Gérard de Nerval

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Gérard de Nerval
Félix Nadar 1820-1910 portraits Gérard de Nerval.jpg
Gérard de Nerval, by Nadar
Born Gérard Labrunie
(1808-05-22)22 May 1808
Paris, France
Died 26 January 1855(1855-01-26) (aged 46)
Paris, France
Nationality French
Occupation poet, essayist and translator
Notable work Voyage en Orient (1851)
Les Filles du Feu (1854)
Movement Romanticism

Gérard de Nerval (French pronunciation: ​[ʒeʁaʁ də nɛʁval]) (22 May 1808 – 26 January 1855) was the nom-de-plume of the French writer, poet, essayist and translator Gérard Labrunie, one of the Romantic French poets.

His works are notable for his charming personality and intelligence, his poetic vision and precision of form.


Two years after his birth in Paris, Nerval's mother died in Silesia while accompanying her husband, a military doctor and 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, Nerval was sent back to Paris. He frequently returned to the countryside of Valois during holidays, and he returned to it in imagination later 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 established his reputation; Goethe praised it and Hector Berlioz 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.

Several of his works were influenced by his infatuation for an actress named Jenny Colon (fr) (1808–1842).[citation needed]

Gérard de Nerval's first nervous breakdown occurred in 1841. In a series of biographical sketches or novellas collected as Les Illuminés, ou les précurseurs du socialisme (1852), which were based on themes suggested by the careers of Rétif de la Bretonne, Alessandro Cagliostro, Quintus Aucler, and others, he explored concerns of a political or literary character that followed his third bout of insanity.

Increasingly poverty-stricken and disoriented, he committed suicide in Paris during the night of 26 January 1855, by hanging himself from a sewer grating in the Rue de la Vieille-Lanterne, a narrow lane in the fourth arrondissement which today no longer exists. He left a brief note to his aunt: "Do not wait up for me this evening, for the night will be black and white."[1]

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 ou la reve et la vie 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.[2]


In 1867, Nerval's friend Théophile Gautier (1811–1872) wrote a touching reminiscence of him, "La Vie de Gérard", which was included in Gautier's Portraits et Souvenirs Litéraires (1875).

André Breton exemplifies the influence of Nerval's insistence on the significance of dreams on the Surrealist movement. Others influenced by Nerval's work include Marcel Proust, René Daumal, and Antonin Artaud.

Umberto Eco in his Six Walks in the Fictional Woods calls Nerval's Sylvie "masterpiece" and analyses it to show the use of temporal ambiguity.

Allusions by others[edit]

Plaque commemorating Gérard de Nerval, tour Saint-Jacques, Paris

Lawrence Durrell used the phrase "his eyes reflect the malady of De Nerval" in his poem "Je suis 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 "El Desdichado" to music as "Je Suis le Ténébreux" and sang it in the Flanders and Swann revue At the Drop of a Hat (1956). This song appears on the live recording of that performance. 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".[3]

Richard Wilbur's poem "A Prelude" in the collection Anterooms refers to Nerval. The poem mocks of the seriousness of Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach". Wilbur writes: "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 Gerrard recorded by Steve Winwood.

Nerval's poem El Disdichado was set to music for the album Feasting with Panthers, released in 2011 by Marc Almond and Michael Cashmore. It was edited, adapted and translated by Jeremy Reed.

Henry Miller included Nerval among a group of exemplary translators, writing 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.)".[4]

Pet lobster[edit]

"La Rue de la Vieille Lanterne: The Suicide of Gérard de Nerval", by Gustave Doré, 1855.

Nerval had a pet lobster, Thibault, which he would walk, at the end of a blue silk ribbon, among the Palais Royal gardens in Paris.[5]Nerval wrote to his close childhood friend Laura LeBeau, recounting an embarrassing incident that occurred while he was holiday in La Rochelle:[5]

...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...

Théophile Gautier quotes Nerval as saying:[6]

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 2013, cultural critic Mark Dery investigated the story. He interviewed scientists on the possibility of keeping a pet lobster in the age before aquariums could be easily controlled for temperature and oxygen, and the physical feasibility of a lobster going for walks on dry land. He also spoke with literary critics about the origin and symbolic meanings of the story and why Nerval may have perpetrated it.[7]

The story became legendary and influenced later artists and works. In the Sam Shepard and Patti Smith play Cowboy Mouth, the character Cavale is obsessed with Nerval. He makes numerous references to him and claimis 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.

Selected works by Gérard de Nerval[edit]

  • Les Faux Saulniers (The Salt Smugglers, 1850) — a sprawling work published over several weeks in the journal Le National. He later incorporated some of the same material in Les Filles du Feu (in Angelique) and in Les Illuminés (in L'Abbé de Bucquoy).
  • Voyage en Orient (1851) — an account of the author's voyages to Germany, Switzerland and Vienna in 1839 and 1840, and to Egypt and Turkey in 1843. It includes several pieces he had already published elsewhere, 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 collection of essays describing Paris at night.
  • 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 the most celebrated of his works.
  • Petits Châteaux de Bohême (1853) — a collection of prose works and poetry, including the 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 that volume, written in the style of Sylvie and set in Vienna. Also known as La Pandora, it is often subtitled: Suite des Amours de Vienne.
  • Aurélia ou le rêve et la vie (fr) (1855) — a full-length sequel to Les Filles du Feu. A fantasy-ridden interior autobiography that opens with the phrase: "The dream is a second life," which influenced the Surrealists. Published posthumously.
  • Promenades et Souvenirs (1854-1855) — a collection of essays after the manner of Les Nuits d'Octobre, describing the Saint-Germain of the author's childhood and youth. It includes another Fille du Feu, Célénie, in the last essay ("Chantilly").


