It has recently occurred to me that to be really great at the art of writing one must be afflicted by either love or madness. Gérard de Nerval was afflicted by both, and yet his greatness eluded widespread acclaim. Although apotheosised by the likes of T.S. Eliot, Charles Baudelaire, Victor Hugo, Marcel Proust, Théophile Gautier and Andre Breton, he remains almost unknown and eclipsed by the stentorian voices posterity bestowed on his own admirers.
Gérard Lebrunie, later known as Gérard de Nerval, published 12 books before the age of 20, including a translation of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust which garnered a compliment from Goethe himself who confessed: “I have never understood myself so well, as in reading your translation.” Nerval peaked early and continued to do so intermittently throughout his brief life between manic whirls of insanity and subsequent institutionalisations. He wrote poetry and prose, collaborated on plays with Alexandre Dumas and Victor Hugo, helped Heinrich Heine translate his poetry into French, founded a performing arts periodical and travelled extensively throughout Europe and the Middle East documenting the milieu of each place with the insightful precision of an expert cicerone. At home, among his Jeune-France literati friends of 1830s Paris, Nerval was known as a nocturnal flâneur and is said to have walked about the streets with a live lobster on a length of a blue ribbon while singing verses to himself. Reading the introduction to Les Chimères, a collection of seven of Nerval’s most acclaimed sonnets published by Menard Press, I learned a wealth of autobiographical information essential to the understanding of these works.
Writing about Nerval, French critic Eugene de Mirecourt said: “Gentle as a lamb, timid as a young girl Gérard never spoke of himself. He blushed when anyone spoke of his works with praise. He thought himself the humblest and the last among the combatants in the great arena of letters.” And it seems that he was, for his clothes were always said to be inconspicuous and his manner free from the affectations of a dandy or a Bohemian. Forever kind, gentle and modest, Nerval never permitted himself to impose on his friends, not even towards the end of his impecunious life when he slept in common lodging houses and bedsits for the homeless. On 26th January 1855, Nerval was found hanging in the sordid rue de la Vieille Lanterne. It is generally believed that he committed suicide.
Born in 1808, Nerval was entrusted to a great-uncle in the bucolic rural region of Valois, while his father, a surgeon with the Napoleonic army, worked in Germany. His mother died, when he was two years old, assisting her husband on his tours abroad. After Napoleon’s defeat Nerval’s father, Dr Lebrunie, returned to Paris. Nerval joined him there in 1816 and lived with him until 1834. After short travels around Italy and the Provence, Nerval returned to Paris that same year and fell in love with a small-time theatre actress Jenny Colon. He founded a review, La Monde Dramatique, devoted largely to her praise and for a while Colon was the cynosure of Nerval’s life, although his feelings were unreciprocated. Eventually, Colon married a musician and died some years later in 1842. Colon’s hex on Nerval never ceased nor did his profound infatuation. He etherealised and panegyrised her in his work and reveries in various guises as unattainable embodiments of ideal femininity, as the belle morte, and the reincarnation of his first love Adrienne, who also died. Speaking about his feelings for Colon with some retrospection, Nerval said: “Nothing is more dangerous for people of a dreamy disposition than a serious passion for a person of the theatre; it is a perpetual lie, a sick man’s dream, the illusion of a madman. The whole of life becomes attached to an unrealisable chimera which one would be happy to maintain at the stage of desire and aspiration but which fades away as soon as one wants to touch the idol.”
