My initial point of entry into Nerval - and in this I think I'm fairly representative of most English-speaking readers of modern poetry - was the close of Eliot's Waste Land. It was there that I first encountered the mysterious line "Le Prince d'Aquitaine à la tour abolie" (from Nerval's sonnet "El Desdichado"), lodged amid a multilingual mosaic of fragments evoking: the dying Fisher King, the disappearance of the troubadour poet Arnaut Daniel into refining fire after his great speech in Provençal in Purgatorio 26, the story of the raped Philomela, her grief transformed into a swallow's cry, and Thomas Kyd's Spanish Tragedy, an Elizabethan revenge drama featuring a certain Hieronymo who, like Hamlet, feigns madness in a ruse to discover the murderer of his son. The whole sequence concluding with a quote from one of the Upanishads referring to the fable of "What the Thunder Said" which, it turns out, can also mean in the original Sanskrit, "What the Thunder Translated." The final chord of The Waste Land, it now occurs to me, can thus be heard as a dense ideogram of the act of translation from the "madness" of Hieronymo (or, as it were, of Jerome, patron saint of translators) to Philomela's loss of tongue to Arnaut's incantatory Provençal disappearing into the blaze of Dante's purgatorial flames. A parable of bridges established and falling down falling down fragments shored against ruins.
But of course I knew none of this upon first looking into The Waste Land as an impressionable sixteen-year-old. What seized me above all was the mysterious splendour of an isolated alexandrine Le Prince d'Aquitaine à la tour abolie. Only later would I discover that "El Desdichado", the disinherited one, was the device chosen by Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe when, after having been stripped of his patrimony, he goes into disguise and wanders the earth in exile, and that the Prince d'Aquitaine might well be the imprisoned troubadour-king Richard Lionheart and that his "tour abolie" possibly referred to Arcana XVI of the tarot. Eager to know more about Nerval, I subsequently found my way to the book the critics told me was crucial to Eliot's discovery of nineteenth-century French poetry, namely Arthur Symons's l899 The Symbolist Movement in Literature where, to my surprise, the line from "El Desdichado" was nowhere quoted, but where I instead came across the following anecdote, which is (in addition to the Eliot's touchstone line) perhaps the only other commonplace most educated English-speaking readers possess of Gérard de Nerval:
At that time, when it was the aim of every one to be as eccentric as possible, the eccentricities of Gérard's life and thought seemed, on the whole, less noticeable than those of many really quite normal persons. But with Gérard there was no pose; and when, one day, he was found in the Palais-Royal, leading a lobster at the end of blue ribbon (because, he said, it does not bark, and knows the secrets of the sea). the visionary had simply lost control of his visions, and had to be sent to Dr. Blanche's asylum at Montmartre.
This particular biographeme - the amiably eccentric poet leading a lobster on a leash before getting carted off to bedlam - has become so rooted in our English-speaking "mythology" (in Barthes' sense) of Nerval that it actually was featured in one of the Ripley's "Believe It or Not" comics that appeared in the American Sunday funnies in l961. Curiously enough, the emblematic lobster doesn't figure in the French legend of Nerval (which instead focuses more on the poet's sordid suicide by hanging on a completely fictitious lamppost in the rue de la Vieille Lanterne, possibly with a Poesque raven fluttering about the corpse). Symons, at any rate, seems to have lifted the lobster from Théophile Gautier, who launched this particular piece of disinformation in his Histoire du romantisme as a harmless hoax to épater le bourgeois.
I don't want to claim that Nerval's lobster is completely false: it has the truth that accrues to stereotypes, to clichés, to commonplaces, the truth of ideology or of repetition. But the line I had discovered at the end of The Waste Land "Le Prince d'Aquitaine à la tour abolie", spoke (to me at least) in another mode of repetition: once I had heard it in my mind's ear, I could not get it out of my memory, for it possessed that quality of "iterability" (as Valéry called it) or "mnemonic adhesiveness" (in Eliot's phrase) that lies at the most archaic core of poetry or music. Nerval himself, in an early "Odelette" much admired by Proust and Aragon, is perhaps one of the first to evoke the way in which a snatch of song can immediately transport or translate you into some former life, melody triggering the metempsychosis of memory:
Il est un air pour qui je donnerais
Tout Rossini, tout Mozart, tout Weber,
Un air très vieux, languissant et funèbre,
Qui pour moi seul a des charmes secrets!
Or, chaque fois que je viens à l'entendre,
De deux cents ans mon âme rajeunit…
C'est sous Louis treize; et je crois voir s'étendre
Un coteau vert, que le couchant jaunit . . .
