Gérard de Nerval


I own ten complete ten versions of Nerval’s Les Chimères in English. One translator, Robin Blaser, offers a classic apologia pro vita sua: defending his liberties, i.e. his liberty taking, he writes: “these translations required that I become Nerval and yet remain my own poet”. He argues too (given his poetics he has no choice) that people have placed too great an emphasis on the biography, “when we are meant to depend upon the poems”.  Well, it all depends on what you mean by depend, as C.E.M. Joad and William Carlos Williams both understood: we learn from Benn Sowerby’s life of Nerval, The Disinherited, that Nerval’s most famous phrase, “the black sun of melancholy”, is already found in a letter written on his trip to the Orient.

One version of Les Chimères, made by the poet Will Stone, was published by my Menard Press on its thirtieth anniversary in 1999. The sequence is irresistible to translators, partly because the endlessly reverberating modalities of its imbricated mythography permit multiple readings, encouraging translators of these great poems to face the challenge of what, fortunately, is a short work. It was Yves Bonnefoy who, while insisting on Nerval’s greatness as a poet, alerted me to the writer’s wondrous prose, as enigmatic and luminous as that tragic sentence in the letter to his aunt on the eve of his suicide: “Do not wait up for me, the night will be black and white”. Would that Nerval could have heeded Celan’s lines in ‘Speak you also’, as translated by Michael Hamburger: “Speak — / But keep yes and no unsplit. / And give your say this meaning: give it the shade”. Aurélie is a remarkable account of the poet’s mental state which he was encouraged to write by Dr Blanche in the latter’s clinic in Passy (near Balzac’s house and Claude Vigée’s apartment, other patients included Maupassant), now the Turkish embassy. It is his spiritual diary, his Vita Nuova, as Rosanna Warren suggests.                     

                And at the moment when, tired of this life,
                One winter evening, his soul at last took off
                And he departed saying, “why did I come?”

These are the last three lines of Nerval’s sonnet ‘Epitaphe’ which, according to Norma Rinsler, was enclosed with a letter to his friend Princesse Marie de Solms and only published years after his death. 

Robert Duncan’s version of ‘El Desdichado’, not him at his best, reads as though it has been cobbled together from other versions. The rare spelling of the word Melancholia suggests that the image is derived from Dürer’s great engraving, as does the use of the definite article in front of it:

              I am the dark one, — the widower, — the unconsoled,
              the prince of Aquitaine at his stricken tower:
              my sole star is dead, and my constellated lute
              bears the black sun of the Melencolia.

Gautier’s early poem ‘Melancholia’ refers to Dürer’s engraving and its ‘soleil tout noir’ (which it isn’t), and Nerval surely knew this poem by his school friend. Nerval also refers to the engraving in Aurélie. Norma Rinsler suggests other possible sources for the image: Victor Hugo’s ‘Ce que dit la bouche d’ombre’ (the image later used by Rimbaud to describe his mother), the German writer Jean-Paul, and possibly Milton’s ‘darkness visible’. Corneille’s “cette obscure clarté qui tombe des étoiles” from Le Cid also springs to mind. Jules Michelet had a copy of the engraving in his study.  

“Studies have shown that light during the night interferes with melatonin, ‘the hormone of darkness’, which is secreted by the pineal gland at night. Melatonin both impedes cancers and boosts the immune system” (The Independent). That mysterious and evocative phrase, “the hormone of darkness”, would have interested Bataille, who would have agreed with Quevedo that “the ass is like the face of the Cyclops”, alluded to by Octavio Paz in his essay on metaphor in Conjunctions and Disjunctions. The “prince d’Aquitaine” at his broken, lightning-struck, stricken, ruined, riven, doomed, torn-down tower, represents the very ruins, and the fragments shorn against the ruins, which we revisit in the line immediately following the quote from Nerval at the end of The Waste Land. Once again a major poet elects his precursor (the great prince of Aquitaine in misprision lies) and once again the history of literature is rewritten.

Anthony Rudolf

(from the forthcoming book Silent Conversations: A Reader’s Life)


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