Gérard de Nerval
Gérard de Nerval (French: [ʒeʁaʁ də nɛʁval]; 22 May 1808
– 26 January 1855) was the nom-de-plume of the French writer, poet,
essayist and translator Gérard Labrunie. A major figure of French
romanticism, he is best known for his poems and novellas, especially
Les Filles du feu
Les Filles du feu (The Daughters of Fire), which
includes the novella Sylvie and the poem "El Desdichado". He played a
major role in introducing French readers to the works of German
Romantic authors, including Klopstock, Schiller, Bürger and Goethe.
His later work delved into the relationship between poetry and
madness, reality and fiction, and dreams and life. He was a major
influence on Marcel Proust,
André Breton and Surrealism.
1.1 Early life
1.3 Work with Dumas
1.4 First nervous breakdowns
3 Selected works by Gérard de Nerval
6.1 Works in French
6.2 Works in English
6.4 Criticism (books)
6.5 Criticism (journal articles)
7 External links
Gérard Labrunie was born in Paris on 22 May 1808. His mother,
Marie Marguerite Antoinette Laurent, was the daughter of a clothing
salesman, and his father, Étienne Labrunie, was a young doctor who
had volunteered to serve as a medic in the army under Napoleon.
In June 1808, soon after Gérard's birth, Étienne was drafted. With
his young wife in tow, Étienne followed the army on tours of Germany
and Austria, eventually settling in a hospital in Głogów. While
they traveled East, the Labrunies left their newborn son Gérard in
the care of Marie Marguerite's uncle Antoine Boucher, who lived in
Mortefontaine, a small town in the Valois region, not far from
Paris. On November 29, 1810, Marie Marguerite died before she could
come back to France. Gérard was two years old. Having buried his
wife, Étienne took part in the disastrous French invasion of
Russia. He was reunited with his son in 1814.
Upon his return to France in 1814, Étienne took his son and moved
back to Paris, starting a medical practice at 72 rue Saint-Martin.
Gérard lived with his father but often stayed with his great-uncle
Boucher in Mortefontaine and with Gérard Dublanc in
Saint-Germain-en-Laye. (Dublanc, Étienne's uncle, was also Gérard's
In 1822 Gérard enrolled at the collège Charlemagne. This was where
he met and befriended Théophile Gautier. This was also where he began
to take poetry more seriously. He was especially drawn to epic poetry.
At age 16, he wrote a poem that recounted the circumstances of
Napoleon's defeat called "Napoléon ou la France guerrière, élégies
nationales". Later, he tried out satire, writing poems that took
aim at Prime Minister Villèle, the Jesuit order, and anti-liberal
newspapers like La Quotidienne. His writing started to be published
At age 19, with minimal knowledge of the German language, he began the
ambitious task of translating Goethe's Faust. His prose translation
appeared in 1828. Despite its many flaws, the translation had many
merits, and it did a great deal to establish his poetic
reputation. It is the reason why Victor Hugo, the leader of the
Romantic movement in France, felt compelled to have Gérard come to
his apartment on 11, rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs.
In 1829, having received his baccalaureate degree two years late
(perhaps because he skipped classes to go for walks and read for
pleasure), Gérard was under pressure from his father to find
steady employment. He took a job at a notary's office. But his heart
was still set on literature. When
Victor Hugo asked him to support his
play Hernani, under attack from conservative critics suspicious of
Romanticism, Gérard was more than happy to join the fight (see
Bataille d'Hernani (fr)).
Though an eager participant in this so-called Romantic revolution,
Gérard was largely indifferent to the
July Revolution that also took
place in 1830. Instead, Gérard set himself two anthology projects:
one on German poetry, and one on French poetry.
Alexandre Dumas and
Pierre-Sébastien Laurentie arranged a library card for him so he
could carry out his research.
The first anthology included translations of Klopstock, Schiller,
Bürger and Goethe, and met with less enthusiasm than his translation
of Faust. The second anthology included poems by Ronsard, Joachim du
Bellay, Jean-Antoine de Baïf, Guillaume Du Bartas and Jean-Baptiste
By the fall of 1830, the Cénacle, a group created by Sainte-Beuve to
ensure Victor Hugo's success with Hernani, had assembled many famed
writers, including Alfred de Vigny, Alfred de Musset, Charles Nodier,
Alexandre Dumas and Honoré de Balzac. After Hernani's success, the
Cénacle began to fall apart. At that time a new group appeared: the
Petit-Cénacle, created by the sculptor Jean Bernard Duseigneur.
