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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 drug. 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 Boissard's room.

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
The prince of Aquitaine, his tower in ruins:
My sole star is dead – and my constellated lute
Bears the Black Sun of Melancholia.

(from 'El Desdichado', in The Chimeras, translated by Richard Sieburth)

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)

Selected works:

  • Élégies nationales, 1826
  • Faust / Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 1828 (translator; augmented edition, Faust, et Le Second Faust, 1840)
  • Napoléon ou la France guerrière, 1826
  • Choix des poésies de Ronsard, 1830 (editor) 
  • Choix de poésies allemandes, 1830 (editor and translator) 
  • Etudes sur les poètes allemands, 1830
  • La main de gloire, 1832
  • Piquillo, 1837 (play, with A. Dumas, père, music by Hippolyte Monpou)
  • L'Alchimiste, 1839 (play, with A. Dumas, père)
  • Léo Burckart, 1839 (play, with A. Dumas, père)
  • 'Le Christ aux Oliviers', 1844
  • 'Les Femmes du Caire', 1848
  • Les Monténégrins, 1849 (play, with E. Alboize, music by Armand Limnander)
  • Le Chariot d'enfant, 1850 (play, with Joseph Méry)
  • L'Imagier de Harlem, 1852 (play, prod. 1851, with Joseph Méry and Bernard Lopez, music by Adolphe de Groot)
  • Voyage en Orient, 1852
    - The Women in Cairo (translated in part, 1929) / Journey to the Orient (selected and translated by Norman Glass, 1972)
  • Lorely, souveniers d'Allemagne, 1852
  • Contes et facéties, 1852
  • Les Illuminés, ou les Précurseurs de socialisme, 1852
  • Sylvie, 1853
  • Petits Châteaux de Bohème, 1853
  • Les Filles du feu, 1854 (includes the poems Les Chimères, the semi-autobiographical romance of Sylvie, and other stories)
    - Daughters of Fire: Sylvie-Emilie-Octavie (translated by James Whitall, 1922) / The Chimeras (translated by Andrew Hoyem, 1966) / The Chimeras: A Version of "Les Chiméres" by Gérard Nerval (translated by Derek Mahon, 1982) / Les Chiméres: The Chimeras (translated by Peter Jay, 1984) / Les Chimeres by Gerald de Nerval (by Daniel Mark Epstein, in The New Criterion, 2000)
  • La bohème galante, 1855
  • Aurélia; ou, Le Rêve et la vie, 1855
    - Aurelia (translated by Richard Aldington, 1932; Kendall Lappin, 1993) / Dreams and Life (translated by Vyvyan Holland, 1933)
    - Aurélia (translated into Finnish by Rauni Puranen, 1980)
    - film 1964, prod.
    Filmex, directed and adapted by Anne Dastrée, starring Clotilde Joan as Aurélia and Serge Reggiani as Gérard de Nerval
  • Les illuminés. Les faux saulniers, 1868
    - The Salt Smugglers: History of the Abbé de Bucquoy (translated from the French by Richard Sieburth, 2009)
  • Le prince des sots, 1888
  • Correspondance (1830-55), 1911 (edited by Jules Masan)
  • Œuvres complètes de Gérard de Nerval, 1926 (6 vols., edited by Aristide Marie, Jules Marsan and Édouard Champion)
  • Œuvres complètes, 1927-32 (10 vols., edited by H. Clouard)
  • Des inèdits, 1929 (ed. by G. Marie)
  • Selected Writings of Gérard de Nerval, 1957 (translated by Geoffrey Wagner)
  • Œuvres complémentaires, 1959- (edited by J. Richer)
  • Fortune's Fool, Thirty-Five Poems, 1959 (translated by Brian Hill)
  • Œuvres, 1960-61 (2 vols., edited by A. Béguin and J. Richer)
  • Les Chimères, 1966 (The Chimeras)
  • Le Carnet de Dolbreuse, 1967 (edited by Jean Richter)
  • Lettres à F. Liszt, textes inédits, 1972 (edited by J. Guillaume, C. Pichois)
  • Oeuvres complètes, 1984-93 (3 vols.)
  • Histoire du Calife Hakem, 1998 (introduction by Robert Chesnais)
  • Selected Writings, 1999 (translated by Richard Sieburth)
  • Dernières lettres à son père et au docteur Blanche: 1853-1855, 2006 (introduction by Françoise Alexandre; notes by Michel Jullien)
  • Les confidences de Nicolas: histoire d’une vie littéraire au XVIIIe siècle, 2007 (edited by Michel Brix)
  • La Bohême galante: L’Artiste, 1er juillet-15 décembre 1852, 2007 (edited by Philippe Destruel)

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