Gérard de Nerval
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Gérard de Nerval (May 22, 1808 – January 26, 1855) was the nom-de-plume of the French poet, essayist and translator Gérard Labrunie, the most essentially Romantic among French poets who is 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 whilst 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 the Valois on holidays and later returned to it in imagination in his Chansons et légendes du Valois.
His flair for translation was made manifest in his 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 followed; in the 1840s, Nerval's translations introduced Heinrich Heine's poems to French readers of the Revue des Deux Mondes. In the 1820s at college he became lifelong friends with Théophile Gautier and later joined Alexandre Dumas, père in Le Petit Cénacle, in what was an exceedingly bohemian set, which was ultimately to become the Club des Hashischins. Nerval's poetry breathes a Romantic deism, a sentient universe full of dream images and esoteric signs. Among his admirers was Victor Hugo.
Gérard de Nerval's first nervous breakdown occurred in 1841. A series of novellas, collected as Les Illuminés, ou les precurseurs du socialisme (1852), on themes suggested by the careers of Rétif de la Bretonne, Cagliostro and others, he gave shape to feelings that followed his third attack of insanity. Increasingly poverty-stricken and disoriented, he finally committed suicide in 1855, hanging himself from a window grating. He was interred in the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris.
The influence of Nerval's insistence on the significance of dreams on the Surrealist movement was fully emphasised by André Breton. The writers Marcel Proust and René Daumal were also greatly influenced by Nerval's work, as was Artaud.
Marcel Proust, Joseph Cornell, René Daumal, and T.S. Eliot have all cited Gérard de Nerval as a major influence. T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland" borrowed one of its most enigmatic lines from Nerval's "El Desdichado".
Allusions by others
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 Flanders and Swann performed it in their 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".
The British progressive rock music band Pure Reason Revolution draw extensively from Nerval for influence in their lyrics, which often revolve around dreams and use a 'stream of consciousness' technique very similar to Nerval's. The title of their song "Trembling Willows" is a reference to one of Nerval's poems, "Delfica", and its lyrics take many of the same images. Similarly, the song "In Aurelia" comes from Nerval's masterpiece of the same name.
The British rock music band Traffic included a song on their album When the Eagle Flies called "Dream Gerrard." The lyrics were written by Vivian Stanshall as a tribute to Nerval. The song contains surreal lyrics like Nerval's work.
Nerval is referenced in Richard Wilbur's new 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 Nerval, enjoying his vacances!"
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 contemporary, 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".
Works by de Nerval
- The Enchanted Hand (1832), short story
- Voyage en Orient (1851), resulted from his extended hashish-filled trip of 1842 to Cairo and Beirut. It must have puzzled readers of conventional travel books, for it retells Oriental tales like Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, in terms of the artist and the act of creation.
- Les Nuits d'Octobre (1852)
- Sylvie (1853)
- Petits châteaux de Bohême (1853)
- Les Filles du Feu (1854), a volume of short stories.
- Les Chimères poems appended to Les Filles de Feu, translated by Daniel Mark Epstein
- Aurélie (1855), his fantasy-ridden interior autobiography— "Our dreams are a second life," he wrote— which influenced the Surrealists.
- Promenades et Souvenirs (1854-56)
According to the British television series "Status Anxiety", Nerval had a pet lobster. He took it for walks in Paris on the end of a blue ribbon. He regarded them as "peaceful, serious creatures, who know the secrets of the sea, and don't bark".
In the Sam Shepard play Cowboy Mouth, the character Cavale is obsessed with Nerval, making numerous references to him and claiming that Nerval "hung 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.'
British comedians Michael Flanders and Donald Swann (known as the duo Flanders and Swann) make mention of Nerval's pet lobster in the introduction to their comic version of "Je Suis Les Ténébreux", featured in their revue "At the Drop of a Hat" (1956).
The continued dispute over whether or not Nerval ever owned a pet lobster seems to have been finally resolved thanks to the discovery of some personal correspondence in which Gérard, writing to his close childhood friend Laura LeBeau, recounts an embarrassing incident that occurred whilst holidaying 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..."