The Literary Madman Gérard de Nerval

The literary madman Gérard de Nerval was the nom-de-plume of the French writer, poet, essayist, and translator Gérard Labrunie. He was a major figure of French romanticism and is best known for his poems and novellas. He was interested in literature from a young age and at 16 wrote a poem about Napoleon’s defeat called “Napoléon ou la France guerrière, élégies nationales.” Later, he tried satirical poetry, and his writing began to be published in 1826.

Photo of Gérard by Félix Nadar. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Before any insanity or madness showed, at the age 19, with minimal knowledge of the German language, Gérard began the ambitious task of translating Goethe’s Faust. His translation was also why the leader of the Romantic movement in France, Victor Hugo, had Gérard come to his apartment on the rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs, as it was the headquarters for young Romantic authors. Gérard’s translation appeared in 1828, and despite its flaws, his work had merit and helped establish his poetic reputation.

Drawing of Gérard published in 1861. Public domain.

After receiving his baccalaureate degree, Gérard’s father, who had been a medic in Napoleon’s Grand Armée, began to pressure Gérard to find steady employment. He took a position in a notary’s office but was more interested in literature. His mother had died when he was a toddler, and, so, when his maternal grandfather died in January of 1834, his grandfather left him a sizeable fortune. Because of the money, he could travel, and, flush with cash, he headed to Southern France and then toured Florence, Rome, and Naples before returning to Paris in 1835.

Back in Paris, he rented an apartment, installed an authentic Louis XV salon in it, and displayed two of Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s Rococo artworks. Gérard also put his money into a luxurious literary journal, “Le Monde Dramatique.” Unfortunately, he went bankrupt and with no money was forced to return to journalism. He then served as a ghost-writer for Alexandre Dumas, whose historical novels of high adventure were originally published as serials that included The Count of Monte Cristo, Twenty Years After, and The Three Musketeers. Gérard also collaborated with Dumas on several plays.

At the age of thirty-three, on 23 February 1841, Gérard had his first nervous breakdown. He was cared for at the Sainte-Colombe Borstal, and during that time, he wrote a portion of sonnets that were concluded in 1854 and eventually considered his masterpiece. They were published a year before he died, under the title Les Chimères (The Chimeras). He also created his nom de plume based on property that his family owned and invented a make-believe genealogy to support it. After his first attack, he continued to suffer intermittent bouts of insanity and was later housed in Docteur Esprit Blanche’s clinic in Montmartre, where he remained from August 1853 until October 1854.

At the age of fourteen, while enrolled at the collège Charlemagne, Gérard met and befriended Théophile Gautier, a French poet, dramatist, novelist, journalist, and art and literary critic. They would become lifelong friends, and Gautier would consider Gérard a gentle but elusive soul whose true self could only be discovered by reading his works. Gautier would later mention that despite Gérard’s mental issues and breakdowns, it took friends and peers some time to notice:

“In those days of literary eccentricity, amongst all the originalities … outbursts, and examples of voluntary or involuntary outrageness, it was very difficult to appear extravagant; every type of madness seemed plausible, and the most sober amongst us would have seemed worth of the Petites Maisons asylum. The pleasure we derived from irritating the philistines impelled us, like the German students to carry out acts of concerted oddity … in the most dubious taste. Gérard’s mental equilibrium had no doubt been disturbed for quite some time before any of us actually noticed.”[1]

Théophile Gautier photograph by Félix Nadar. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

On 22 December 1842 Gérard set off for the Near East, traveling to Alexandria, Cairo, Beirut, Constantinople, Malta, and Naples. He returned to Paris in 1843 and published articles about his trip in 1844. Between 1844 and 1847, he traveled to Belgium, the Netherlands, and London. He also produced writings about his travels, wrote novellas and opera librettos, and translated poems by his friend, the German poet, journalist, essayist, and literary critic, Heinrich Heine.

During his lifetime, Gérard’s bohemian lifestyle became well-known partly because he began to investigate altered states with a bunch of misfits where they ate a jam-like hashish at meetings regularly presented by the “Club des Hashischins.” Membership was loose as people joined or withdrew at will, and Gérard was a member for about a year. Attendees at these meeting included the Romantic artist Eugene Delaxcroix, poet Charles Baudelaire, and paint and sculptor Jean-Louis Ernest Meissonier. The meetings were held in the Hôtel Pimodan in the room of the painter Fernand Boissard.

