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Gérard de Nerval

Gérard de Nerval
File:Félix Nadar 1820-1910 portraits Gérard de Nerval.jpg
Gérard de Nerval, by Nadar
Born Gérard Labrunie
(1808-05-22)May 22, 1808
Paris, France
Died January 26, 1855(1855-01-26) (aged 46)
Paris, France
Nationality French
Occupation poet, essayist and translator
Notable work Voyage en Orient (1851)
Les Filles du Feu (1854)
Movement Romanticism

Gérard de Nerval (Template:IPA-fr) (May 22, 1808 – January 26, 1855) was the nom-de-plume of the French writer, poet, essayist and translator Gérard Labrunie, one of the most essentially Romantic of French poets.

His life and several of his works were influenced by his infatuation for an actress named Jenny Colon who died in 1842. His works are notable for the author's charming personality and intelligence, his poetic vision and precision of form. His friend and fellow writer Théophile Gautier wrote a touching reminiscence of him in 1867 ("La Vie de Gérard") which was included in Gautier's Portraits et Souvenirs Litéraires, published posthumously in 1875.


Two years after his birth in Paris, Nerval's mother died in Silesia while accompanying her husband, a military doctor and member of Napoleon's Grande Armée. He was brought up by his maternal great-uncle, Antoine Boucher, in the countryside of Valois at Mortefontaine. On the return of his father from war in 1814, Nerval was sent back to Paris. He frequently returned to the countryside of Valois during holidays, and he returned to it in imagination later in his Chansons et légendes du Valois.

His talent for translation was made manifest in his prose translation of Goethe's Faust (1828), the work which established his reputation; Goethe praised it and Hector Berlioz used sections for his legend-symphony La damnation de Faust. Other translations from Goethe ensued. In the 1840s, Nerval's translations introduced Heinrich Heine's poems to French readers of the Revue des deux mondes. During the 1820s at college he became lifelong friends with Théophile Gautier and later joined Alexandre Dumas, père, in the Petit Cénacle, a bohemian set affiliated to Charles Nodier, which was ultimately to become the Club des Hashischins. Nerval's poetry is characterized by Romantic deism. His passion for the "spirit world" was matched by a decidedly more negative view of the material one: "This life is a hovel and a place of ill-repute. I'm ashamed that God should see me here." Among his admirers was Victor Hugo.

Gérard de Nerval's first nervous breakdown occurred in 1841. In a series of biographical sketches or novellas collected as Les Illuminés, ou les précurseurs du socialisme (1852), which were based on themes suggested by the careers of Rétif de la Bretonne, Alessandro Cagliostro, Quintus Aucler, and others, he explored concerns of a political or literary character that followed his third bout of insanity.

Increasingly poverty-stricken and disoriented, he committed suicide in Paris during the night of January 26, 1855, by hanging himself from a sewer grating in the Rue de la Vieille-Lanterne, a narrow lane in the fourth arrondissement which today no longer exists. He left a brief note to his aunt: "Do not wait up for me this evening, for the night will be black and white."[1]

The poet Charles Baudelaire observed that Nerval had "delivered his soul in the darkest street that he could find." The discoverers of his body were puzzled by the fact that his hat was still on his head. The last pages of his manuscript for Aurélia ou la reve et la vie were found in a pocket of his coat. He was interred in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, at the expense of his friends Théophile Gautier and Arsène Houssaye, who published Aurélia as a book later that year.

The complete works of Gérard de Nerval are published in three volumes by Gallimard in the collection Bibliothèque de la Pléiade.


The influence of Nerval's insistence on the significance of dreams on the Surrealist movement was emphasised by André Breton. The writers Marcel Proust and René Daumal were also greatly influenced by Nerval's work as was Antonin Artaud.

Umberto Eco analyses Gérard de Nerval's Sylvie (calling it a "masterpiece") to show the use of temporal ambiguity, demystifying the "mists" in his Six Walks in the Fictional Woods.

