Gérard de Nerval 1808–1855
(Born Gérard Labrunie) French poet, short story writer, playwright, translator, novelist, essayist, and critic.
Nerval is recognized as one of the most influential French poets of the nineteenth century. One of the first writers to explore the realm of the subconscious, he is noted for the innovative use of illusory states such as dreams and hallucinations in his work. The themes and imagery in Nerval's poetry were directed by several persistent personal obsessions, and originated in such diverse sources as art, mythology, religion, fantasy, and the occult.
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 rural region of France that was to remain in his memory—and appear in his poetic 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. 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. But Nerval's carefree Bohemian life became troubled as increasingly severe money problems and mental difficulties befell him. Biographers allege that the fact that Nerval had never known 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 his unrequited passions was for an actess, Jenny Colon, whose aloofness and early death hastened the deterioration of Nerval's mental health. Ironically, the madness which plagued Nerval heightened his artistic sensibility, and it was in his final years that he produced his greatest poetry. At the age of forty-six, Nerval committed suicide by hanging himself from a railing in a Paris alley.
Published in 1854, Les Chiméres is considered by most critics to be Nerval's greatest poetic accomplishment. The sequence is composed of twelve sonnets, each imbued with mythological and religious imagery, as well as themes
derived from Nerval's own life. The poems are interwoven, with recurring characters and allusions that parallel religious history and the alchemist's process of turning base metals into gold. The first sonnet, "El Desdichado," introduces a character called the black prince; the second, his feminine counterpart "Myrtho." The result of their union is described in the third sonnet of the sequence, "Horus"; this offspring is viewed not only as a symbol of the birth of Christ, but also the product of combining two metals in alchemy. In addition, "Horus" is seen by commentators to represent the revival of Nerval's interest in new poetic forms and techniques. In the remaining sonnets comprising Les Chiméres, Nerval continues to develop several spiritual, mythological, and autobiographical themes, creating what critics consider a dense, highly evocative work.
Nerval is praised for the far-reaching influence of his artistic vision which is manifest in the work of many notable French writers of the Symbolist and Surrealist literary periods, including Guillaime Appollinaire, Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, Marcel Proust, and Théophile Gautier. When discussing Nerval's body of work, critics have focused on his innovative use of dreams and visions, the semiotic qualities of his language, his copious references to mythology and religon, and the extensive incorporation of events and characters from his own life.