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."