Gérard de Nerval was born Gérard Labrunie, the son of Étienne Labrunie, a medical doctor, and of Marie-Antoinette Marguerite Laurent, daughter of a Paris draper. Nerval did not change his name until 1831, when he signed a letter “G. la Brunie de Nerval,” taking the name from a property, Le Clos de Nerval, belonging to his mother’s family. The name is also an anagram of his mother’s maiden name, Laurent. It is known that Nerval hated his father, who served with Napoleon’s Grande Armée as a field surgeon and who was, throughout the poet’s life, an aloof, insensitive parent. Nerval’s mother died when the boy was only two years old, and Nerval was sent to live with his granduncle, Antoine Boucher, at Mortefontaine. These early years Nerval later described as the happiest of his life. He had free range of a library of occult books and discussed philosophy with his granduncle, who may have served as a model for Père Dodu in Nerval’s short story “Sylvie.” When Nerval’s father returned from the front in 1814, the boy joined him in Paris. In 1820, Nerval entered the Collège Charlemagne, where he began to exhibit a fondness for literary pursuits and began his lifelong friendship with the poet Théophile Gautier.
In November, 1827, Nerval published his translation of Goethe’s Faust: Eine Tragödie (1808), but under the publication date of 1828. This work was well received in Parisian literary circles, and Nerval became a disciple of Victor Hugo and joined his Cénacle Romantique. In the notorious dispute that followed the disruptive theatrical opening (February 25, 1830) of Hugo’s play Hernani, however, Nerval sided with Gautier, and thereafter Nerval frequented Gautier’s petit cénacle.
An inheritance from his maternal grandfather in 1834 allowed Nerval to give up his medical studies and pursue a literary...
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