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||Gérard de Nerval (1808-1855) - pseudonym of Gérard Labrunie|
French writer and bohemian, one of the leading figures of
romantic movement. Also symbolists and surrealists found a kindred
spirit in Nerval, who described his dream states as "supernaturaliste".
The word first appeared in Nerval's translation of Goethe's Faust.
Guillaume Apollinaire shortened the term to "sur-réaliste". Nerval believed that dream is a second life.
"Dream is a second life. I have never been able to cross through those gates of ivory of horn which separate us from the invisible world without a sense of dread." (from Aurélia, 1855)
Gérard de Nerval was born Gérard Labrunie in Paris. His father, Etienne Labrunie, was a doctor in Napoleon's army. Nerval's mother, Marie-Antoinette-Marguerite Laurent, died in 1810 in Silesia. Gérard's uncle, who lived at Valois at Mortefontaine, took care of him for the next four years. Upon the return of his father, Nerval settled in Paris. A taciturn figure, his father anyhow wanted him to follow in his footsteps and study medicine. Although Nerval never became a doctor, he helped his father in 1832 during a cholera epidemic.
In 1822 Nerval entered the Collège Charlemange, where he met
the future poet and literature critic Théophile Gautier (1811-1872);
they became lifelong friends. Gautier was one of the most prominent
advocates of l'art pour l'art movement, born as a reaction
against bourgeois values. Nerval himself believed that poetry opens
doors to the invisible world, arguing that in similar way, "in sleep we
enter a new life, free of space and time". To astonish the bourgeois,
Nerval took sometimes his pet lobster for walks along the streets of
Paris. Gautier and Nerval lived in the rue du Doyenne.
Nerval's first poems, Napoléon et la France guerrière and Elégies nationales, appeared in 1826-27. At the age of twenty, Nerval published a translation of J.W. von Goethe's Faust (1828), which the German author himself praised. The composer Hector Berlioz used parts of the translation in his concert piece La Damnation de Faust. On the eve of the première of his Symphonie Fantastique, Berlioz met the young Franz Liszt, and told him about Nerval's translation. Litz shared Berlioz's ethusiasm, and decicated his own Faust-Symphony to the French composer. Other German authors whom Nerval admired and traslated were Heinrich Heine (1797-1856), who had lived in exile in Paris since 1831, and E.T.A. Hoffmann (1776-1822), whose influence in seen in Nerval's early collection of tales, La main de gloire (1832). Heine's poems he translated for the Revue des Deux Mondes.
Victor Hugo's play Hernani from 1829, about a noble bandit, influenced deeply Nerval and other artists and writers of the younger generation. Nerval had earlier adapted Hugo's Han d'Islande (1826) for the stage and once ordered "sea-water" in a reataurant, because that was Han of Iceland's favorite drink.
Nerval's great love was the the second-class opera singer Marguerite ('Jenny') Colon (1808-42), an actress at the Opera-Comique. Frivolous but enchanting woman, she became, for her own surprise, one of the muses of French Romanticism. Jenny was not a traditional beauty but she played a central role in the operetta Piquillo (1837), which Nerval co-authored with Alexandre Dumas père (1802-1970). Nerval idolized her for four years, sent anonymous letters, founded her a theatrical review, Le Monde dramatique, and praised her in his writings. However, Jenny married the flutist Louis-Gabriel Leplus.
Nerval's friends included Charles
Baudelaire (1821-1867), a much younger poet. Nerval was the
original dedicatee of Baudelaire's poem 'Un voyage à Cythère,' which
later became a part of Fleurs du mal. Baudelaire also
shared with Nerval a passion for Orient and hashish – they both attend
the meetings of the famous "Club des Hachischins", and wrote about the
The club, established by the early 1840s, held weekly
meetings in the Hotel Luzan in Ile St.-Louis. Along with Baudelaire,
and painters such as Eugène Delacroix, Jean-Louis Ernest Meissonier,
and Paul Chenavard, he attended the meetings of the so-called "Club des
Haschischins". The club met regularly in the Hôtel Pimodan in Fernand
From 1832 Nerval was associated with a group of artist and writers known as the Jeune-France. In 1834 Nerval inherited from his grandfather a sizable sum of money, which enabled him to travel in the south of France and Italy and found a short-lived theatre magazine, Le Monde dramatique. After the magazine went bankrupt, Nerval turned to journalism due to his debts. He spent some months in Vienna in 1839 on a mission for the Ministry of the Interior, but eventually returned penniless to Paris, making part of the journey on foot. Next year the Ministry of Education sent him to Belgium.
