Nerval, Gérard de (Short Story Criticism)
Nerval, Gérard de 1808-1855
(Born Gérard Labrunie) French poet, short story writer, playwright, translator, novelist, essayist, and critic. See also Gerard de Nerval Poetry Criticism.
Widely regarded as a precursor of the Symbolists and the Surrealists, Nerval was one of the first writers to explore the realm of the subconscious, suggesting that "the dream is a second life." Remembered for his vivid delineation of the illusory mental states such as dreams and hallucinations, and for the far-reaching influence of his artistic vision, Nerval presented images in his works that originated from such diverse sources as cabalism, mythology, religion, fantasy, and the occult. His themes were directed by several persistent personal obsessions, and his greatest creative energy resulted from the insanity that plagued him much of his life.
Nerval was a small child when his mother died while assisting her husband, a surgeon in the Napoleonic army, on his tours of Germany. He was raised by a great-uncle in the Valois, the charming rural region of France that was to remain in his memory—and appear in Sylvie and other works—as an idyllic landscape of childhood perfection. During his schooling in Paris, he displayed precocious literary talent, publishing at age twenty a translation of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Faust, which the great poet himself acclaimed. His belletristic reputation thus established, Nerval became a member of the Jeune-France, a group of Romantic artists and writers who challenged the established classical school not only with radical artistic theories but with flamboyant dress and eccentric behavior. Nerval delighted his comrades one afternoon by parading through the Palais-Royal gardens with a lobster on a leash of blue ribbon. "He does not bark," Nerval declared, "and he knows the secrets of the deep." But Nerval's carefree Bohemian life became troubled as increasingly severe money problems and mental difficulties befell him. The fact that he had never known his mother haunted Nerval, making him susceptible, even as a boy, to profound infatuations with women, who are depicted in various guises throughout his writing as unattainable embodiments of ideal femininity. The most enduring of these unrequited passions was for an actress, Jenny Colon, whose aloofness and early death hastened the deterioration of Nerval's mental health. Soon after Jenny died, Nerval, always an avid traveler, embarked on a journey to the Orient. This trip excited his imagination with mystical and exotic motifs and provided material for Voyage en Orient (Journey to the Orient). Ironically, the madness which plagued Nerval heightened his artistic sensibility, and it was in his final, most painful years that he produced his greatest works: the fine, pure narratives and enigmatic, expressive sonnets. Seemingly a victim of his own tormented vision, forty-six-year-old Nerval was found hanging from a railing in a dank Paris alley with the last pages of Aurélia in his pocket.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Nerval's short fiction was largely affected by the author's recurrent battles with insanity. "His works, far from suffering from his madness, seem to be enhanced by it, or even contingent upon it," commented H. Kay Moon. The author's prose pieces contain fantastic elements, the theme of the double, or doppelgänger, autobiographical elements, hallucinations, dreams, and humor. Nerval's mastery as an artist began with Journey to the Orient, a book of travel essays interjected with fictional elements. In 1854, a compilation of short stories and poetry titled Les Filles de feu (Daughters of Fire) was published, containing Nerval's lauded tale, Sylvie. In this story that merges dream with reality, the narrator, Gérard, struggles with his love for a mythic female personae, Aurélie-Adrienne, and a real woman Sylvie. In Gérard's mind, Aurélie and Adrienne are fantastic images of ideal women who eventually merge into one figure. His illusory search for the perfect love ruins his chances for a relationship with the real Sylvie. Kari Lokke summarized the message in Sylvie: "Paradoxically .. . the wistful, delicate beauty of Sylvie, Nerval's stylistic and tonal masterpiece, is created by Nerval's combination of this mythic and esthetic vision of the Valois and its women with the melancholy realization that such a sublimated mode of interaction leads away from the present and the love of a real human being to an ideal past or a Utopian future." The author's last achievement, Aurélia, presents the world of dreams as another life. This story, inspired by unattainable love, features a narrator who, after falling into a hallucinatory state, begins to see his doppelgänger. The tale depicts the two different states of being in which the narrator and his double exist.
