"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

February 10, 2013

"Sylvie" by Gérard de Nerval (The Art of the Novella 8)

The French have something with memory. Proust, of course, but also Alain-Fournier, and now in a novella I just read, Sylvie by  Gérard de Nerval. Just like Le Grand Meaulnes, this is a beautiful story about the innocence of youth. My attention was drawn to it by an essay of Umberto Eco (who also translated the novella into Italian), included in his On Literature. Eco claims Sylvie is one of his favorite literary works, and he analyzes the story in detail. It is indeed a most beautiful tale about the narrator's youthful and pure love for two girls, a hymn to a love never realized, and told from the interesting perspective of an older self.

The author, Gérard de Nerval (1808-1855), was a French romanticist, who after the death of his mother was brought up by a great-uncle in Valois, a rural region with an idyllic landscape just north of Paris. He translated Heine and Goethe - his translation of Faust was used by Hector Berlioz for his legend-symphony La damnation de Faust. Living in Paris, De Nerval counted Théophile Gautier and Alexandre Dumas, père, among his literary friends. Victor Hugo greatly admired him and of course also Proust underwent his influence. De Nerval's insistence on the significance of dreams was mirrored in the Surrealist movement of a century later, as emphasized by André Breton. Interestingly, De Nerval also behaved in a surrealistic way – he had a pet lobster which he took for walks on the end of a blue silk ribbon, saying: “Why should a lobster be any more ridiculous than a dog?”

[Gérard de Nerval, Photo Wikipedia]

From the 1840s, Gérard de Nerval had several nervous breakdowns, and, disoriented, in 1855 he finally committed suicide by hanging himself. He left a brief note to his aunt: "Do not wait up for me this evening, for the night will be black and white."

Sylvie was written in 1853. In his essay, Eco points out the use of temporal ambiguity in the novel, and he tries to figure out the time scheme in intricate tables. That is not so easy – there is conscious ambiguity here and the narration shifts back between past and present, and the lost time of youth leads to ever deeper memories inside memories.

The narrator lives a debauched life of the theater and drink in Paris, when he is suddenly reminded of his youthful love for a peasant girl named Sylvie. Although of a different class, Sylvie was his playmate when he was a young boy, they seemed almost like brother and sister. Then the narrator meets the "ideal beauty" Adrienne, and falls in love with the tall blonde girl. Adrienne, however, enters a convent and dies an early death. She is the narrator's idealized love, something which is mirrored in later life in his love for the actress Aurelie. He meets her in a dance where she kisses him, a mirage of glory and beauty, filling him with bliss.

Later, the narrator returns to Sylvie, who is now sowing gloves, and plays at bride and bridegroom with her by dressing up in his aunts house. But nothing comes of it and when, again later in time, he revisits her, the charm is gone, and he leaves her to marry one of his school comrades. There is a large contrast between the first half of the novel, which is euphoric (enchanted, uplifting, the kiss as a mystical experience) and the second half, which is dysphoric (depressed, embarrassed, the kiss as merely affectionate). Obsessed with the fantastic images of ideal women he fabricates in his mind, the narrator eventually destroys his chances of forming a relationship with a real woman.

And not for nothing is the subtitle "Recollections of Valois: the recollections are brought about by visits to the area where the narrator spent his youth, and in those memories particular places play a large role - the place names themselves become memories, again, as in Alain-Fournier and Proust, ringing in the mind like distant bells.
Sylvie is available at Internet Archive in English translation. The original French can be found at Wikisource.
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