Gérard attended some of the meetings, which took place in
Gérard, following Hugo's lead, started to write plays. Le Prince des
sots and Lara ou l'expiation were shown at the Théâtre de l'Odéon
and met with positive reviews. He started to use the pseudonym Gérard
de Nerval, inspired by the name of a property near Loisy (a village
near Ver-sur-Launette, Oise) which had belonged to his family.
Work with Dumas
In January 1834, Nerval's maternal grandfather died and he inherited
around 30,000 francs. That fall, he headed to Southern France, then
traveled to Florence, Rome and Naples. On his return in 1835, he moved
in with a group of Romantic artists (including Camille
Rogier (fr)). In May of that year, he created Le Monde
Dramatique, a luxurious literary journal that made him squander his
inheritance. Debt-ridden, Gérard finally sold it in 1836. Getting his
start in journalism, he traveled to Belgium with Gautier from July to
In 1837, Piquillo was shown at the Opéra-Comique. Despite Nerval's
work on the project, Dumas' was the only name on the libretto. Jenny
Colon (fr) played the main role. Nerval may have fallen in love
with the actress. Some specialists claim that his unrequited love for
her is what inspired many of the female figures that appear in his
writing, including the Virgin Mary, Isis, the queen of Saba. Other
experts disagree with this biographical analysis.
Despite Dumas' refusal to let him take credit for his work, Nerval
continued to collaborate with Dumas on plays. In the summer of 1838,
he traveled with Dumas to Germany to work on Léo Burckart, which
eventually premiered at the
Théâtre de la Porte-Saint-Martin
Théâtre de la Porte-Saint-Martin on 16
April 1839, six days after the premiere of another play the pair
worked on together called L'Alchimiste. In November 1839, Nerval
traveled to Vienna, where he met the pianist
Marie Pleyel at the
First nervous breakdowns
Back in France in March 1840, Nerval took over Gautier's column at La
Presse. After publishing a third edition of Faust in July, including a
preface and fragments of Second Faust, he traveled to Belgium in
October. On 15 December Piquillo premiered in Brussels, where Nerval
crossed paths with Jenny Colon and
Marie Pleyel once again.
After a first nervous breakdown on 23 February 1841 he was cared for
at the Sainte-Colombe Borstal ("maison de correction"). On 1 March
Jules Janin published an obituary for Nerval in the Journal des
Débats. After a second nervous breakdown, Nerval was housed in
Docteur Esprit Blanche's clinic in Montmartre, where he remained from
March to November.
On 22 December 1842 Nerval set off for the Near East, traveling to
Alexandria, Cairo, Beirut, Constantinople,
Malta and Naples. Back in
Paris in 1843, he began to publish articles about his trip in 1844.
His Journey to the Orient appeared in 1851.
Between 1844 and 1847, Nerval traveled to Belgium, the Netherlands, to
London, producing a significant amount of travel writing. At the same
time, he wrote novellas and opera librettos and translated poems by
his friend Heinrich Heine, publishing a selection of translations in
1848. His last years were spent in dire financial and emotional
straits. Following his doctor Emile Blanche's advice, he tried to
purge himself of his intense emotions in his writing. This is when he
composed some of his best works.
La rue de la vieille lanterne: The Suicide of Gérard de Nerval, by
Gustave Doré, 1855
Nerval had a pet lobster, which he walked at the end of a blue silk
ribbon in the
Palais-Royal in Paris. According to Théophile
Gautier, Nerval 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.
Increasingly poverty-stricken and disoriented, he committed suicide
during the night of 26 January 1855, by hanging himself from the bar
of a cellar window in the rue de la Vieille-Lanterne, a narrow lane in
a squalid section of Paris.[a] He left a brief note to his aunt: "Do
not wait up for me this evening, for the night will be black and
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 le rêve et la
vie (fr) were found in a pocket of his coat. After a religious
ceremony at the Notre-Dame cathedral (which was granted despite his
suicide because of his troubled mental state), he was buried in the
Père Lachaise Cemetery
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
Gérard de Nerval are published in three volumes
Gallimard in the collection Bibliothèque de la Pléiade.
Goethe read Nerval's translation of Faust and called it "very
successful," even claiming that he preferred it to the original.
Hector Berlioz relied on Nerval's translation of Faust
for his work La damnation de Faust, which premiered in 1846.
