Gérard de Nerval  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Gérard de Nerval (May 22, 1808 – January 26, 1855) was the nom-de-plume of the French writer, poet, essayist and translator Gérard Labrunie, one of the most essentially Romantic French poets.

His life and several of his works were influenced by his infatuation for an actress named Jenny Colon, who died in 1842. His works are notable for the author's charming personality and intelligence, his poetic vision and precision of form. His friend and fellow writer Théophile Gautier wrote a touching reminiscence of him in 1867 (La Vie de Gérard) which was included in Gautier's Portraits et Souvenirs Litéraires, published posthumously in 1875.

He is best-remembered for his fantasy-ridden 1855 interior autobiography Aurélie, his memberships of the Hashischins and the Bouzingo clubs and the pet lobster he took for walks in Paris on the end of a blue ribbon.



Two years after his birth in Paris, his mother died in Silesia while accompanying her husband, a military doctor, a member of Napoleon's Grande Armée. He was brought up by his maternal great-uncle, Antoine Boucher, in the countryside of Valois at Mortefontaine. On the return of his father from war in 1814, he was sent back to Paris. He frequently returned to the countryside of Valois during holidays and later returned to it in imagination in his Chansons et légendes du Valois.

His talent for translation was made manifest in his prose translation of Goethe's Faust (1828), the work which earned him his reputation; Goethe praised it, and Hector Berlioz later used sections for his legend-symphony La damnation de Faust. Other translations from Goethe ensued; in the 1840s, Nerval's translations introduced Heinrich Heine's poems to French readers of the Revue des deux mondes. During the 1820s at college he became lifelong friends with Théophile Gautier and later joined Alexandre Dumas, père, in the Petit Cénacle, a bohemian set affiliated to Charles Nodier, which was ultimately to become the Club des Hashischins. Nerval's poetry is characterized by Romantic deism. His passion for the "spirit world" was matched by a decidedly more negative view of the material one: "This life is a hovel and a place of ill-repute. I'm ashamed that God should see me here." Among his admirers was Victor Hugo.

Gérard de Nerval's first nervous breakdown occurred in 1841. In a series of novellas, collected as Les Illuminés, ou les précurseurs du socialisme (1852), on themes suggested by the careers of Rétif de la Bretonne, Alessandro Cagliostro and others, he explored feelings that followed his third insanity.

Increasingly poverty-stricken and disoriented, he committed suicide during the night of January 26, 1855, hanging himself from a sewer grating in a narrow street named Rue de la Vieille-Lanterne. He left a brief note to his aunt: "Do not wait up for me this evening, for the night will be black and white."

The poet Charles Baudelaire observed that Nerval had "delivered his soul in the darkest street that he could find." The discoverers of his body were puzzled by the fact that his hat was still on his head. The last pages of his manuscript for Aurélia were found in a pocket of his coat. He was interred in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, at the expense of his friends Théophile Gautier and Arsène Houssaye, who published Aurélia as a book later that year.

The complete works of Gérard de Nerval are published in three volumes by Gallimard in the collection Bibliothèque de la Pléiade.


The influence of Nerval's insistence on the significance of dreams on the Surrealist movement was emphasised by André Breton. The writers Marcel Proust and René Daumal were also greatly influenced by Nerval's work, as was Artaud.

Umberto Eco analyses Gérard de Nerval's Sylvie (calling it a "masterpiece") to show the use of temporal ambiguity, demystifying the "mists" in his Six Walks in the Fictional Woods.

Allusions by others

Lawrence Durrell used the phrase "his eyes reflect the malady of De Nerval" in his poem "Je est un autre" (1942).

T. S. Eliot quoted the second line of Nerval's sonnet "El Desdichado" in his poem The Waste Land.

Donald Swann set that poem to music as "Je Suis le Ténébreux" (its first words) and sang his own setting of it in the Flanders and Swann revue At the Drop of a Hat (1956); it appears on the live recording. Clive James, in his songwriting collaboration with Pete Atkin, wrote two lyrics that refer to the poem: "The Prince of Aquitaine" and "The Shadow and the Widower".

Nerval is referenced in Richard Wilbur's book Anterooms in the poem "A Prelude". The poem is a mockery of the seriousness of Matthew Arnold and his poem "Dover Beach". Wilbur writes of Matthew Arnold, "And was upon the point of saying "Ah," / When he perceived, not far from the great Aiguille, / A lobster led on a leash beside the sea. / It was de Nerval, enjoying his vacances!"