Sylvie and Aurélia, written during periods of madness, are Nerval's most critically acclaimed prose pieces. His earlier short fiction did not receive much attention; according to Moon, they "merely represent Nerval's ability to follow the literary current of his time." Overall, critics have lauded the author's work for its visionary quality, which influenced many 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 re-creation of scenes from memory and reverie evokes stream-of-consciousness and prefigures the work of Marcel Proust, who, in his Marcel Proust on Art and Literature 1896-1919, called Nerval "assuredly one of the three or four greatest writers of the nineteenth century."
Voyage en Orient [Journey to the Orient] 1851
Les Illuminés 1852
Les Filles du feu [Daughters of Fire] (novellas and poetry) 1854
Le Rêve et la Vie [Dreams and Life] (short stories and poetry) 1855; includes Aurélia
Sylvie: Recollections of Valois 1887
Œuvres Complètes. 10 vols. 1926-32
Aurélia [Aurelia] 1932
Selected Writings (short stories and poetry) 1957
Œuvres complémentaires 1959-
Œuvres 2 vols. 1960-61
Other Major Works
Faust [translator] (poetry) 1828
Léo Burckart (drama) 1839
Lorely: souvenirs d'Allemagne (travel essays) 1852
Les Chiméres [The Chimeras] (poetry) 1854; published in Les Filles du feu
(The entire section is 90 words.)
SOURCE: "The Problem of Gérard de Nerval," in The Fortnightly Review, Vol. LXII, No. CCCLXXIII, January, 1898, pp. 81-91.
[Symons was a critic, poet, dramatist, short story writer, and editor who first gained notoriety in the 1890s as an English decadent. Eventually, he established himself as one of the most important critics of the modern era. In his book The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1899), Symons provided his English contemporaries with an appropriate vocabulary with which to define the aesthetic of symbolism; furthermore, he laid the foundation for much of modern poetic theory by discerning the importance of the symbol as a vehicle by which a "hitherto unknown reality was suddenly revealed. " In the following excerpt, Symons discusses the effect of madness on Nerval's works, concluding that Nerval is "only inspired, only really wise, passionate, collected, only really master of himself, when he is insane."]
It is not necessary to exaggerate the importance of the half-dozen volumes which make up the works of Gérard de Nerval. He was not a great writer: he had moments of greatness; and it is the particular quality of these moments which is of interest for us. There is the entertaining, but not more than entertaining Voyage en Orient; there is the estimable translation of Faust, and the admirable versions from Heine; there are the volumes of short stories and sketches, of...
(The entire section is 3115 words.)
SOURCE: "An Approach to Nerval," in Studies in Modern French Literature, 1961, pp. 87-103.
[In the excerpt below, Fairlie examines themes, form, and tone in Sylvie.]
Sylvie used to be read as a delightful country idyll. Reaction set in and it became 'le poème de la fin du monde', a 'bilan de la faillite'—'Sylvie s'achève en débâcle'. Here I disagree, and think that the undertones of the last chapter have been overlooked, and with them some of the use of themes and form throughout the story.
The outline is simple: the narrator had pursued in the actress Aurélie the reflection of the 'idéal sublime' once seen in the child Adrienne; not only had this reflection of the ideal proved illusory but in its pursuit he had let slip Sylvie, 'la douce réalité'. Summarized in this form, it sounds like an obvious temptation to various kinds of insufferable romanticization: it might either glorify the ideal as a metaphysical super-reality, or twist round to give an equally spurious glorification to the lost Sylvie, or finally exalt loss, anguish and hankering after the impossible as superior values in themselves. And the story is often presented as if Nerval were doing one or other or all of these. Quite the contrary. The obsession by Adrienne and Aurélie is worked out not in supernatural but in human terms, and every detail of background is made to suggest that it is as fallacious as...
(The entire section is 2380 words.)
SOURCE: "Gérard de Nerval: A Reappraisal," in Brigham Young University Studies, Vol. VII, No. 1, Autumn, 1965, pp. 40-52.
[Here, American educator and critic Moon surveys Nerval's life, short fiction, and influence on later literature. Moon states that Nerval is "best when he is autobiographical. "]
Unfortunately, scholars have generally neglected or ignored Gérard de Nerval as a possible precursor to modern tendencies in literature. It will be my purpose in the pages that follow to (1) explore the elements of his biography that seem to contribute to an understanding of his development as a writer, (2) venture a few observations regarding his short prose fiction, and (3) suggest briefly the possible extent of his relevancy in the flood of literary trends since his time.
