Gérald de Nerval: Epitaph of my Mind

Wandering through the unique mixture that is Gérard de Nerval’s Selected Writings (Penguin Classics, 1999, translated by Richard Sieburth) is an experience of stumbling towards a howl. If you are fortunate you will know nothing of Nerval’s biography and be better placed to wallow in the aesthetic bliss that his prose delivers. If you are open to the illusion that Nerval conjures up in his writing, you will greatly appreciate his ability to open up a world that exceeds that outside of the book.

Such a reading was not available for me. Nerval’s novella Sylvie came to my awareness through discovering its influence on Proust, but the deeper furrows were left by Nerval’s enigmatic Les Chimères, opaque poems with an undertow of sorrow and nothingness. Sieburth provides a prose translation in this collection, but I prefer Will Stone’s version, published by Menard Press (1999). Those poems opened up my curiosity about Nerval and to understanding more about his use of writing as a way to turn into literature his experience of madness: “Someday I will write the story of this descent to the underworld, and you will see that it was not entirely deprived of reasoning even though it always lacked reason.”

Dante’s journey in his Commedia is not so very different than Nerval’s in Aurelia, but, as always, timing is everything. As Foucault wrote, “Madness begins where the relation of man to truth is disturbed and darkened.” Nineteenth century Paris, though no longer expecting the residents of its asylums to sleep on straw, was accustomed to confining those deemed to have lost their reason. At the peak of their usage, one in a hundred inhabitants of Paris found themselves confined in such asylums for several months. Nerval’s experience, though given treatment during his stay in various clinics, contrasts with that of Nietzsche and Hölderlin, his less impoverished contemporaries across the border in Germany.

This collection includes Sylvie, a partly autobiographical recreation of Nerval’s Valois roots, lyrical and philosophical, reminiscent in some ways of Gide. Although Nerval touches on his dream life, he gives them none of the sovereignty bestowed in later work, with primacy given to the simple memories of rural life and adolescent infatuation. There is an undertow here of more than Romantic allegory, but whether that complexity is available if a reader is not already exposed to Nerval’s biography is arguable. It is a beautifully subtle piece of writing in which the symbol is the language. Each reading will open up fresh reflective considerations, but as a simple tale of the loss of illusion it is first rate: “Illusions fall, like the husks of a fruit, one after another, and what is left is experience. It has a bitter taste, but there is something tonic in its sharpness.”

After Nerval’s second confinement his friend and sometime publisher Alexandre Dumas wrote:”[Nervals’] is a charming mind . . . in which, from time to time, a certain phenomenon occurs . . . imagination, that resident lunatic, momentarily evicts reason . . . and impels him toward impossible theories and unwritable books.” Nerval’s response: “Several days ago everyone thought I was mad, and you devoted some of your most charming lines to the epitaph of my mind . . . Now that I have recovered what is vulgarly called reason, let us reason together . . .”

Aurelia is that reasoning, Nerval’s disavowal, though not denial, of his madness, but an attempt to argue that his writing should not be annulled by his unreason. It is his uncanny ability to translate madness into language that survives and is utterly fascinating. It may be, as Dumas wrote, unwritable, but it is far from unreadable:

Dream is a second life. I have never been able to cross through those gates of ivory and horn which separate us from the invisible world without a sense of dread. The first few instants of sleep are the image of death; a drowsy numbness steals over our thoughts, and it becomes impossible to determine the precise moment at which the self, in some other form, continues to carry on the work of existence. Little by little, the dim cavern is suffused with light and, emerging from its shadowy depths, the pale figures who dwell in limbo come into view, solemn and still. Then the tableau takes on shape, a new clarity illuminates these bizarre apparitions and sets them in motion – the spirit world opens for us. 

It is, in Sieburth’s translation, quite beautiful and an encouragement to pay attention to our condition of human fallenness. Nerval translated Faust, and though it is tempting to see in Aurelia a Faustian succumbing to a series of psychotic episodes for the sake of great literature, that would be to ignore a desperate sadness that is all too evident. That it is a work of unreason, paradoxically, takes nothing away from the fact it is equally a joyous explosion of strange beauty, and rings with truth.

Talismanic Identifications and Ghostly Demarcations

There was a time when I drifted between reading books of poetry and fiction without a thought for the writer; choosing what to read next— there was no enduringly impatient stack—was a function of where the endlessly reflective waves induced by the last book led me, or more prosaically, whatever caught my attention when browsing in my nearest bookshop.

