Friday, May 29, 2009

I have a liking for lobsters. They are peaceful, serious creatures. - Théophile Gautier and his friend Gérard de Nerval

The biographer Richard Holmes has put together a volume of Théophile Gautier stories called My Fantoms. It's an odd little thing, six short stories and a biographical elegy, retitled and reordered, in the hopes of making a thematic argument, which I think it does.

I suspect most readers would enjoy this book quite a bit more than Mademoiselle de Maupin. Four of the stories are about ghost women and the men who love them. One steps out of a tapestry, another is a vampire, a third appears in an opium dream, the fourth haunts Pompeii. The tone varies a lot. The story with the tapestry ghost is a sex comedy (last line: "And then again, I am no longer quite such a good-looking young fellow that tapestries leap off the wall in my honour"). The vampire story is more of a real horror story, with a wistful tinge. The Pompeii story is an effective evocation of Roman vitality.

There's also an excellent E. T. A. Hoffmann knockoff about a mad painter ("Onuphrius Wphly, ou Les Vexations fantastiques d'un admirateur d'Hoffmann"), and a clever tale of what happens when an actor fails to play Goethe's Mephistopheles to the satisfaction of the devil himself. The writing, in general, is light, elegant, dashing.

So those are the Fantoms, or all but one. Why My? In a couple of the tales, Gautier, or "Gautier," is the narrator - he's the teenager seduced by the tapestry ghost. And the phantoms are all his creation, so they're phantoms of his imagination. There's one other thing, though.

Holmes renames all of the stories - "The Priest," "The Tourist," and so on. That long "Onuphrius etc." title becomes "The Painter." The actual titles are in a bibliographical note, so Holmes isn't doing any damage. The final fantom in the book, written in 1867, is "The Poet." It's real title is "Gérard de Nerval:"

"It is now almost twelve years since the drear morning in January, when a sinister rumour first began to spread through Paris. In the uncertain light of that cold, grey dawn, a body had been found hanging from the bars of a wall ventilator in the rue de Vieille Lanterne, opposite the iron grille of a street sewer, halfway up a flight of steps. It was a place frequented by a familiar crow, who used to hop ominously about, seeming to croak like the raven in Edgar Allan Poe: 'Never, oh! nevermore!' The body was that of my childhood friend and schoolfellow, Gérard de Nerval, my collaborator on the newspaper La Presse and the faithful companion of my brightest - and above all - my darkest days."

This final fantom is a real one.

Gautier sketches out his schooldays with Nerval, and their Bohemian life in Paris, their newspaper work, their famous battle against the Classical fogies over Hugo's Hernani. The whole piece is only twenty-three pages, so the movement is rapid, from Nerval's difficult obsessions with women to his strange travels in the Near East to the symptoms of his madness, with key, pungent details suggesting larger things.

"He could not conceive why doctors should be concerned if he happened to walk in the gardens of the Palais Royal leading a live lobster on the end of a blue silk ribbon.

'Why should a lobster be any more ridiculous than a dog?' he used to ask quietly, '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.'"

Gautier ends the piece with an incisive appreciation of Nerval's writings, particularly the account of his madness, Aurélia. I'm going to try to write about Nerval's work myself, soon. Maybe the week after next - a break from Weird France is in order.

I don't actually believe that all art is perfectly useless, although I have been nodding along with Wilde and Gautier. I don't think they believed it, either. Just read Gautier's fine tribute to Gérard de Nerval.

The photo of Gautier is of course by Nadar, from 1854 or 1855. The drawing of Nerval's suicide is by Gustave Doré.


  1. From past experience trying to race lobsters (it was a tie at the starting line), I second the policemen. Lobsters don't walk well.

  2. I have seen the episode described as "Nerval dragged a lobster" rather than "walked," which seems more plausible.

    The lobster's name, by the way, was Thibault.

  3. Of course Gautier and Wilde didn't believe "all art is perfectly useless"; literary dandies had a way of making light of their passions, speaking gravely of the inconsequential, making the frivolous grand, and diminishing what truly mattered. It's all very charming.

  4. A lot of it is performance, isn't it? The heart of dandyism. I also find it charming

  5. I like the idea of "monadic privacy." That's going to be on my mind now. I wonder if that's the source of my own aversion to dogs as pets.

    And you have recalled to my memory an incident in which an eccentric but certainly not mad friend of mine "walked" not a lobster but a crayfish. It did not go especially well.

  6. I don't think Nerval's lobster promenade was really related to his madness. It was a prank, a stunt, like Baudelaire dying his hair green. Surrealism before the deluge.

  7. Awesome--I had no idea he dyed his hair green. Do we know if he did it before or after Wilde started wearing carnations dyed green?

  8. Compared to the green carnations, the green hair seems so banal. See here for a suitably skeptical version of the green hair story.

    Not sure when this was supposed to be - probably in the 1850s, but possibly a bit later or earlier. Anyway, Wilde would have been a little kid, at most.

  9. I don't often comment on old posts, Amateur Reader, but I loved this one and think it's great that you spent a week each on Gautier & Nerval. I only hope that means I can find a month-long Lautréamont suite somewhere on this blog. Cheers!

  10. Lautréamont - ah, someday, but not yet. Nerval and Gautier and Villiers de L'Isle-Adam and, especially, Baudelaire wore me out. I need to rest a bit before my next encounter with Weird France.