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.

Knausgaard Immersion: Week 4

It is nearing a month of my immersion into Karl One Knausgaard’s My Struggle. His voice is woven throughout my day. I began reading the final volume this weekend. It will I think take much longer to reflect on the fullest possible understanding of what this project means or does to the body of literature.

It raises that old adversary: the will of a text, its puppetry and attempt to dominate a reader through its explicit demand for a suspension of disbelief. It is of course a fiction in the same way as any journal or autobiographical work, but if feels less (beneficently) aggressive than those occasions when a writer tries to charm readers with a set of characters and situations conjured out of the ether and directed in some way towards spiritual or moral salvation (or damnation). It is a resistance to this sort of textual contrivance. Its effect, for me at least, is a reduction in distance, a micro-engagement with the very substance of life, not in any speculative or existential sense, though that is also present, but with the day to day struggle to understand another consciousness.

It is also, at least in Don Bartlett’s translation (shared with Martin Aitken in The End), a challenge to the Flaubertian obsession with the sentence. There is plenty of exquisite writing in My Struggle, particularly with Knausgaard’s painstaking observation of nature and place, but it doesn’t induce the queasy unease of overworked prose.

This work is closer to Balzac’s aspiration to incisively trace the modulations and inconsistencies of social and class structure, but through the lens of a microscope incisively directed inward. Whatever disinclinations readers have for Knausgaard’s style and form, for those who engage fully with the work, it is difficult not to admire its scrupulous essence.

Invisible Thoroughfares

George Eliot structured Middlemarch as an eight part novel, serialised bi-monthly, resulting in a four-volume book. Each of the sections, she wrote, have a ‘certain unity and completeness within itself’. Each, she expected would be the ideal length to read at one time. I’m finding my reading going slower than Eliot would have preferred, partly down to extensive travelling, but also as it is an intense novel that rewards care.

In writing about her young doctor Lydgate, on whom Charles Bovary casts a shadow, it seems to me that she outlines in part her own intellectual approach to writing Middlemarch:

“But these kinds of inspiration [cheap narration] Lydgate regarded as rather vulgar and vinous compared with the imagination that reveals subtle actions inaccessible by any sort of lens, but tracked in that outer darkness through long pathways of necessary sequence by the inward light which is the last refinement of Energy, capable of bathing even the ethereal atoms in its ideally illuminated space. He for his part had tossed away all cheap inventions where ignorance finds itself able and at ease: he was enamoured of that arduous invention which is the very eye of research, provisionally framing its object and correcting it to more and more exactness of relation; he wanted to pierce the obscurity of those minute processes which prepare human misery and joy, those invisible thoroughfares which are the first lurking-places of anguish, mania, and crime, that delicate poise and transition which determine the growth of happy or unhappy consciousness.”

Middlemarch Thoughts

George Eliot, Middlemarch. Everyman’s Library, 1991 (1930); Pelikan M800 Blue-striped (Robert Oster Summer Storm ink); Darkstar Collection Notebook

“We learn to read Middlemarch in the probing light of James’ treatment; we then return to The Portrait of a Lady and come to recognise the transformative inflections of its source.”

It is an idea of Steiner’s that I like, his contention that we can think of a reversal in chronology, in that we understand Eliot’s earlier novel better through the reading of the latter. As Christopher J. Knight writes in Uncommon Readers, “James reads Middlemarch, and then writes The Portrait of a Lady. Is the James novel art or criticism? In Real Presences, Steiner contends that it is both.”

In an early review, Edith Simcox described Middlemarch as like ‘a Wilhelm Meister written by Balzac’; George Eliot’s first biographer, Mathilde Blind, compared her to George Sand, Honoré de Balzac and Gustave Flaubert. So, it seems only natural to finish Balzac’s Père Goriot and then read Middlemarch, followed perhaps by The Portrait of a Lady.

Middlemarch is, of course, fascinating and steeped in Eliot’s profound knowledge of European literature and culture. Her passion of the mind is clear, and I like the book’s intensity and seriousness. You can find in Miriam Henderson, the central character in Richardson’s Pilgrimage much in common with Eliot’s Dorothea, that awareness of the impossibility of knowing what is ‘other’, nor even ourselves completely, subject as we are to the lure of imagined states and compelling metaphors.

Dorothea also suggests Zbigniew Herbert’s Mr Cogito and the Imagination (so beautifully translated by Alissa Valles). It is a favourite poem that is never far from my mind.

“he longed to understand fully

-Pascal’s night
-the nature of a diamond
-the prophets’ melancholy
-the wrath of Achilles
-the fury of mass murderers
-the dreams of Mary Stuart
-the fear of Neanderthals
-the last Aztecs’ despair
-Nietzsche’s long dying
-the Lascaux painter’s joy
-the rise and fall of an oak
-the rise and fall of Rome”

Poetry of the Will

Film music should be subliminal, but in rare cases it rises above the film to a level that is distracting. Every time I’ve watched the part of The Shawshank Redemption underscored by Thomas Newman’s Brooks was here, I’ve leaned into the music and missed the scene. It is sublimely sad, simple and economical in the way that is typical of Newman’s music.

That isn’t to say I dislike the scene or the film, which teeters on that edge between hopelessness and hope. But the music is the greater thing. Thomas Newman is a mystical, almost metaphysical composer of film music.

I’m reading Balzac’s Le Père Goriot, A. J. Krailsheimer’s translation, distinguished by its lively dialogue and closeness to the original. It is a terribly sad and harrowing story. Newman’s score came to mind when I read, “The capacity of emotions to distil a kind of energy is quite remarkable”. His music is all about emotion and mood, also Balzac’s supreme talent.

Much as I like Dickens, his characters are caricatures, for comic or pathetic effect. They convey mood but I never believe in their existence. Balzac’s characters live and breathe and have a life long beyond the completion of the story.

“Père Goriot was sublime. Eugène had never before had the chance of seeing him transfigured by the ardour of paternal love. The capacity of emotions to distil a kind of energy is quite remarkable. As soon as he begins to express a strong and genuine emotion the most brutish of men gives off a special fluid which alters his features, animates his gestures, modulates his voice. Often under the stress of passion the dullest human being attains the highest degree of eloquence in concepts, if not in actual words, and seems to move in a realm of luminous brightness. At the moment that old man’s voice and gestures communicated his feelings with all the intensity that marks out the great actor. But are not our finer feelings the poetry of the will?”