At any rate, there I was with this Nerval line from The Waste Land haunting me, carrying me back to some abolished Mallarmean tower in troubadour Aquitaine (a terrain, as fate would have it, I was later to explore when editing Ezra Pound's 1912 Walking Tour in Southern France). I proceeded to learn the whole poem by heart, and took great pleasure in striding about, declaiming it out loud in French for there is something very stagy about this poem, written as it is in "alexandrins de théâtre" and to my Anglo-Saxon ear, it almost sounded like a condensed dramatic monologue in the fashion of Browning or Pound's Personae:
Je suis le ténébreux, --le veuf, --l'inconsolé
Le Prince d'Aquitaine à la tour abolie:
Ma seule étoile est morte, --et mon luth constellé
Porte le Soleil noir de la Mélancolie . . .
The late French theorist of translation, Antoine Berman, speculates as to just what it is that causes cultures or individual subjects to be possessed by "la pulsion de traduire" - the sheer drive to translate. In the case of my initial encounter with Nerval, it was simply grounded in this impulse to re-cite his verse over and over, enjoying just how it tripped off my tongue without necessarily grasping what it exactly it meant. I think this is one of the great pleasures of reading and memorizing poetry in a foreign language: to be possessed by a music that somehow excludes your full understanding. This is the way Mallarmé read Poe as a teenager (what's to understand in Poe?) and, as so happens, this was also the way in which Nerval himself suggested his sonnets be read. Writing of his Chimeras to Alexandre Dumas in l853, he observed "they are no more obscure than Hegel's metaphysics or Swedenborg's Memorabilia, and would lose their charm in being explained, if the thing were possible."
Nerval comes very close here, well before "le symbolisme," to defining a kind of "poésie pure," a Delphic poetry of indirection with no other sense than its own miraculous event as music. This, at any rate, is how Antonin Artaud suggested these poems be approached in a l946 letter to the French scholar Georges le Breton who had recently claimed to have cracked the secret code of the Chimères by applying the occult symbolism of alchemy and tarot. Virulently denouncing all the attempts to "explain" Nerval's verse, to restrict it to the repressive domains of "meaning" (or worse, orthodox esoteric doctrine), Artaud argues that these sonnets demand not interpretation but "diction." Only by declaiming their lines out loud, only by taking them deep into the hollow recesses of the body and in turn "expectorating" them, spitting them out syllable by syllable between bites of breath, can the reader hope to participate in the soma that brought them forth. For Artaud, any understanding of the Chimères must therefore pass through their physical voicing, for the sacrificial drama they enact is nothing less than that of the poet's body itself, struggling to break free from the bonds of material incarnation in order to be transfigured at last into a Hanged Man's exquisite corpse.
Fiercely gnostic though Artaud's reading of Nerval's sonnets may be, it at least seizes their immediacy as performances. And, over the course of the years - and here the Freudian mechanisms of transference (Uebertragung) become somewhat unfathomable - I became obsessed with the idea of actually trying to re-cite them, to re-name them in English verse, driven by the desire to gather their Osiris-like fragments into the body of my own language so that they might be re-membered. I had in the meantime come across another major modernist's encounter with Nerval: namely, the translations of the Chimeras that appeared in Robert Duncan's Bending the Bow in l968. Duncan, a student of H.D. and the esoteric tradition, provided extremely sober, unrhymed, unmetered graphings of Nerval's sonnets, meant to maintain as literally as possible their intricate patterns of occult symbolism. Indeed, in a notable exchange with fellow San Francisco bard Robin Blaser (who had published very free versions of these same poems in l965), Duncan takes the latter to task for having merely registered his own subjective impressions of the poems, whereas what needed to be seized in the encounter of translation was in fact Nerval's impersonal voice within the larger tradition of Wisdom Literature, a voice of anonymous intertextuality that transcended the ego-centered locus of Blaser's sixties West Coast lyricism. Taking Duncan's caveats to heart, I therefore wanted to avoid the path of free adaptation - the Irish poet Derek Mahon had already taken this route with his variations on The Chimeras, as had Robert Lowell in some of his unpublished Imitations. What I above all wanted to seize or echo with a difference was the very music that had so seduced me in the first place. I accordingly tried to devise an acoustic form in English that might respond to Nerval's mode of song. What resulted was a kind of fractured sonnet, cast into English alexandrines just prosodically strange enough to translate the particular dépaysment his verse produces:
I am the man of gloom - widowed - unconsoled
The prince of Aquitaine, his tower in ruin:
My sole star is dead - and my constellated lute
Bears the Black Sun of Melancholia .
In the night of the tomb, you, my consolation,
Give me back Posillipo and the Italian sea,
The flower that so eased my heart's desolation,
And the trellis that twines the rose into the vine.