Allusions by others

File:Plaque St-Jacques Nerval.jpg
Plaque commemorating Gérard de Nerval, tour Saint-Jacques, Paris

Lawrence Durrell used the phrase "his eyes reflect the malady of De Nerval" in his poem "Je suis un autre" (1942).

T. S. Eliot quoted the second line of Nerval's sonnet "El Desdichado" in his poem The Waste Land.

Donald Swann set that poem to music as "Je Suis le Ténébreux" (its first words) and sang his own setting of it in the Flanders and Swann revue At the Drop of a Hat (1956); it appears on the live recording. Clive James, in his songwriting collaboration with Pete Atkin, wrote two lyrics that refer to the poem: "The Prince of Aquitaine" and "The Shadow and the Widower".[2]

Nerval is referred to in Richard Wilbur's book Anterooms in the poem "A Prelude". The poem is a mockery of the seriousness of Matthew Arnold and his poem "Dover Beach". Wilbur writes of Matthew Arnold, "And was upon the point of saying "Ah," / When he perceived, not far from the great Aiguille, / A lobster led on a leash beside the sea. / It was de Nerval, enjoying his vacances!"

William Boyd's 1998 novel Armadillo contains many references to Nerval and his work.

Sam Shepard refers to Nerval in his play "Cowboy Mouth."

Vivian Stanshall wrote the lyrics to a song called Dream Gerrard recorded by Steve Winwood.

Nerval's poem El Disdichado was set to music for the album Feasting with Panthers, released in 2011 by Marc Almond and Michael Cashmore. It was edited, adapted and translated by Jeremy Reed.

In a study on Arthur Rimbaud, Henry Miller writes that "[i]n English we have yet to produce a poet who is able to do for Rimbaud what Baudelaire did for Poe's verse, or Nerval for Faust, or Morel and Larbaud for Ulysses" and that "[i]t is my sincere belief that America needs to become acquainted with this legendary figure [Rimbaud] now more than ever. (The same is true of another extraordinary French poet ... ; Gérard de Nerval.)".[3]

Pet lobster

File:Gustave Doré, La Rue de la Vieille Lanterne The Suicide of Gérard de Nerval, 1855.jpg
"La Rue de la Vieille Lanterne: The Suicide of Gérard de Nerval", by Gustave Doré, 1855.

Nerval[4] had a pet lobster, Thibault, which he would walk, at the end of a blue silk ribbon, among the Palais Royal gardens in Paris.[5] Nerval wrote to his close childhood friend Laura LeBeau, recounting an embarrassing incident that occurred while he was holiday in La Rochelle: "...and so, dear Laura, upon my regaining the town square I was accosted by the mayor who demanded that I should make a full and frank apology for stealing from the lobster nets. I will not bore you with the rest of the story, but suffice to say that reparations were made, and little Thibault is now here with me in the city..."[5]

In an article about the life of Nerval by his friend, Théophile Gautier, Nerval is quoted as having said "Why should a lobster be any more ridiculous than a dog? ...or a cat, or a gazelle, or a lion, or any other animal that one chooses to take for a walk? I have a liking for lobsters. They are peaceful, serious creatures. They know the secrets of the sea, they don't bark, and they don't gnaw upon one's monadic privacy like dogs do. And Goethe had an aversion to dogs, and he wasn't mad."[6]

In 2013, cultural critic Mark Dery investigated the story.[4] He interviewed scientists on the possibility of keeping a pet lobster in the age before aquariums could be easily controlled for temperature and oxygen, and the physical feasibility of a lobster going for walks on dry land. He also spoke with literary critics about the origin and symbolic meanings of the story and why Nerval may have perpetrated it.