Nerval traveled with Dumas in 1838 to Germany. They also collaborated on two plays, L'Alchimiste (1839) and Léo Burckart (1839), a failure. After the death of Jenny Colon in 1842, Nerval traveled to the Levant, returning in 1844 to Paris.
Voyage en Orient (1843-51), Nerval's account of the
journey, both inner and outer, is considered one of his best works. Edward
W. Said has noted, that while the German idea of Orient produced
lyrics, fantasies, and novels, the Anglo-French Orientalism was actual,
derived from political facts and domination. For a person who has never
seen the Orient, Nerval once said, a lotus is still a lotus; for me it
is only a kind of onion. In Cairo Nerval's travel companion bought a
slave girl – "This woman is costing us a fortune and we no longer know
what to do with her," he complained in a letter.
Deeply in debt and trying to pay off his creditors, Nerval published between 1851 and 1855 six volumes of prose in quick succession. Lolery, souvenirs d'Allemagne (1852) was based on Nerval's journey to Germany in 1850. Les Chimères (1854) drew on Egyptian and Greek mythology, Medieval legends, the Tarot, and the Kabbalah. Its most famous sonnet, 'El Desdichado' (The Disinherited), composed in a "state of supernaturalist reverie" as Nerval himself said, has resisted all interpretation since its publication in Alexandre Dumas's magazine Le Mousquetaire (1853).
I am the man of gloom – the widower – the unconsoled
From the early 1840s to his death, Nerval suffered from
intermittent attacks of insanity; his first mental breakdown he had in
February 1841. Nerval spent in a hospital for nine months and wrote 'Le
Christ aux Oliviers' (Christ on the Mount of Olives). In the following
years, he was institutionalized several times, and once his
disappearance prompted a pseudo-obituary in the Journal des Débats. Gautier once remarked of his friend, "Gérard seemed to take pleasure in
disappearing from himself, in vanishing from his work, in leading his
readers astray." His contemporaries believed widely that he is incurably mad; for a long
period this was a hindrance to the criticism of Nerval's achievement.
Nerval was often treated at the clinic of Dr. Esprit Blanche, continued later by his son, Dr. Emile Blanche, whose patients included Guy de Maupassant in the 1890s. Until 1854, Nerval was in good terms with his doctor although he was occasionally treated with cold baths or strapped to straitjackets. "... I have suffered too greatly from a number of remedies which I was unable to escape not to admire the methods of our friend Emile, who limited himself to baths and two or three purgations to deal with the illness that had struck me," he wrote in a letter to his fellow patient at Passy.
Les chimères, Nerval's most important collection of poems, was published together with the short story collection Les filles du feu in 1854. His final work was the partly autobiographical Aurélia (1855), written in lucid but hallucinatory prose. Its first instalment was published in the Revue de Paris with the indication, "to be continued in the nex issue". According to a story, the conclusion of the text was found from Nerval's pockets after his death. In Sylvie (1853), a multilevel romance, the loss of real and ideal love centers on three female characters. The images of love in Aurélia are mostly related to the woman of the title, Jenny Colon's alter ego. The narrator discovers the power of dreams and his faith in love is restored after his descent into madness, the world beyond reason.
Nerval committed suicide at the age of forty-six. In Aurélia, his spiritual testament, Nerval said: "I said to myself: eternal night is upon us, and the darkness will be frightful. What will happen when they all realize there is no more sun?" Nerval's body was found on January 26, 1855, hanging from a railing in the Rue de la Vielle Lanterne, one of his favorite places in Paris. Nerval had said, that his brain felt so softened that he had become incapable of writing. For some decades, Nerval fell into oblivion, until the novelist and critic Rémy de Gourmont produced a new edition of his work in 1905.
For further reading: Gérard de Nerval by Jean Paul Bourre (2001); 'Introduction' by Richard Sieburth, in Gérard de Nerval: Selected Writings (1999); Nerval, réalisme et invention by Gabrielle Chamarat (1997); Malandain; Gérard de Nerval by Claude Pichois (1995); Gérard de Nerval et l'humour divin by Roger Mazelier (1995); Nerval's Magic Alphabet by Phyllis Jane Winston (1990); Gerard De Nerval: The Poet As Social Visionary by Kari Lokke (1987); There and Here: A Meditation on Gérard de Nerval by David Miller (1982); Gérard de Nerval, the Mystic's Dilemma by Bettina Liebowitz Knapp (1980); Nerval's Double: A Structural Study by Claire Gilbert (1979); Disinherited: the Life of Gerard De Nerval by B. Sowerby (1974); Gérard de Nerval by Robert Emmet Jones (1964); The Still Point and the Turning World: A Comparison of the Myths of Gerard de Nerval and William Butler Yeats by Clair Marcom Hubert (1964)
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