Gerard de Nerval

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NERVAL, Gérard de

Pseudonym for Gérard Labrunie. Other Pseudonyms: le Père Gérard. Nationality: French. Born: Paris, 22 May 1808. Education: Lycée Charlemagne, Paris, 1820-28; possibly apprenticed to a printer and studied law; studied medicine to 1834. Career: Led a life of wandering, after inheriting money from his grandfather in 1834; founded Le Monde Dramatique, 1835; drama critic, La Presse, and contributor to other journals from 1838; hospitalized in mental clinics, 1841, 1849, 1851, 1853, 1854. Died: 26 January 1855 (suicide).



Oeuvres complètes. 6 vols., 1867-77.

Oeuvres complètes, edited by Aristide Marie, Jules Marsan, andÉdouard Champion. 6 vols., 1926-32.

Oeuvres. 2 vols., 1952-56.

Oeuvres. 2 vols., 1958.

Short Stories

Contes et facéties. 1852; as Dreams and Life, 1933.

Les Filles du feu. 1854; as Daughters of Fire: Sylvie, Emilie, Octavie, 1922.


Les Fauc Saulniers. 1850.

Aurélia. 1855; translated as Aurelia, 1933; in Dreams and Life, 1933.

Le Prince des sots, edited by Louis Ulbach. 1866.


L'Académie: ou, Les Membres introuvables. 1826.

Piquillo, with Alexandre Dumas, père, music by Hippolyte Monpou (produced 1837). 1837.

Léo Burckart, with Alexandre Dumas, père (produced 1839). 1839.

L'Alchimiste, with Alexandre Dumas, père (produced 1839). 1839.

Les Monténégrins, with E. Alboize, music by Armand Limnander (produced 1849). 1849.

Le Chariot d'enfant, with Joseph Méry (produced 1850).

L'Imagier de Harlem, with Joseph Méry and Bernard Lopez, music by Adolphe de Groot (produced 1851). 1852.

Nicolas Flamel (in English). 1924.


Napoléon et la France guerrière: élégies nationales. 1826.

La Mort de Talma: élégies nationales. 1826.

Les Hauts Faits des Jésuites: dialogue en vers. 1826.

Monsieur Deutscourt: ou, Le Cuisinier d'un grand homme. 1926.

Les Chimères, in Les Filles du feu. 1854; edited by Norma Rinsler, 1973; as The Chimeras, 1966.

Fortune's Fool: Thirty-Five Poems. 1959.


Scènes de la vie orientale: Les Femmes du Caire. 1824; Les Femmes du Liban, 1850.

Etudes sur les poètes allemands (as Gérard). 1830.

Nos adieux à la Chambre des Députés de l'an 1830 (as le PèreGérard). 1831.

Voyage en Orient. 1851; translated in part as The Women of Cairo, 1929; as Journey to the Orient, edited by Norman Glass, 1972.

Les Illuminés; ou, Les Précurseurs du socialisme. 1852.

Lorély: souvenirs d'Allemagne. 1852.

Petits châteaux de Bohème: Prose et poésie. 1853.

La Correspondance de Nerval (1830-1855). 1911.

Selected Writings, edited by G. Wagner. 1958.

Le Carnet de Dolbreuse, edited by Jean Richer. 1967.

Editor, Choix des poésies de Ronsard, du Bellay, Baïf, Belleau, du Bartas, Chassignet, Desportes, Régnier (as Gérard). 1830.

Editor, Le Diable amoureux. 1830.

Translator, Faust (as Gérard), by Goethe. 1828; augmented edition,Faust, et Le Second Faust, 1840.

Translator, Poésies allemandes (as Gérard). 1830.

Translator, La Damnation de Faust. 1846.



Nerval: A Critical Bibliography 1900-1967 by James Villas, 1968.

Critical Studies:

Nerval and the German Heritage by Alfred Dubreck, 1965; The Disinherited: The Life of Nerval by Benn Sowerby, 1973; Nerval by Norma Rinsler, 1973; The Style of Nerval's Aurelia by William Beauchamp, 1976; "Nerval in the Library" by Michel Zink, in Representations, Fall 1996, pp. 96-105; Aspects of the Double in the Works of Nerval by Jolene J. Barjasteh.