The story became legendary and influenced later artists and works. In the Sam Shepard and Patti Smith play Cowboy Mouth, the character Cavale is obsessed with Nerval, making numerous references to him and claiming that Nerval hanged himself on [her] birthday. It also mentions Nerval having a pet lobster, as above, amidst other fantastic claims. This may be the inspiration for the play's character 'Lobster Man.' Flanders and Swann make mention of Nerval's pet lobster in the introduction to "Je Suis Le Ténébreux".[7]

Selected works by Gérard de Nerval

  • Les Faux Saulniers (The Salt Smugglers, 1850) — a sprawling work published over several weeks in the journal Le National, some of the material of which was incorporated in Les Filles du Feu (in Angelique) and in Les Illuminés (in L'Abbé de Bucquoy).
  • Voyage en Orient (1851) — an account of the author's voyages to Germany, Switzerland and Vienna in 1839 and 1840, and to Egypt and Turkey in 1843. A substantial book, it includes several texts that are published separately, including Les Amours de Vienne, which originally appeared in Revue de Paris in 1841.
  • La Bohème Galante (1852) — dedicated and addressed to Arsène Houssaye, a collection of short prose works and poems including some of the Odelettes.
  • Les Nuits d'Octobre (1852) — a small but significant collection of little essays describing Paris at night from the author's own experiences.
  • Lorely, souvenirs d'Allemagne (1852) — an account of his travels along the Rhine, also in Holland and Belgium. It includes his play Léo Burckart, under the title "Scènes de la Vie Allemande".
  • Les Illuminés (1852) — a collection of six biographical narratives in the form of novellas or essays.
  • Sylvie (1853) — described by Nerval as "un petit roman" ("a small novel"), it is his most celebrated work.
  • Petits Châteaux de Bohême (1853) — a small collection of prose works and poetry, including the little play Corilla which was subsequently included in Les Filles du Feu, and the poems of Odelettes, with some of the sonnets from Les Chimères.
  • Les Filles du Feu (1854) — a volume of short stories or idylls that includes Sylvie.
  • Pandora (1854) — another Fille du Feu, not finished in time for inclusion in the volume, it is in the style of Sylvie. Also known as La Pandora, it is often subtitled: Suite des Amours de Vienne. Set in a snowy Vienna.
  • Aurélia ou le rêve et la vie (fr) (1855) — a full-length follow-up to Les Filles du Feu. The author's fantasy-ridden interior autobiography, the novel commences with the phrase: "The dream is a second life," which influenced the Surrealists. Published after his death.
  • Promenades et Souvenirs (1854-1855) — a little collection of essays after the manner of Les Nuits d'Octobre, describing the Saint-Germain of the author's childhood and youth. It includes another Fille du Feu, Célénie, in the last essay ("Chantilly").


  1. ^ Sieburth, Richard (1999). Gérard de Nerval: Selected Writings. London: Penguin Group. p. xxxi. 
  2. ^ James, Clive; Curry, Andrew; Birkill, S. J. "Shadow and the Widower". Smash Flops. Retrieved 2010-01-22. 
  3. ^ Miller, Henry, The Time of the Assassins, A Study of Rimbaud, New York 1962, p. vi and vii.
  4. ^ a b Mark Dery (February 18, 2013). "Nerval's Lobster". Boing Boing. Retrieved June 24, 2014. 
  5. ^ a b Horton, Scott (2008-10-12). "Nerval: A Man and His Lobster". Harper's Magazine. Retrieved 2010-01-22. 
  6. ^ Gautier, Théophile. Portraits et Souvenirs Littéraires (Paris: Charpentier, 1875), Richard Holmes trans.
  7. ^ "At the Drop of a Hat - Je suis le Ténébreux". Flanders and Swann Online. Retrieved 2010-01-22. 

