Monday, June 15, 2009

A whole series of remembered impressions - Gérard de Nerval's lovely, accessible Sylvie

I'm planning to spend the week with Gérard de Nerval (left, a Nadar portrait), the writer best known either for his pre-Surrealist lobster walk, or for going insane and hanging himself. Poor Nerval. Turns out he also wrote some books. So forget that other stuff. Books.

Two short stories, Sylvie (1853) and Emilie (1854); a sequence of twelve sonnets, The Chimeras (1854); a not-sure-what describing his mental breakdowns, Aurélia (1855): those, plus some additional miscellaneous poems, are what I read. Oh, and a brilliant biographical sketch of Jacques Cazotte, victim of the Revolution and author of the sly and amusing The Devil in Love (1772). There also exists, in English, some travel writing and some additional stories, which I hope to read someday.

Sylvie is the piece I can recommend most easily, or most generally. It's a finely written story of love and memory. The narrator, who I'll call Gérard, is in love with an actress, who is out of his reach. Reading "at random" in the newspaper, he sees the announcement of a traditional festival in Valois, Gérard's home, that "triggered in my mind a whole series of remembered impressions." This may remind readers of Proust, a bit. Proust himself agreed, citing Sylvie as a key influence on his ideas, although I'm not sure any of this helps much with understanding Proust or Nerval.

In memory, at least, Gérard is in love with two other women as well, the blond, noble Adrienne, who becomes a nun, and the brunette peasant Sylvie. Only Sylvie is a character. Adrienne and the actress are idealized figures, one inaccessible because pure and perfect, the other because she is corrupted by money, by Paris. Gérard is perhaps also corrupted.

The story moves, sometimes obscurely, between Gérard's current return to Valois and his adolescent memories, often centered around festivals and dances. It's woven through with books, as well - I told you Gérard was corrupted - particularly Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse (1761). Some of the story in fact takes place in Ermenonville, one of Rousseau's haunts, literally so when he was buried on an island there. The story ends with an act of renunciation, a bit like Julie, but more like mature Goethe. Nerval was the most Germanic of French writers.

How about a bit of prose? There are so many nice passages:

"Sylvie, when she used to come to me to these places, lent them a special charm with her obvious delight, her mad dashing here and there, her shouts of joy. She was still a wild, barefoot child, her skin bronzed despite her straw hat with its wide ribbon flying helter-skelter amid her long black tresses. We would go to the Swiss farm to get a drink of milk, and people would say to me: 'How pretty she is, that sweetheart of yours, little Parisian!'

No country bumpkin could have danced with her then! She would dance only with me, once a year, at the fête of the bow."

And there's a lot better than that. I wanted a scrap of character description - the passages about parties, about trying on a wedding dress, about an antique clock, are as good, better. Who needs Flaubert? In the sweet, melancholy Sylvie, Nerval had mastered le mot juste three entire years before Madame Bovary.

All right, that's it for Gérard de Nerval that I understand. Actually, the Balzac-like Emilie, and the Cazotte essay, and many of the poems are perfectly comprehensible. But I don't want to write about them. The rest of the week, it's all tarot cards and T. S. Eliot and Isis and the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. What can I be thinking?

Translations by Kendall Lappin, in the 1993 volume of Aurélia and Sylvie.


  1. The connection to Proust is interesting; was de Nerval widely read in his time?

  2. Yes, defnitely widely read. Nerval is mainstream French canon.

    Maybe "mainstream" is not the right word. The French canon includes Ubu Roi, Tristan Tzara and Louis Aragon, Rimbaud and Baudelaire. The French canon is pretty weird.