* * *

Writing during the height of the romantic period in French literature, Gérard de Nerval distinguished himself as primarily an author of short fiction and verse. Critics generally agree that personal grief and guilt, associated with the death of Nerval's mother and the loss of his beloved Jenny Colon, find expression in every aspect of his fiction. His most compelling works draw upon the bouts of mental illness from which he suffered much of his adult life. Certainly the search for self-identity linked to the quest for the ideal woman is among the most prominent themes in his works.

Voyage en Orient (Journey to the Orient) represents more than a volume of travel literature based on Nerval's year-long trip to Egypt in 1843. Rather the exotic sights, customs, and Middle Eastern oral tradition provide rich and powerful material for the author's imagination. "The Story of Caliph Hakem," for example, focuses on the protagonist's identity crisis linked to the appearance of a physical double, a rival for his sister's hand in marriage. Although Nerval uses the doppelgänger motif elsewhere in his works, he associates it explicitly with incestuous desire in this text. Death, suggests Nerval, is the only possible resolution to the internal conflict created by delusions of grandeur and unacceptable desires.

In retelling another legend ("Queen of the Morning") Nerval emphasizes the Promethean hero's belief in his own great destiny. In order to unite in marriage with his spiritual sister and feminine ideal, Balkis, Adoniram is fated to descend into the underworld where fiery spirits ("les génies du feu") dwell. As descendants of a divine race, Adoniram and the Queen of Sheba substantiate their claim to divinity through an incestuous union, sanctioned by the spirits. Nerval presents Adoniram's eventual death as a victory over the antithetical self (Solomon, his unworthy rival), an assurance of immortality, and a fulfillment of divine destiny.

In his volume Les Filles du feu (Daughters of Fire) Nerval attempts to fuse aspects of myth and memory, dream and reality, in the creation of a range of feminine archetypes. In stories like "Angélique," "Sylvie," "Isis," and "Octavie," the author develops the myth of the ideal woman in a progressive fashion. While "Sylvie" has received considerable attention from critics, "Octavie" is equally rich in symbolic value. In this story the narrator recollects a series of events that took place during his trips to Italy. Rejected by Aurélie, a Parisian actress, the protagonist flees the reality of duplicitous affection and seeks comfort in the illusion of perfection symbolized by the siren-like Octavie ("this daughter of the waters"). But realizing that this English girl is merely a poor substitute for his idealized beloved, the hero is filled with an inordinate sense of guilt and reproaches himself for imaginary transgressions. Is it not possible through death, he asks, to attain a purer and more sacred love, one that leads to a transcendent happiness and eternal peace? The narrator's disillusionment with love leads him to consider suicide as a possible solution. Yet he is saved by the memory of Octavie, whose purity and goodness remind him of the goddess Isis and suggest the hope for salvation. In the end the narrator rejects the potential happiness offered by Octavie and seeks to preserve an image of perfection. The words of the narrator in "Sylvie" apply equally well to this text: "It is an image that I pursue, nothing more."

Nerval weaves various thematic elements of his earlier fiction into Aurélia, his literary masterpiece, a text concerned primarily with absence or loss. The autobiographical nature of this work is impossible to ignore. After all Nerval considered it a transcription of the dreams and hallucinations he experienced during periods of mental crisis. His account of the descent into madness ("la descente aux enfers") is a surprisingly lucid one. "Dream is a second life," Nerval states simply in the opening paragraph of the text. In exploring the existence of a realm beyond real life, the author hopes to convince the reader of the reality of his visions. The narrating hero embarks on a bizarre psychic journey to recover his lost love, Aurélia. Early on, the narrator encounters a rival, like the ferouer of Middle Eastern myth, who usurps his rightful place with Aurélia. Filled with a sense of culpability for the loss of his beloved, the narrator sinks into despair and fears eternal damnation for imagined sins committed against his ideal.

Part two of Aurélia is crucial to an understanding of Nerval's own perception of his illness. Although the text begins with the narrator's despondency and the temptation of suicide, it soon evolves into a journey back from madness. The narrator's efforts to help another troubled patient, a double of himself, lead to a divine vision of salvation. Aurélia, as female archetype, serves as intercessor on the narrator's behalf to ensure God's pardon for transgressions committed in the past. Nerval ends the text on a triumphant note; he has been delivered from Hell, purified and redeemed by the ideal woman Aurélia symbolizes for him. Has redemption lead to a reintegration of the narrator's disparate selves, the good and the bad? The reader remains dissatisfied with the conclusion. (Ironically La Revue de Paris published Aurélia 's final pages three weeks after Nerval killed himself.)