“The room in which the club convened had a door hung with a velvet curtain, the walls panelled and covered in discoloured gold leaf, the decorated ceilings domed, while the Pyrenean, red-and-white-flecked marble mantelpiece bore a clock in the shape of an elephant with a castellated howdah on its back. The furniture was dated and covered with faded tapestries. The hashish was served in Oriental porcelain dishes, handed out … from a crystal glass vase container. In every respect, the setting had an air of genteel decadence.”[2]

Although Gérard may have had mental issues, his peers thought of him as un fol délicieux (a delightful madman), partly because he readily talked and wrote about his mental instability. He was also fixated by dreams, transcendent emotions, and romantic misfortune. Moreover, he “incarnated” himself in the lives of his heroes, creating a series of previous existences claiming to be variously a prince, genie, magi, king, illuminati, prophet, and God.

If Bohemianism, altered states, and dreams were not unusual enough, he was eccentric. For instance, besides sleeping with his head in a noose, reading at night with a candlestick on his head, and believing he was a descendant of the Roman Emperor Neva and the son of Napoleon’s brother, beginning in 1835, he became fascinated by the Queen of Sheba and his fascination for her only grew more intense over the years. He also supposedly kept a pet lobster that he walked on the end of a blue silk ribbon around the Palais-Royal, prompting his lifelong friend Gautier to claim that Gérard once 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.”[3]

Lobster. Public domain.

While the story of the lobster is fascinating, some people considered it a creative invention by Gautier and questioned its truthfulness. It was true that Gérard was fascinated with exotic animals, but certain critics today claim it is also highly unlikely Gérard ever walked a lobster. First, he was an early animal-rights activist and paid homage to animals in his poem Pythagoras stating, “Eh quoi, tout est sensible,”[4] (meaning “All things feel.”); second, he would have needed an aerated tank to keep the lobster in; and, thirdly, although it is possible to walk a lobster on land, it’s difficult for a lobster to do and it could only survive for 30 to 40 minutes out of water.

For those who supported the idea of Gérard walking a lobster, their case became stronger when a letter was discovered written by Gérard that mentioned he once saved a lobster from a fisherman’s net and took it home. In addition, he named the lobster Thibault, which he mentioned in a letter to Laura LeBeau, a childhood friend whom he wrote to after he returned from visiting the seaside town of La Rochelle:

“[D]ear 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.”[5]

Although Gérard does not mention that he took the lobster out for a walk, it does not deter his supporters from believing he did. Those who believe he did not walk his lobster argue that even if Gérard kept Thibault as a pet, his reference to him is symbolic. This is because Tarot cards sometimes identify special meanings with lobsters and as Gérard was known to be a scholar of the occult and symbolism, they argue his comment to Gautier was an allegorical reference and nothing more.

Caricature of Gérard. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Despite hospitalization and treatment, Gérard continued to have emotional problems and functioned “between plenty and want, abstemiousness and licentiousness.”[6] Because of his intense emotions, his doctor, Emile Blanche, suggested he purge himself by writing. He did so, thinking of his madness as a mystical or spiritual experience that allowed him to understand truths that were inaccessible to a sane person. Moreover, it was during this period that he composed works that were described in 1895 as “works written in lucid intervals [that] give us vivid glimpses of a world beyond the borderland of reason.”[7]

Unfortunately, as time passed, Gérard’s mental state worsened, his poverty increased, and he became homeless and unable to distinguish reality from insanity. He also refused to accept shelter, money, or help from his friends. On the last night of his life he dined with a group of artists. After dinner, unable to cope with an increasingly disturbed mind and a life of poverty, he wandered off alone in the chilliness of the evening and hanged himself. Baudelaire observed that Gérard delivered his soul in the darkest street that he could find as he died in a narrow lane in a squalid section of Paris.

