beauties of Austria in "Les Amours de Vienne," with Egyptian marriage customs in "Les Femmes du Caire" and with the problematics of love triangles in the tales of Hakem and of Solomon, Sheba and Adoniram.
This poet, who never knew his mother, who never married, who seemed most at ease with women when separated from them by the costumes, theatrical makeup and footlights of the stage, compensated for their absence in his life by granting them overwhelming power and presence in his art. The contemporary critic, inevitably looking at Nerval through the lens of current psychological and feminist theory, cannot help responding to such an obviously compensatory effort with a certain skepticism. Such an artist, one assumes, must be telling us...
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SOURCE: "Traveling from the Orient to Aurélia: Nerval Looks for the Words," in Acts of Fiction: Resistance and Resolution from Sade to Baudelaire, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996, pp. 101-24.
[In the following excerpt, Carpenter draws a connection between translation, language, and madness in Nerval's works, focusing on "Aurélia."]
Nerval was sensitive to the limitations inherent in translation even before he undertook to introduce his readers to the world of delirium in which he often sojourned. Entering the literary scene in 1828 with a new rendering of Faust, he prefaced his version of the epic with comments pertaining to the ultimate impossibility of translation: "Here is a third translation of Faust; and what is certain is that none of the three can say, 'Faust is translated!' It is not that I wish to cast any aspersions on the work of my predecessors, the better to conceal the weaknesses of my own, but rather that I consider a satisfactory translation of this stunning work to be impossible" (preface to Faust, 1).
"Impossible" presumably because of the idiosyncrasies of language: German is not simply a code of French, and its idioms are idiomatic precisely to the extent that they can be said to resist translation. What is "lost" in translation is the "German-ness" of the original; or, if not lost, it is at least "exchanged" (in...
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Villas, James. Gérard de Nerval: A Critical Bibliography, 1900 to 1967. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1968, 118 p.
Annotated bibliography of criticism on Nerval published from 1900 to 1967.
Hearn, Lafcadio. "A Mad Romantic." In Essays in European and Oriental Literature, pp. 43-54. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1923.
Characterizes Nerval as "an insane man" who nevertheless produced "literary work of the very best quality."
Quennell, Peter. "Gérard de Nerval." In The Singular Preference: Portraits & Essays, pp. 18-24. London: Collins, 1952.
Brief biographical sketch that calls Nerval "the founder of the Symbolist movement."
Rhodes, S. A. Gérard de Nerval, 1808-1855: Poet, Traveler, Dreamer. New York: Philosophical Library, 1951, 416 p.
The only full-length English biography of Nerval. The author presents critical commentary in addition to biographical information.
Symons, Arthur. "Gérard de Nerval." In The Symbolist Movement in Literature, pp. 10-36. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1908.
Surveys Nerval's life...
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