When treating an author such as Nerval, it is a difficult task indeed to separate fictional elements in his writing from autobiographical ones. Nerval's obsession with the past, his feelings of culpability (made manifest by the recurring theme of the double), and his desire to recover the lost ideal not only permeate his work but serve as the source of creative power within him.

—Jolene J. Barjasteh

See the essay on "Sylvie."

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Gérard de Nerval

The French poet and writer Gérard de Nerval (1808-1855) was an early romantic. His prose and poetry mark him as a precursor of the many movements, from symbolism to surrealism, that shaped modern French literature.

Gérard de Nerval was born Gérard Labrunie on May 22, 1808, in Paris. Because of his parents' immediate departure for Silesia, where his mother died, Nerval was taken to the home of maternal relatives in the Valois. This region played a prominent part in many of his works. The fact that his early years were bereft of parental care probably contributed to his subsequent lack of mental equilibrium.

Upon his father's return from the Napoleonic Wars in 1814, Nerval returned to Paris. As a day pupil at the Lycée Charlemagne, he distinguished himself by his precocious literary gifts and made the acquaintance of a lifelong friend, the poet Théophile Gautier.

Nerval's translation in 1827 of J. W. von Goethe's Faust (Part I) earned him the praise of Goethe and opened influential Parisian literary circles to him. His admiration for Victor Hugo converted him to the romantic movement. In the 1830s Nerval belonged to the petit cénacle, a group of minor artistic figures that gravitated around Gautier.

In 1834 Nerval received an inheritance from his maternal grandparents that enabled him to pursue exclusively the literary career of which his father disapproved. Nerval gave up his nominal study of medicine and made a brief trip to Italy, a tour that had a powerful and lasting effect on his imagination.

Meanwhile, Nerval fell in love with Jenny Colon, an actress, for whom he founded a theatrical review, Le Monde dramatique. It failed after 2 years. The brilliant and gay life that Nerval led during this brief period of prosperity was succeeded by a lifetime of financial difficulties and personal sadness. The poet lost both his small patrimony and Jenny Colon, who married another. During this period Nerval centered his main literary efforts on the theater, a genre basically uncongenial to his talents. In spite of an occasional success, such as Piquillo (1837), his efforts in the theater generally met with failure.

The years 1839-1841 were ones of growing eccentricities and depression for Nerval. His translation of Faust (Part II), which appeared in 1840, culminated in a mental breakdown that caused him to be hospitalized in 1841. His mental stability thus shattered, Nerval's life became more precarious and difficult because he depended upon his pen for his living. In order to mend his health, Nerval made a trip to the Orient in 1843. His health regained, he published articles dealing with his travels in serial form in various periodicals. During these years of remission from mental breakdown, he also published chronicles, essays, poems, and novellas in many magazines, all the time trying unsuccessfully to establish himself in the theater. He also traveled in foreign countries and in the Valois. Wandering had become a temperamental necessity, and it is an important theme in his major works.

In 1848 Nerval published his translation of Heinrich Heine's poetry. In 1851 Le Voyage en Orient appeared. Under the guise of a travelog, it concerned itself with the pilgrimage of a soul, being more revealing of the inner geography of Nerval than of Egypt, Lebanon, or Turkey.

Nerval's major works were all written in the last few years of his life under the threat of incurable insanity. A serious relapse in 1851 marked him irrevocably. In 1852 he published Les Illuminés, a series of biographical sketches of unorthodox and original figures. In 1853 Les Petits châteaux de Bohême appeared. It was a nostalgic recounting of his happy years. It also contained the Odelettes, early poems in the manner of Pierre de Ronsard. Nerval then published his best and most famous story, Sylvie, in the Revue des deux mondes. In this tale he explored the sources of memory and transfigured the Valois of his childhood. It was included in Les Filles du feu in 1854. That same year Les Chimères, a series of 12 hermetic sonnets, also appeared.

During this period Nerval was also writing an autobiographical work, Les Nuits d'Octobre, and Aurélia, his last and most occult work. In Aurélia Nerval described the experience of madness and his attempt to overcome it by means of the written word.

In January 1855, destitute and desperate, Nerval committed suicide by hanging himself in a Parisian alley.

Further Reading

Two full-length studies of Nerval are Solomon A. Rhodes, Gérard de Nerval, 1808-1855: Poet, Traveler, Dreamer (1951), and Alfred Dubruck, Gérard de Nerval and the German Heritage (1965). □