  1. ^ Sieburth, Richard (1999). Gérard de Nerval: Selected Writings. London: Penguin Group. p. xxxi. 
  2. ^ "Le Catalogue: Gerard de Nerval". Retrieved 1 September 2015. 
  3. ^ James, Clive; Curry, Andrew; Birkill, S. J. "Shadow and the Widower". Smash Flops. Retrieved 22 January 2010. 
  4. ^ Miller, Henry, The Time of the Assassins, A Study of Rimbaud, New York 1962, p. vi and vii.
  5. ^ a b Horton, Scott (12 October 2008). "Nerval: A Man and His Lobster". Harper's Magazine. Retrieved 22 January 2010. 
  6. ^ Gautier, Théophile. Portraits et Souvenirs Littéraires (Paris: Charpentier, 1875), Richard Holmes trans.
  7. ^ Mark Dery (18 February 2013). "Nerval's Lobster". Boing Boing. Retrieved 24 June 2014. 
  8. ^ Translated by Mark Lamoureux

Further reading[edit]

  • Album Nerval. Iconographie choisie et commentée par Éric Buffetaud et Claude Pichois. Bibliothèque de la Pléiade. Éditions Gallimard, 1993. ISBN 2070112829. (Illustrated biography.)
  • Blackman, Maurice (1986–87). "Byron and the First Poem of Gérard de Nerval," Nineteenth-Century French Studies, Vol. XV, No. 1/2, pp. 94–107.
  • Bray, Patrick M. (2006). "Lost in the Fold: Space and Subjectivity in Gérard de Nerval's 'Généalogie' and Sylvie," French Forum, Vol. XXXI, No. 2, pp. 35–51.
  • Carroll, Robert C. (1976). "Illusion and Identity: Gérard de Nerval and Rétif's 'Sara'," Studies in Romanticism, Vol. XV, No. 1, pp. 59–80.
  • Carroll, Robert C. (1976). "Gérard de Nerval: Prodigal Son of History," Nineteenth-Century French Studies, Vol. IV, No. 3, pp. 263–273.
  • DuBruck, Alfred (1974-1975). "Nerval and Dumas in Germany," Nineteenth-Century French Studies, Vol. III, No. 1/2, pp. 58–64.
  • Duckworth, Colin (1965). "Eugène Scribe and Gérard de Nerval 'Celui Qui Tient la Corde Nous Étrangle'," The Modern Language Review, Vol. LX, No. 1, pp. 32–40.
  • Gautier, Théophile (1900). "Gérard de Nerval." In: The Complete Works of Théophile Gautier, Vol. VIII. London: The Athenæum Press, pp. 96–116.
  • Gordon, Rae Beth (2014). "The Enchanted Hand: Schlegel’s Arabesque in Nerval." In: Ornament, Fantasy, and Desire in Nineteenth-Century French Literature. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Knapp, Bettina L. (1974–75). "Gérard de Nerval's 'Isis' and the Cult of the Madonna," Nineteenth-Century French Studies, Vol. III, No. 1/2, pp. 65–79.
  • Knapp, Bettina L. (1976). "Gérard de Nerval: The Queen of Sheba and the Occult," Nineteenth-Century French Studies, Vol. IV, No. 3, pp. 244–257.
  • Jones, Robert Emmet (1974). Gerard de Nerval. New York: Twayne Publishers.
  • Lang, Andrew (1873). "Gérard de Nerval, 1810–1855," Fraser's Magazine, Vol. VII, pp. 559–566.
  • Lang, Andrew (1892). "Gérard de Nerval." In: Letters on Literature. London and New York: Longmans, Green & Co., pp. 147–156.
  • Mauris, Maurice (1880). "Gérard de Nerval." In: French Men of Letters. New York: D. Appleton and Company, pp. 129–150.
  • Moon, H. Kay (1965). "Gerard de Nerval: A Reappraisal," Brigham Young University Studies, Vol. VII, No. 1, pp. 40–52.
  • Rhodes, Solomon A. (1938). "Poetical Affiliations of Gerard de Nerval," PMLA, Vol. LIII, No. 4, pp. 1157–1171.
  • Rhodes, Solomon A. (1949). "The Friendship between Gérard de Nerval and Heinrich Heine," The French Review, Vol. XXIII, No. 1, pp. 18–27.
  • Rhodes, Solomon A. (1951). Gérard de Nerval, 1808–1855: Poet, Traveler, Dreamer. New York: Philosophical Library.
  • Rinsler, Norma (1963). "Gérard de Nerval, Fire and Ice," The Modern Language Review, Vol. LVIII, No. 4, pp. 495–499.
  • Rinsler, Norma (1963). "Gérard de Nerval's Celestial City and the Chain of Souls," Studies in Romanticism, Vol. II, No. 2, pp. 87–106.
  • Smith, Garnet (1889). "Gérard de Nerval," The Gentleman's Magazine, Vol. CCLXVI, pp. 285–296.
  • Sowerby, Benn (1974). The Disinherited: The Life of Gérard de Nerval. New York: New York University Press.
  • Symons, Arthur (1919). "Gérard de Nerval." In: The Symbolist Movement in Literature. New York: E.P. Dutton & Company, pp. 69–95.
  • Warren, Rosanna (1983). "The 'Last Madness' of Gérard de Nerval," The Georgia Review, Vol. XXXVII, No. 1, pp. 131–138.

External links[edit]