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.