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 Littéraires (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
In 1945, at the end of the Second World War and after a long illness,
the Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst
C. G. Jung
C. G. Jung delivered a
lecture in Zürich on Nerval's Aurélia which he regarded as a work of
“extraordinary magntitude”. Jung described Nerval's memoir as a
cautionary tale (the protagonist cannot profit psychologically from
his own lucidity and profound insights), and he validates Nerval's
visionary experience as a genuine encounter with the collective
unconscious and anima mundi.
Umberto Eco in his
Six Walks in the Fictional Woods
Six Walks in the Fictional Woods calls Nerval's
Sylvie a "masterpiece" and analysed it to demonstrate the use of
Henry Miller called Nerval an "extraordinary French poet" and included
him among a group of exemplary translators:"[i]n English we have yet
to produce a poet who is able to do for Rimbaud what
for Poe's verse, or Nerval for Faust, or Morel and
The English rock band Traffic included the jazz-rock track "Dream
Gerrard" in their 1974 album When the Eagle Flies. Lyrics are known to
be mainly written by
Vivian Stanshall after reading Nerval's
There are streets named after Nerval in the towns of Saint-Denis,
Béthisy-Saint-Pierre, Crepy-en-Valois, Creil, Mortefontaine, Othis
Selected works by Gérard de Nerval
Les Faux Saulniers (The Salt Smugglers, 1850) – published over
several weeks in Le National, a daily newspaper. He later incorporated
some of this material in
Les Filles du Feu
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. Includes several pieces already published, including
Les Amours de Vienne, which first appeared in the
Revue de Paris
Revue de Paris in
1841. One of the author's major works.
La Bohème Galante (1852) – a collection of short prose works and
poems including some of the set he later called Odelettes. Dedicated
and addressed to Arsène Houssaye.
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 the
full-length play Léo Burckart, under the title "Scènes de la Vie
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 short play Corilla, which was subsequently
included in Les Filles du Feu, and the Odelettes, and several of the
sonnets later published as Les Chimères.
Les Filles du feu
Les Filles du feu (1854) – a volume of short stories or idylls,
including the previously published Sylvie, along with a sequence of
twelve sonnets, Les Chimères
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, often subtitled Suite des Amours de
Aurélia ou le rêve et la vie (fr) (1855, posthumously) – a
fantasy-ridden interior autobiography.
Promenades et Souvenirs (1854–1855) – a collection of eight essays
after the manner of Les Nuits d'Octobre, describing the Saint-Germain
neighborhood of the author's childhood and youth. The last,
"Chantilly", includes an essay-portrait similar to those in Les Filles
^ The street existed only a few months longer. The area had been
scheduled for demolition in June 1854, and that work began in the
spring of 1855. The site of Nerval's suicide is now occupied by the
Théâtre de la Ville.
^ a b Gérard Cogez,
Gérard de Nerval
Gérard de Nerval 11.
^ Pierre Petitfils, Nerval p. 15.
^ a b Cogez 13.
^ a b Cogez 14.
^ a b Cogez 15.
^ Cogez 16
^ Cogez 20.
^ Cogez 21-22.
^ Cogez 24
^ Richer, Jean (1970). Nerval par les témoins de sa vie. éditions
Minard. p. 73. ISBN 0-320-05499-3.
^ a b Cogez 27.
^ Pierre Petitfils, Nerval, p. 63.
^ "Gérard de NERVAL" (in French). 28 August 2003. Retrieved 17 June
^ For example, see Christine Bomboir, Les Lettres d'amour de
Nerval : mythe ou réalité ?, p. 93–94.
^ Horton, Scott (12 October 2008). "Nerval: A Man and His Lobster".
Harper's Magazine. Retrieved 22 January 2010.
^ Gautier, Théophile (1875). Portraits et Souvenirs Littéraires.
^ Carmona, Michel (2002). Haussmann: His Life and Times and the Making
of Modern Paris. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee. pp. 249–51.
^ Sieburth, Richard (1999). Gérard de Nerval: Selected Writings.
London: Penguin Group. p. xxxi.
^ "Le Catalogue: Gerard de Nerval". Retrieved 1 September 2015.
^ Conversations of Goethe with Eckermann, Trans. John Oxenford, 1906.
Jan 3, 1830 entry Archived 25 March 2016 at the Wayback Machine..
^ Kelly, Thomas Forrest (2000). First Nights: Five Musical Premieres.
Yale University Press. p. 190. Retrieved 6 March 2016.