William Boyd's 1998 novel Armadillo contains many references to Nerval and his work.

Sam Shepard refers to Nerval in his play "Cowboy Mouth."

Vivian Stanshall wrote the lyrics to a song called Dream Gerard recorded by Steve Winwood.

In a study on Arthur Rimbaud, Henry Miller writes that "[i]n English we have yet to produce a poet who is able to do for Rimbaud what Baudelaire did for Poe's verse, or Nerval for Faust, or Morel and Larbaud for Ulysses" and that "[i]t is my sincere belief that America needs to become acquainted with this legendary figure [Rimbaud] now more than ever. (The same is true of another extraordinary French poet ... ; Gérard de Nerval.)".

Pet lobster

Nerval had a pet lobster named Thibault which he took for walks in the Palais Royal gardens in Paris on the end of a blue silk ribbon.

Nerval wrote to his close childhood friend Laura LeBeau, recounting an embarrassing incident that occurred while on holiday in La Rochelle: "...and so, dear Laura, upon my regaining the town square I was accosted by the mayor who demanded that I should make a full and frank apology for stealing from the lobster nets. I will not bore you with the rest of the story, but suffice to say that reparations were made, and little Thibault is now here with me in the city..."

In an article about the life of Nerval by his friend, Théophile Gautier, Nerval is quoted as having said "Why should a lobster be any more ridiculous than a dog? ...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."

In the Sam Shepard and Patti Smith play Cowboy Mouth, the character Cavale is obsessed with Nerval, making numerous references to him and claiming that Nerval hanged himself on [her] birthday. It also mentions Nerval having a pet lobster, as above, amidst other fantastic claims. This may be the inspiration for the play's character 'Lobster Man.'

Flanders and Swann make mention of Nerval's pet lobster in the introduction to "Je Suis Le Ténébreux".

Nerval, who was Joseph Cornell's "great hero", is quoted in the epigram to a book about Cornell.

"Me? I pursue an image, no more."

The quote derives from "Sylvie," one of Nerval's best-loved works.

Selected works by Gérard de Nerval

  • The Enchanted Hand (1832), short story
  • Les Faux Saulniers (1850) - (The Salt Smugglers) - a sprawling work published over several weeks in the journal Le National, some of the material of which was incorporated in Les Filles du Feu (in Angelique) and in Les Illuminés (in L'Abbé de Bucquoy).
  • Voyage en Orient (1851) - an account of his voyages to Germany, Switzerland and Vienna in 1839 and 1840, and to Egypt and Turkey in 1843. A substantial book, it includes several texts that are published separately, including Les Amours de Vienne, which originally appeared in Revue de Paris in 1841.
  • La Bohème Galante (1852) - dedicated and addressed to Arsène Houssaye, a collection of short prose works and poems including some of the Odelettes.
  • Les Nuits d'Octobre (1852) - a small but significant collection of little essays describing Paris at night, from his own experiences.
  • Lorely, souvenirs d'Allemagne (1852) - an account of his travels along the Rhine, also in Holland and Belgium. It includes his play Léo Burckart, under the title "Scènes de la Vie Allemande".
  • Les Illuminés (1852) - a collection of six biographical narratives in the form of novellas or essays.
  • Sylvie (1853) - described by Nerval as "un petit roman" ("a small novel"), it is his most celebrated work.
  • Petits Châteaux de Bohême (1853) - a small collection of prose works and poetry, including the little play Corilla which was subsequently included in Les Filles du Feu, and the poems of Odelettes, with some of the sonnets from Les Chimères.
  • Les Filles du Feu (1854) - a volume of short stories or idylls that includes Sylvie.
  • Pandora (1854) - another Fille du Feu, not finished in time for inclusion in the volume, it is in the style of Sylvie. Also known as La Pandora, it is often subtitled: Suite des Amours de Vienne. Set in a snowy Vienna.
  • Aurélia ou le Rêve et la Vie (1855) - a full-length follow-up to Les Filles du Feu. His fantasy-ridden interior autobiography, the novel commences with the phrase: "The dream is a second life," which influenced the Surrealists. Published after his death.
  • Promenades et Souvenirs (1854-1855) - a little collection of essays after the manner of Les Nuits d'Octobre, describing the Saint-Germain of his childhood and youth. It includes another Fille du Feu, Célénie, in the last essay ("Chantilly").

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