Seven months after his birth in May, 1808, Gérard de Nerval was left with a wet nurse in the village of Loisy, near Mortefontaine. Upon the death of his mother two years later, he was sent to live with a great-uncle in Mortefontaine. By the time his father returned some seven years later to take him to Paris and begin his studies, the Valois countryside had etched its indelible impression upon Gérard's sensitive nature. When school days were over, he invariably returned to Mortefontaine to his childhood friends, as he later returned to try to capture his childhood memories. A great many of the details of his life in...
(The entire section is 5020 words.)
SOURCE: "Isis: The Cult of the Madonna," in Gérard de Nerval: The Mystic's Dilemma, The University of Alabama Press, 1980, pp. 226-36.
[In the following excerpt, American educator and author Knapp explores the religious aspects of Isis and the role of the female in the work.]
Nerval's narrative Isis (1845) is an expression of his syncretistic approach to religion and, in particular, an example of the immense role played by the feminine principle in his cosmology.
Isis takes place in Herculaneum and Pompeii, cities destroyed by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius A.D. 79. It is night. The moon shines brilliantly and the illusion of the past grandeur of these cities is complete. Nerval tells us that an ambassador in Naples had given a costume ball a few years earlier and in so doing had revived all the ancient Roman customs for the festivities: the dance, the chariot races, the temples with their vestal virgins, the stores and merchants with their wares. This "palingensian attempt," wrote Nerval, was interesting, but the most fascinating ceremony of them all took place at sundown in the "admirable" temple to Isis.
The physical features of this house of worship are then described: the two altars in the temple, the statues of Isis, and the two vases containing holy water on either side of the entrance, which he compares with the fonts in Catholic churches....
(The entire section is 5000 words.)
SOURCE: "Sylvie: The Method of Myth," in Nineteenth-Century French Studies, Vol. XII, Nos. 1 & 2, Fall-Winter, 1983, pp. 96-104.
[Below, Thompson addresses the function of myth in Sylvie, focusing on Nerval's use of colors and treatment of memory to suggest a fantastic world. The critic finds in the story an overflowing of the "unreal from amid the real."]
Gérard de Nerval's Sylvie provides not only evidence of the author's predilection for an "other," "spiritual," or mythical world—a possible escape from time—but also an example in itself of transcending myth. Since it is meant to both celebrate and exemplify a timeless spirituality, Sylvie suggests this aspect of its own critique: how well, or with what emphasis, do we recall the story after the passage of time? Some recall best the character Sylvie, the countryside of Le Valois, the fêtes, the ruined architecture. Others may retain a strong physical impression of nature, in its misty, diaphanous portrayal. In general, memory favors the Valois vignettes, which are the fantastic or mythical portion of the story—the same visions which come to the sleepless narrator in his Paris rooms. So much has been written about fantasy and myth in Sylvie that we take these words as a simple summary of creative intent. The narrative decision, as well as the mythic flavor of the story, is subtle and shifting. Nerval has...
(The entire section is 3738 words.)
SOURCE: "Pandora's Quality of Figure," in Paragraph, Vol. 4, October, 1984, pp. 62-82.
[In the following essay, Smith describes the quality of figuration in Pandora that prevents the novella from succumbing to abstraction, disorder, and senselessness. She also delineates the differences between Pandora and "Les Amours de Vienne, " the earlier sketch by Nerval on which the novella is based.]
(The entire section is 8705 words.)
SOURCE: "Seduction Renounced: 'Sylvie' as Narrative Act," in Story and Situation: Narrative Seduction and the Power of Fiction, University of Minnesota Press, 1984, pp. 97-122.
[Here, Chambers analyzes several narrative approaches in Sylvie and comments on themes in the novella.]
The Narration of Madness
Why [. . .] does the narrator produce the narrative act that is Sylvie? "Si j'écrivais un roman," he says (and [. . .] it is precisely not a romance he is writing), "jamais je ne pourrais faire accepter l'histoire d'un coeur épris de deux amours simultanés." This means that, in the antiromance he does give us, the purpose is not to resolve differences and contradictions by means of seductive discourse but to make sense of something that is, on the face of it, implausible, or more accurately, to have this implausibility "accepted"—by means of a narrative act that might be called, not seductive, but therapeutic. In this way, although from a slightly unexpected angle, Sylvie demonstrates a certain similarity with Aurélia: in both texts, the problem is the narration of a form of madness, an experience of doubleness which common judgment might regard as unlikely. To have others accept this story, for the narrator, is a way of having them accept himself, by making believable for them what he himself considers strange or aberrant: here,...
