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.
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 the 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. 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, 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 left only a brief note to his aunt: "Do not wait up for me this evening, for the night will be black and white." 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.
Umberto Eco analyses Gerard de Nerval's Sylvie (calling it a "masterpiece") to show the use of temporal ambiguity, demystifying the "mists" during his Six Walks in the Fictional Woods.
British progressive rock 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.
Pet lobsterAccording to the British television program "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 and Patti Smith 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 Le 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..."
Works by de Nerval
- 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.
- La Bohème Galante (1852)
- Les Nuits d'Octobre (1852)
- Sylvie (1853)
- Petits châteaux de Bohême (1853)
Filles du Feu (1854), a volume of
- Les Chimères poems appended to Les Filles de Feu, translated by Daniel Mark Epstein
- Aurélia (1855), his fantasy-ridden interior autobiography— "Our dreams are a second life," he wrote— which influenced the Surrealists.
- Promenades et Souvenirs (1854-56)
- Un homard nommé Thibault (1855)
nerval in Bulgarian: Жерар дьо Нервал
nerval in Czech: Gérard de Nerval
nerval in Danish: Gérard de Nerval
nerval in German: Gérard de Nerval
nerval in Spanish: Gérard de Nerval
nerval in French: Gérard de Nerval
nerval in Italian: Gérard de Nerval
nerval in Georgian: ჟერარ დე ნერვალი
nerval in Norwegian: Gérard de Nerval
nerval in Russian: Нерваль, Жерар де
nerval in Turkish: Gerard de Nerval