Around my early twenties, a different whole seemed to fall into shape and I begun to pay attention to certain writers and, setting a pattern that has followed throughout my reading life, to read them to completion, seeing the inevitable minor works as a pathway to answering the thousand questions that arose around the major books.

Once I drew up a list of best books, what I termed a personal canon, but this would prove a shot-silk, a slippery list that refused stability. What, after all, is best? The Canon? Or those books that once read refused to be forgotten, crystal-carbon in memory? What of those evanescent books thought of as favourites, where little lingers beyond perhaps an atmosphere, or a single character?

Instead, in what I optimistically term my maturity, I choose writers over specific books, and my choices embody what Anthony Rudolf in Silent Conversations terms: “magical thinking, talismanic identifications and ghostly demarcations”. There is a distinction between those I read that will probably always be read whilst there are literate readers to be found, say Samuel Beckett, Anton Chekhov, Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, James Joyce and Charles Baudelaire.

There are those I read closely because I am, for reasons not always fully understand, intrigued by the way they think or observe the world, for example Peter Handke, Gerald Murnane, Dorothy Richardson, George Oppen, Clarice Lispector, Christa Wolf, Mircea Cărtărescu and Enrique Vila-Matas. Time and the quick sands of taste will decide whether each find a home in posterity.

There is a far stranger category of writers I have only sampled, yet fascinate me deeply: Maurice Blanchot, Ricardo Piglia, Marguerite Duras, Hans Blumenberg, Laura Riding, Arno Schmidt are all examples, but I could name a dozen others. These interest me as much for the lived life as the work, though I always plan to explore the latter more deeply.

Reading books becomes a way to find the writer, or at least to see a glimpse of that writer’s mind. In doing so, I find that I am a part of all that I have read, that reading is a process to becoming. The more I contemplate the act of reading and of what I read, the stranger it seems. I understand less than I did when I began. Where once writing seemed certain and assured, as I moved toward the depthless prose of the writers that I came to consider part of my pantheon, the more I felt strangely included in that writer’s thought process.

Divine Lizards: A Year of Reading

Ambitious readers must, despite carefully acquired insouciance, weigh up their stacks of dusty unread books with the time available before they return to dust themselves. They have surely roughly calculated a number, assuming an average lifespan and being blessed with continued cognitive faculties. It is quite possible that their groaning shelves are already a display of ambition over cold certainty, even without including in the calculation the additional volumes that will surely be acquired, surreptitiously, or with resigned and solemn endurance. Umberto Eco, with a library split over two homes, owned a total of fifty thousands books, necessary he deemed as a research library: “I don’t go to the bookshelves to choose a book to read. I go to the bookshelves to pick up a book I know I need in that moment.”

With non-fiction, deciding what to read is sometimes a reflection of a passing or enduring interest, perhaps in Kabbalah, or human brain evolution, or the Punic wars, often stimulated by something read in a novel or poem, something not quite understood. “Not understanding”, wrote Enrique Vila-Matas, can be “a door swinging open.”Non-fiction is often of the moment, requiring some fresh context and matures less well than poetry or fiction, unless tracing a line of thought through a particular discipline; an exception being theology or philosophy where the peak may well be behind us. Fiction and poetry are usually improved with a patina of age and time.

Poetry is more personal, arising from just the right admixture of form and subject matter, an integrity dedicated to what George Oppen described as “a determination to find the image, the thing encountered, the thing seen each day whose meaning has become the meaning and the colour of our lives.” I chose poets as carefully as I decide what to eat each day, certainly for aesthetic bliss, but also for fascination with the language and thoughts of others. Few intellectual exercises can be more invigorating that to watch the working of another human mind. In some senses, poetry and novels are the only way to see another person from within.

Fiction I choose with equal care, discarding occasionally those novels that, as Jenny Erpenbeck described, fail to “open a door for me into my own reflections.” Peter Schwenger wrote, “When narrative works, when a text is felt, it produces that complex metabolic reaction in us that we call a work’s ‘effect'” It might be that after a time, all is left of a novel in our memory is an atmosphere, or story-line, but as Jenny Erpenbeck wrote, “the most important things sink deeper in our memories, we internalise them, take them into our bodies, and they stay there, blind and mute.” We readers are minds inspired by the books we choose.

Often the books that make the deepest impression, slipping deeply into us with barely a sound, are not those expected to become, to borrow a term from Nietzsche, our divine lizards. There were other attempts over the years to read Gerald Murnane, at least three, but this year with Tamarisk Row I crossed the threshold to discover what might be the only living English language writer both advancing the form and doing something beautiful. With Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs and even more so with A Million Windows I found, against all expectations, a living writer that could slake my thirst for a sustained glance into a mind so very different to my own. Murnane writes as he does from necessity. His inimitable prose does not suffer the superfluous, stylistic postures that tarnish much of twenty-first century English language fiction. His vision is singular and haunts my thinking to the point that I see the world a little bit differently after reading these books. That is all I ask from fiction (and poetry).