Further reading

  • Blackman, Maurice (1986–87). "Byron and the First Poem of Gérard de Nerval," Nineteenth-Century French Studies, Vol. XV, No. 1/2, pp. 94–107.
  • Bray, Patrick M. (2006). "Lost in the Fold: Space and Subjectivity in Gérard de Nerval's 'Généalogie' and Sylvie," French Forum, Vol. XXXI, No. 2, pp. 35–51.
  • Carroll, Robert C. (1976). "Illusion and Identity: Gérard de Nerval and Rétif's 'Sara'," Studies in Romanticism, Vol. XV, No. 1, pp. 59–80.
  • Carroll, Robert C. (1976). "Gérard de Nerval: Prodigal Son of History," Nineteenth-Century French Studies, Vol. IV, No. 3, pp. 263–273.
  • DuBruck, Alfred (1974-1975). "Nerval and Dumas in Germany," Nineteenth-Century French Studies, Vol. III, No. 1/2, pp. 58–64.
  • Duckworth, Colin (1965). "Eugène Scribe and Gérard de Nerval 'Celui Qui Tient la Corde Nous Étrangle'," The Modern Language Review, Vol. LX, No. 1, pp. 32–40.
  • Gautier, Théophile (1900). "Gérard de Nerval." In: The Complete Works of Théophile Gautier, Vol. VIII. London: The Athenæum Press, pp. 96–116.
  • Gordon, Rae Beth (2014). "The Enchanted Hand: Schlegel’s Arabesque in Nerval." In: Ornament, Fantasy, and Desire in Nineteenth-Century French Literature. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Knapp, Bettina L. (1974–75). "Gérard de Nerval's 'Isis' and the Cult of the Madonna," Nineteenth-Century French Studies, Vol. III, No. 1/2, pp. 65–79.
  • Knapp, Bettina L. (1976). "Gérard de Nerval: The Queen of Sheba and the Occult," Nineteenth-Century French Studies, Vol. IV, No. 3, pp. 244–257.
  • Jones, Robert Emmet (1974). Gerard de Nerval. New York: Twayne Publishers.
  • Lang, Andrew (1873). "Gérard de Nerval, 1810–1855," Fraser's Magazine, Vol. VII, pp. 559–566.
  • Lang, Andrew (1892). "Gérard de Nerval." In: Letters on Literature. London and New York: Longmans, Green & Co., pp. 147–156.
  • Mauris, Maurice (1880). "Gérard de Nerval." In: French Men of Letters. New York: D. Appleton and Company, pp. 129–150.
  • Moon, H. Kay (1965). "Gerard de Nerval: A Reappraisal," Brigham Young University Studies, Vol. VII, No. 1, pp. 40–52.
  • Rhodes, Solomon A. (1938). "Poetical Affiliations of Gerard de Nerval," PMLA, Vol. LIII, No. 4, pp. 1157–1171.
  • Rhodes, Solomon A. (1949). "The Friendship between Gérard de Nerval and Heinrich Heine," The French Review, Vol. XXIII, No. 1, pp. 18–27.
  • Rhodes, Solomon A. (1951). Gérard de Nerval, 1808–1855: Poet, Traveler, Dreamer. New York: Philosophical Library.
  • Rinsler, Norma (1963). "Gérard de Nerval, Fire and Ice," The Modern Language Review, Vol. LVIII, No. 4, pp. 495–499.
  • Rinsler, Norma (1963). "Gérard de Nerval's Celestial City and the Chain of Souls," Studies in Romanticism, Vol. II, No. 2, pp. 87–106.
  • Smith, Garnet (1889). "Gérard de Nerval," The Gentleman's Magazine, Vol. CCLXVI, pp. 285–296.
  • Sowerby, Benn (1974). The Disinherited: The Life of Gérard de Nerval. New York: New York University Press.
  • Symons, Arthur (1919). "Gérard de Nerval." In: The Symbolist Movement in Literature. New York: E.P. Dutton & Company, pp. 69–95.
  • Warren, Rosanna (1983). "The 'Last Madness' of Gérard de Nerval," The Georgia Review, Vol. XXXVII, No. 1, pp. 131–138.

External links

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