(The entire section is 7956 words.)
SOURCE: "Woman: The Other as Sister," in Gérard de Nerval: The Poet as Social Visionary, French Forum, Publishers, Inc., 1987, pp. 65-103.
[In the excerpt below, Lokke discusses Nerval's depiction of women in his short fiction.]
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, Conila, Emilie), Pandora, Aurélia, Les Chimères ("Myrtho," "Delfica," "Artémis")
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 much more about himself, his own fears, needs and projections, than about the reality of 19th-century womanhood.
Nevertheless, the almost preternatural sensitivity to the plight of victims of economics, political and religious persecution reflected in so many of Nerval's works suggests that he might be equally...
(The entire section is 11101 words.)
SOURCE: "Nerval: Reading between the Lines," in Timely Reading: Between Exegesis and Interpretation, Cornell, 1988, pp. 135-56.
[In the following excerpt, Noakes observes the significance of time in Aurélia and comments on the relationship between the narrator and his double in the novella.]
The Failed Dialectic of Exegesis and Interpretation
Aurélia begins with a catalogue of the narrator's mental library and his statement that his readings have driven him mad: "[Cette folie] est la faute de mes lectures" (My readings bear the blame for [this madness]). It is important to distinguish this statement from Francesca's, for Nerval's narrator sees his madness as the fault not of his books but of his readings of those books, of the mistaken way he has interpreted them. Again, near the end of the story a voice from the beyond reproaches the narrator for his failure as a reader: "Tout cela était fait pour t'enseigner le secret de la vie, et tu n'as pas compris. Les religions et les fables, les saints et les poètes s'accordaient à expliquer l'énigme fatale, et tu as mal interprété. . . . Mainte nant il est trop tard!" (All that was done to teach you the secret of life, and you have not understood. Religions and myths, the saints and the poets agree in explaining the enigma of fate, and you have misinterpreted. . . . Now it is too late). The narrator's last important...
(The entire section is 7404 words.)
SOURCE: "Gérard de Nerval: 'Madness Tells Her Story'," in Lucid Interval: Subjective Writing and Madness in History, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1992, pp. 177-95.
[Below, MacLennan studies Nerval's subjective portrayal of madness in Aurélia and relates the tale to other nineteenth-century French literature. He examines the story's conclusion and reviews Nerval's use of visionary sequences and dream narratives.]
Gérard's sojourn in the asylum in the final episodes of Aurélia parallels George Trosse's experience in Glastonbury and Cowper's in St Albans. Each protagonist undergoes a spiritual resurrection in a place of healing. In Aurélia, however, the asylum, for all its historical specificity, remains a fictional construction. The tension between autobiographical history and autobiographical fiction reflects the tension which characterises the work as a whole: as an autobiographical discourse, it is bound up with the relevant historical and biographical contexts, but as a writing of subjectivity it is independent of them. The two levels of discourse subvert each other. Meanwhile, the relationship between the life and the work itself remains problematic: the narrative of Gérard's recovery is coherent, but in biographical terms that very coherence is fictional.
The ambivalence of Nerval's actual relationship with Dr Blanche and his establishment is not...
(The entire section is 5127 words.)
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.
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 incidental to biographical information.
Symons, Arthur. "Gérard de Nerval." In his The Symbolist Movement in Literature, pp. 10-36. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1908.
Surveys Nerval's life and writings and describes the author's role in the Symbolist movement.
Whitridge, Arnold. "Gérard de Nerval." In his Critical Ventures in Modern French Literature, pp. 45-64. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1924.
Largely biographical essay offering brief critical commentary.
Wood, Michael. "Gérard de Nerval: (1808-1855)." In European Writers: The Romantic Century, edited by Jacques Barzun, pp. 943-69. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1985.
Capsule of Nerval's life and career.
Bowman, Frank Paul. "The 'Mémorables' of Nerval's Aurélia." In...
(The entire section is 1627 words.)