Ludovic Halévy in the preface to Gérard’s book Sylvie, published in 1895, noted of his death:

“Some market gardeners, coming in before daylight, had dimly seen in the gloom something black, fastened to a grating at the bottom of the stairs leading to the Rue de la Tuerie. Gérard de Nerval, that dreamer whose soul was filled with art and poetry alone, who had never loved but the lands of light and sun, Gérard, the lover of the Queen of Sheba, had chosen, as if by his own good pleasure, to have done with life in this gloomy, ignoble spot, amidst stinking lanes and hovels of infamy.”[8]

“La rue de la vieille lanterne: The Suicide of Gérard de Nerval,” by Gustave Doré, 1855. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

A newspaper also published a paragraph giving some details related to his 26 January 1855 suicide:

“On Saturday morning the sergent de ville on guard near the Place du Châtlet, Paris, found hanging to an iron bar protruding from a shop window in the Rue de la Vieille Lanterne, the dead body of M. Gerard de Nerval, a well-known literary man, a disciple of M. Theophile Gautier, an enterprising Eastern traveller, the author of the ‘Women of Cairo’ and many other works. He had committed suicide.”[9]

Gérard supposedly accomplished the sad deed using one of his antiquarian treasures. It was a cook’s apron-cord that he had purchased and delusional believed was the Queen of Sheba’s garter. Those who found his body discovered his hat still on his head and the last pages of his manuscript Aurélia ou le rêve et la vie stashed in his coat pocket. In addition, he left a cryptic note for his aunt that read: “Do not wait up for me this evening, for the night will be black and white.”[10]

After a religious ceremony at the Notre-Dame cathedral, conducted by the Société des Gens de Lettres with the concurrence of the Minister of State, an assembly of literary men followed his body to his grave. He was buried in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, at the expense of his friends, Gautier and the French novelist, poet, and man of letters Arsène Houssaye, who published Gérard’s descent into madness titled Aurélia, later that same year.

After Gérard’s death, his works were largely forgotten. It took time for his genius to be accepted, but today his Les Chimères is considered a key work of the nineteenth century and lauded as the link between symbolism and romanticism. One late nineteenth-century author who wrote brief biographies on thirty-three of the most important French poets, including Gérard, penned this:

“Nerval was the most beautiful of all the lost souls of the French Romance. With spiritual intelligence at once lucid and visionary he had a frail hold on the material conditions of life. His kingdom was not of this world, for he floated in a loftier atmosphere, which was composed of the dreams and ideals of the human soul in all ages. ‘The best part of man’, he said, ‘is that which thrills and vibrates in him’. No one who is responsive to the sorrows of genius can refuse an emotion and a tear to the fate of this creature so exquisitely fitted, a victim to the sense of the supernatural which to finer spirits is at once the charm, the mystery and the scourge of existence.”[11]

References:

  • [1] M. Gill, Eccentricity and the Cultural Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Paris (Oxford: OUP Oxford, 2009), p. 212.
  • [2] M. Booth, Cannabis: A History (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2015), p. 83.
  • [3] R. J. King, Lobster (London: Reaktion Books, 2012), p. 155.
  • [4] T. Dutt, A Sheaf Gleaned in French Fields (Bhowanipore: B.M. Bose, at the Saptahik Sambad Press, 1876), p. XLVII.
  • [5] “Nerval: A Man and His Lobster,” https://harpers.org/blog/2008/10/nerval-a-man-and-his-lobster/
  • [6] Chester Chronicle, “Literary Men in France,” October 17, 1857, p. 2.
  • [7] Dublin Daily Express, “Neurosis in Literature,” May 6, 1899, p. 3.
  • [8] G. de Nerval and L. Halévy, Sylvie: Recollections of Valois (New York: Home Book Company, 1895), p. iv–v.
  • [9] Reading Mercury, “Condensed Intelligence,” February 3, 1855, p. 8.
  • [10] D. Anderson, Serge Gainsbourg’s Histoire de Melody Nelson (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013), p. 88.
  • [11] W. J. Robertson, A Century of French Verse: Brief Biographical and Critical Notices of Thirty-three French Poets of the Nineteenth Century with Experimental Translations from Their Poems (London: A.D. Innes & Company, 1895), p. 76.

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