Often regarded as a precursor of the Symbolists and the Surrealists, Nerval was one of the first writers to explore the subconscious or as he called it the “overflowing of dreams into real life.” Remembered for his vivid delineation of illusory mental states and for the far-reaching influence of his artistic vision, Nerval presented images in his works that originated from varied yet syndetic sources such as mythology, religion, illusion, hallucination and the occult. His themes were dominated by several continual personal obsessions and his greatest creative energy was fuelled by the insanity that beleaguered him for much of his adult life. Les Chimères draws on a wide scope of orphic influences most notably Greek mythology, medieval folklore, alchemy and symbolic lore. The collection opens with El Desdichado, which was composed in a “state of supernaturalist reverie” and denotes the wistful tone of the anthology with the opening lines: “I am the brooding shadow – the bereaved – the unconsoled/Aquitaine’s prince of the doomed tower/My only star is dead and my astral lute/Bears the black sun of melancholy.” Nerval makes clear from the start that it is “we the living who walk in the world of phantoms”, referring to himself as the “bereaved” and Colon as his “only star” who is indeed dead in every sense except the poet’s memory and imagination. Nerval travelled to the Middle East shortly after Colon’s passing and upon his return to Paris was institutionalised several times. Noting that his increasingly disarrayed psyche impeded his work, he once wrote: “I set off after an idea and lose myself; I am hours into finding my way back…I can scarcely write 20 lines a day, the darkness comes about me so close.”
The Les Chimères collection first published in 1854 is intensely personal, unique as madness itself, and possesses all the elements later seen in the works of the Symbolists. The second sonnet called Myrtho is more apocryphal than the first, thus the notes in the back-pages are eternally helpful. Myrtho stands for an image of classical antiquity, a “divine enchantress” and follower of Bacchus, the narrator is a disciple of both, “a son of Greece” who addresses Myrtho: “In your cup too I drank of ecstasy/And in the furtive flash of your smiling eye/When at the feet of Bacchus you saw me pray.” The poems waver among reasoned deliberation, vision, spiritual mysticism and implacable despair. The delicacy and subtlety of the “rime riche” is melodious without exertion. And despite first impressions of mystery the meanings slowly ferment in the mind, emerging in distinctive lucidity. In Anteros, for example, Nerval exclaims: “You ask why I have so wrathful a heart/And on pliant neck an untamed head/A descendant of Antaean blood/ I hurl spears back at the conquering god.” Clearly assuming the role of Anteros, the avenger of unrequited love and twin brother of Eros, he voices his personal experiences of unreciprocated affection (“wrathful a heart”), madness (“untamed head”) and its effects upon him described as “Cain’s ruthless flush”. There are also other connotations in the mythical allusions to gods and associative religious meanings but I have read the collection from my own perhaps somewhat parochial perspective, drawing parallels between Nerval’s life and its impacts on his work.
The poem I read and re-read and chose as my favourite is one that’s most open to interpretation. It is also one that’s been said to be the most highly influential in the craft of Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul Verlain through its fluid rhythm, repetitions and echoes, foreshadowing the styles of both poets. Artemis is something of a vision which appears to have occurred to Nerval beyond, if not against, his will. Unlike most Romantics, Nerval did not make his poetry a slave to beauty nor a vessel through which to extemporise it, focusing instead, if subconsciously, on capturing something that’s volatile and intangible without losing its mystery or charm. In Artemis Nerval seems to be addressing the concrete and the ethereal, “the only one or last lover”, saying: “Love who loved you from cradle to brier/She whom I alone loved, loves me tenderly still/She is death or the dead one…O rapture! Woe!/The rose she holds is the rose mallow.” Death and love are closely intertwined with the beloved dead as Nerval laments loss while lauding “the saint of abyss”, and the inevitable end. The obscurity of all the sonnets reflects Nerval’s state of mind, which he described in La Reve et la Vie: “I then saw vaguely drifting into form, plastic visions of antiquity, which outlined themselves, became definite, and seemed to represent symbols, of which I only seized the idea with difficulty.” And to some extent the reader is faced with that same difficulty, but I think the notion that “often in the obscure being, dwells a hidden God” is rather fitting in regard to Nerval’s work, even though he never would have conceded to it, as he once said: “It will be my last madness to believe myself to be a poet: let criticism cure me of it.” Fortunately his call was never answered, because even though he asked for criticism he deserves nothing but praise.