Sylvie by Gérard de Nerval, 1854

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by Gérard de Nerval, 1854

Gérard de Nerval was in his mid-40s, near the tragic end of his troubled life, when "Sylvie" was first published on 15 August 1853 in Revue des deux mondes, the prestigious fortnightly French literary magazine. In 1854 he included it in The Daughters of the Fire (Les Filles du feu) , a strange volume that superficially at least seems to be something of a miscellany, for it is made up of stories, essays, a one-act play, and the marvelously evocative collection of 12 sonnets called The Chimeras (Les Chimères). "Sylvie" has been hailed not only as a work that is the very quintessence of romantic sensibility but also as the forerunner of a trend seen later in France in Rimbaud, Proust, and the Surrealists that places a particularly high value on subjectivity and finds in dreams and memories the most satisfactory means of exploring reality.

"Sylvie" takes the form of a first-person narrative, and though there is always a risk in identifying a narrator with the author of a work of fiction, there is no doubt that there is much of Nerval in the story. This is the case both in a host of allusions and references that are never more than rather transparently disguised, precisely as if to invite the reader to penetrate them, and in the tone, spirit, and intellectual orientation of the tale. Owing much to observation and experience, "Sylvie" also hovers on the brink of a dreamworld made up of personal reminiscence and artistic predilections, so that we are introduced to a curiously unstructured but nonetheless intoxicatingly seductive amalgam of the present and the past, the real and the imagined. Everything is interpreted in terms of the cultural revolution taking place in France after the time of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Here we do indeed find much that is individual to Nerval himself, but "Sylvie" is likewise testimony to the extent to which his own attitude and outlook were themselves shaped by his reading.

The structure of "Sylvie" serves to transport us farther and farther into the past. The first of the story's 14 short sections takes us from the present, the 1850s, to an earlier period in the narrator's life when he frequented the Parisian theaters, not so much to enjoy the plays as to pay silent homage from afar to the leading actress. It is fairly clear that this is a transposition into fiction of aspects of Nerval's tempestuous love affair with one of the young actresses at the Opéra-Comique, Jenny (Marguerite) Colon, who had died in 1842. More interesting than these autobiographical links is the narrator's highly significant remark that he has preferred not to become too well informed about the actress "for fear of spoiling the magic mirror that reflected her image towards me."

The preference for the imaginary over the real is a theme that continues throughout the rest of the story. After talking briefly with friends, the narrator returns home where, falling asleep, he dreams of his past. What he recalls is an idyllic period in which old-world customs were still maintained in the countryside of the region formerly known as Valois, which corresponds roughly with the present Aisne and Oise départements, north of Paris. The constituents of the narrator's dream fall into patterns that psychoanalysis has made familiar. Along with the memories that come crowding in, there is the theme of the journey that is interrupted and never really completed, and the time structure is loose. The tale shows an uneasy juxtaposition of relationships with women that threaten to become entangled and that do not reach their fulfillment. Sylvie is there, of course, delightful and fresh, yet her nature changes somewhat, not because of experience but because she is unsettled by reading Rousseau's epoch-making novel The New Heloïse (1761). The narrator's relationship with her is complicated by the role of Adrienne, though it is not clear whether she is real or a figment of the narrator's imagination. The most fascinating episode comes in the fourth section, entitled, in a reminiscence of Jean-Antoine Watteau's famous painting of 1717, "A Voyage to Cythera." It includes a marvelously poetic evocation of beautiful countryside by night while the young people enjoy the delights of this fête galante. The 13th section takes the narrator back to Paris, where he makes contact with the actress, but though she agrees to take the leading role in a play he has written during an absence of some months in Germany, she cannot believe that he loves her. "Sylvie" concludes quite strangely when the narrator one day asks Sylvie if the actress is not very like Adrienne. The reply is that the latter had died many years ago in a convent, and we are left with a slightly uneasy sense that in life there is no ending but rather a pattern of never ceasing cyclical return.

—Christopher Smith