by Gérard de Nerval
Mario Levrero's description of a chance encounter with Gérard de Nerval on the streets of downtown Montevideo, as chronicled in the Uruguayan's stupendous 2005 La novela luminosa, reminded me of two important things just late last week: 1) Gérard de Nerval is by no means the only unhinged author I've ever been a fan of, and 2) it'd been far too long since I myself last encountered le "petit Parisien," as one of the characters refers to Nerval's unnamed narrator of an alter ego here. Sylvie, which should come with a blurb that says "not as great as Aurélia but so what?," is something of a prequel to Aurélia in its tale of the author's mystical, obsessive, but ultimately ill-fated love for three separate women: an aristocratic Valois beauty turned nun named Adrienne; the title character who was the light of the narrator's life in his youth despite being a poor match for him as a wife as a humble village girl; and an actress named Aurélie who reminds him of the unattainable Adrienne. To say much more about the plot would be to do a disservice to potential future readers of the novella; suffice it to say that amid a minefield of potential storytelling clichés, Nerval's repertoire of minesweeping strengths includes his ability to rachet up the ethereal romantic/romanticism tension by conjuring up an image of the actress Aurélie onstage as "une apparition bien connue" ["a well known apparition"] in opposition to "ces vaines figures" ["these vain figures"] that surround the narrator in the mundane reality of the theater seats (229); his ability to breathe life into otherwise static scenes by the power of his sensuous, transcendent, sometimes almost tactile imagery (e.g., the vision of Adrienne as a "fleur de la nuit, éclose à la pâle clarté de la lune, fantôme rose et blond glissant sur l'herbe verte à demi baignée de blanches vapeurs" ["night flower blossoming in the pale light of the moon, a rosy, blonde phantom gliding on green blades of grass half bathed in white mist"] on p. 236 is almost sensory overload as visual poetry in prose); and finally, the delicious altered reality of a text in which the love objects Adrienne and Sylvie can be cast as "les deux moitiés d'un seul amour" ["the two halves of a single love]--the one for representing "l'ideal sublime" ["the sublime ideal"], the other for representing "la douce réalité" ["sweet reality"] (268)--while the narrator himself is at one point described as a Young Werther "moins les pistolets" ["without the pistols"] (270). Lest Nerval's lovestruck ways and altered reality seem a bit too precious and predictable for you, I'll close by sharing this unexpectedly biting, presumably autobiographical quote at the outset of the novella concerning one character's warning about the Aurélie-like muses of the acting profession: "les actrices n'étaient pas des femmes, et que la nature avait oublié de leur faire un coeur" ["actresses weren't women, and Nature had forgotten to give them a heart"] (230). Ouch!
Gérard de Nerval (1808-1855)
Sylvie, which can be found on pp. 229-270 of the Nerval collection Les Filles du Feu, Les Chimères et autres textes (Paris: Le Livre de Poche, 1999), was my fourth of twenty-four books read for the Books on France 2014 Reading Challenge: yes, a mere twenty books off the pace with less than a half a year to go. On a happier note, Tom of Wuthering Expectations has his own recommendation of Sylvie, "a finely written story of love and memory," which you can read about in more detail here.