This sense  of writing that touches the bases of life is how I emerged from reading Jeremy Cooper’s Ash Before Oak. I persisted past the perception that this was the diary of a solitary man living remotely, something like Roger Deakin’s Notes From Walnut Tree Farm, not a form or theme I dislike when I feel like vicarious escape, but something darker and more raw, closer to V. S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival. Unlike Murnane’s writing that compels me to read every word he wrote, I feel no urge to find out more about Cooper or his work, merely content to spend time with his book that captures so well the unsettling nature of an arrival coloured by memory. It might not add anything to literature, but it opened up a space for peace and contemplation.

This was a year when I read a lot more poetry: Auden, Larkin, that kind of thing, but it is Natalie Diaz’s collection in Postcolonial Love Poem that I read and kept on my study desk to reread almost daily. Diaz deals in elaborate symbolic imagery, but the writing is both exuberantly beautiful and concrete, reflecting not only her lived experience, but an intelligent portrayal of the human condition. She took me into alien realms and stimulated in no small way a transformed view of reality. I’m looking forward to reading her first collection, When My Brother Was an Aztec.

The essays in Jenny Erpenbeck’s Not a Novel: Collected Writings and Reflections are uneven and, as is the nature with a collected edition, repeat themselves a little, but this is nevertheless an insightful series of essays on her early life in East Germany—a place of rich and near endless fascination—and her experience of writing and reading. Erpenbeck comes across in her novels as a deeply serious writer of poetic and ethical integrity. These essays enrich the reading of her novels to the point I intend to reread them all chronologically after another reading of the pertinent essays.

It is unusual that I read more non-fiction and poetry than novels, but no real surprise in this uncommon year when I read nothing for five weeks, listening only to music for artistic sustenance. Peter Schwenger’s At the Borders of Sleep is an unconventional work of literary criticism. It addresses Borges’s statement that “literature is nothing more than a guided dream”. My experience of reading the book was sufficiently intense to trigger a hypnagogic vision during that liminal stage between being awake and falling off to sleep. It was also a reminder of the radical mystery of literature and its affects. It brought to mind a sentence of Gerald Murnane’s, “When he paused from following the text, or even when one or another book was far from his reach, even then he had access not only to narrated scenes and events but also to a far more extensive, fictional space, so to call it.”

However wretched this year has been, to finally have in my possession Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas, his encyclopaedic collection of images collected to tell a story of how ideas and rituals persist over time, and how we humans fit into a cosmic context, is genuinely thrilling, a memorable event against a bleak backdrop. Georges Didi-Huberman’s Atlas, or the Anxious Gay Science not only provided a brilliant pathway into the Atlas, but gave me space to reflect on the interrelationship between philosophical thought and art history.

Beyond a contemplation of the books I read this year that left the deepest imprint, what is this post that has rambled on far too long? What am I? Am I a blogger again? I’ve no idea. I’ve written more this year than any other, mostly in my notebooks, but felt an need to write into the internet again.If you’ve read this far, please accept my thanks and wishes that the year ahead proves far less interesting than this year.

Eternity Has No Moments

Quote

‘(Surely a person is able to sample the experience of eternity without having to read fiction? I found just now a passage that I copied more than thirty years ago from the translated writings of Alfred Jarry: “It is fine to live two different moments of time as one: that alone allows one authentically to live a single moment of eternity, indeed all eternity since it has no moments.”)

From Gerald Murnane’s A Million Windows, p. 17

There are Monsters Ahead

Mostly unread fiction on these shelves, all monsters exceeding five-hundred pages; some philosophy, or philosophical anthropology in Blumenberg’s case. Tolstoy is missing as is my almost complete set of Heinemann’s Anthony Powell, and two huge Arno Schmidt editions. These are all in my future and the shelves that excite me most, rabbit-holes of discovery that hold in reserve so much promise and mystery.

There are a few novels missing that I’d like to read: William Gaddis’ The Recognitions, another attempt at Infinite Jest, Pynchon, Carlos Fuentes’ Terra Nostra, possibly Louis Armand’s The Combinations, and Cáo Xuěqín’s novel, Grossman’s Life and Fate, Lessing’s space fiction novels. Ever curious about Richardson’s Clarissa, but I don’t think I could sustain myself through its entirety.