^ Jung (1945/2015)
^ Miller, Henry, The Time of the Assassins, A Study of Rimbaud, New
York 1962, p. vi and vii.
^ Jonathan Calder, "Traffic: Dream Gerrard", 22 September 2013
Works in French
Œuvres complètes. 3 vols. Eds. Jean Guillaume & Claude Pichois.
Paris: La Pléiade-Gallimard, 1984. Print.
Les filles du feu/Les Chimères. Ed. Bertrand Marchal. Paris:
Folio-Gallimard, 2005. Print. ISBN 978-2070314799
La Pandora – Les Nuits d'Octobre – Promenades et
souvenirs. Ed. Jean-Nicolas Illouz. Paris: Folio-Gallimard, 2005.
Print. ISBN 978-2070314768
Works in English
Aurélia & Other Writings. Trans. Geoffrey Wagner, Robert Duncan,
Marc Lowenthal. New York: Exact Change, 2004. ISBN 978-1878972095
Journey to the Orient. Trans. Conrad Elphinstone. New York: Antipodes
Press, 2012. ISBN 978-0988202603
Selected Writings. Trans. Richard Sieburth. New York: Penguin, 1999.
Print. ISBN 978-0140446012
Album Nerval. Eds. Éric Buffetaud and Claude Pichois. Paris: La
Pléiade-Gallimard, 1993. ISBN 2070112829.
Cogez, Gérard. Gérard de Nerval. Paris : Folio-Gallimard, 2010.
Print. ISBN 978-2070338795
Gautier, Théophile. Histoire du romantisme/Quarante portraits
romantiques. Ed. Adrien Goetz. Paris: Folio-Gallimard, 2011. Print.
Gautier, Théophile. (1900). "Gérard de Nerval." In: The Complete
Works of Théophile Gautier, Vol. VIII. London: The Athenæum Press,
Jones, Robert Emmet (1974). Gerard de Nerval. New York: Twayne
Petitfils, Pierre (fr), Nerval, Paris, Julliard, 1986, coll. Les
Vivants ISBN 2-260-00484-9
Sowerby, Benn. The disinherited; the life of Gérard de Nerval,
1808–1855. New York: New York University Press, 1974. Print.
Ahearn, Edward J. "Visionary Insanity: Nerval's Aurélia." Visionary
Fictions: Apocalyptic Writing from Blake to the Modern Age. New Haven:
Yale University Press, 1996. Print.
Jeanneret, Michel. La lettre perdue: Ecriture et folie dans l'œuvre
de Nerval. Paris: Flammarion, 1978. Print.
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.
Jung, Carl Gustav
Jung, Carl Gustav (1945/2015). On Psychological and Visionary Art:
Notes from C. G. Jung's Lecture on Gérard de Nerval's "Aurélia". Ed.
Craig E Stephenson, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Rhodes, Solomon A. (1951). Gérard de Nerval, 1808–1855: Poet,
Traveler, Dreamer. New York: Philosophical Library.
Symons, Arthur (1919). "Gérard de Nerval." In: The Symbolist Movement
in Literature. New York: E.P. Dutton & Company, pp. 69–95.
Lang, Andrew (1892). "Gérard de Nerval." In: Letters on Literature.
London and New York: Longmans, Green & Co., pp. 147–156.
Criticism (journal articles)
Blackman, Maurice (1986–87). "Byron and the First Poem of Gérard de
Nerval," Nineteenth-Century French Studies, Vol. XV, No. 1/2,
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,
Carroll, Robert C. (1976). "Gérard de Nerval: Prodigal Son of
History," Nineteenth-Century French Studies, Vol. IV, No. 3,
DuBruck, Alfred (1974–1975). "Nerval and Dumas in Germany,"
Nineteenth-Century French Studies, Vol. III, No. 1/2,
Duckworth, Colin (1965). "Eugène Scribe and
Gérard de Nerval
Gérard de Nerval 'Celui
Qui Tient la Corde Nous Étrangle'," The Modern Language Review, Vol.
LX, No. 1, pp. 32–40.
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,
Lang, Andrew (1873). "Gérard de Nerval, 1810–1855," Fraser's
Magazine, Vol. VII, pp. 559–566.
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,
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,
Smith, Garnet (1889). "Gérard de Nerval," The Gentleman's Magazine,
Vol. CCLXVI, pp. 285–296.
Warren, Rosanna (1983). "The 'Last Madness' of Gérard de Nerval," The
Georgia Review, Vol. XXXVII, No. 1, pp. 131–138.
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