Am I Eros or Phoebus? Lusignan or Biron?
My brow is still red with the kiss of the queen;
I have dreamt in the grotto where the siren swims. . .
And, twice victorious, I have crossed Acheron:
My Orphic lyre in turn modulating the strains
Of the sighs of the saint and the cries of the fay.
Here is another example, the sonnet "Horus," which (to my ears at least) starts with a very Blakean evocation of the wintry and Urizenic sky-god Kneph, and concludes with an almost Shelleyesque glimpse of the dea abscondita, Botticelli's Primavera vanishing from view in a rainbow:
The god Kneph shook the universe in a fit of ire:
Mother Isis then rose from her marriage bed
And flung her hatred at the brute she had wed,
Her green eyes flaring with all their former fire.
"Look at the old fiend," she said, "There he dies,
All the world's hoar-frost has passed through his maw,
Tie up his torqued foot, pluck out his squinty eye,
He's king of volcanos and god of wintry skies!"
The eagle has passed, the new spirit calls me near,
I have donned Cybele's gown just to please my dear. . .
He's the beloved child of Hermes and Osiris!"
The goddess had fled away on her golden shell,
Her sea-mirrored image kept us under her spell
And the skies beamèd beneath the scarf of Iris.
With more or less success, I proceeded to work my way through the Chimères -twelve sonnets in all - and through the poems of the so-called Grammont manuscript (another seven sonnets). As I delved deeper, syllable by syllable, into the words of these poems, I inevitably found myself exploring the rest of Nerval's oeuvre, and as a graduate student working under the guidance of eminent dix-neuviemiste Paul Bénichou at Harvard in the seventies, little by little I transformed myself into a Nerval scholar, in the process losing much of the confident naiveté that had characterized my initial encounter with his poetry. The field of Nerval studies was undergoing a massive sea-change during this period: the writer whose memory had been piously guarded by aging surrealists and occultists was now being reread in the light of structuralism and narratology, not to mention the massive impact of Foucault's Madness and Civilization and, somewhat later, of Felman's or Kristeva's more psychoanalytic approaches. Indeed, in a memorable putsch at the Editions Gallimard, the rather erratic doyen of Nerval studies, Jean Richer, was relieved of his editorial control over the Pléiade and a new team of editors under the direction of Claude Pichois set out to completely revise the received image of Nerval, removing him from the domain of lobsters on leashes and tarot decks and reinserting his work into the historical context of the nineteenth-century French periodical press (most of Nerval's writing, like Poe's, is intimately bound up with the newspaper and magazine culture of the day). The results of their labors, three mammoth Pléiade volumes, appeared between l984 and l993.
I mention these philological issues because they were intimately linked to my desire as a translator to produce a "new" (or at least "another") Nerval in English my translations of Hölderlin's Hymns and Fragments had been similarly inspired by the revisionist philology of the Franfurter Ausgabe. The only existing version of Nerval in English, at any rate, was Geoffrey Wagner's slender Selected Writings, first published in l957 by Grove Press. Not only was this collection based on scholarship hopelessly out of date, but as a translation it was sloppy to the extreme: entire lines (and occasionally paragraphs) had been silently skipped, Nerval's prose rhythms had been ground into a bland pablum, and the poetry had been systematically massacred. The time therefore seemed right, and the field open, for a major retranslation of Nerval: as Walter Benjamin might have put it, his work had now sufficiently ripened in its "afterlife" to achieve the condition of "fame." My primary goal was simply to put him securely on the map at long last for English-speaking readers - in short, to canonize him. A series of circumstances put me in touch with Paul Keegan, the commissioning editor at that most canonical of institutions, Penguin Classics. He was most enthusiastic about the project, and I was given carte blanche to design to the volume as I saw fit. In the end I hit on a scheme that managed to present Nerval's selected writings in chronological order while at the same time following thematic rubrics: a first section, "Shadow Selves," devoted to his Doppelgänger tales ("The King of Bedlam" and the hashish-inspired "Tale of Caliph Hakim" from his Voyage to the Orient); a second section, "Memories of the Valois," including the Sternean experimental fiction "Angelique" and "Sylvie" (Nerval's "masterwork," according to Proust); a third section, "Unreal Cities", devoted to Nerval's phantasmagoric evocations of Cairo, Naples, Vienna, and Paris; a fourth section, "Dream/Life," featuring "Aurelia" (the autobiography of his madness) as well as cullings from his correspondence during his first mental breakdown in l841 and subsequent internments in l853-54. And finally, a section entitled "Sonnets," with the poems of the Grammont Manuscript. and The Chimerasówith all the selections supplied with such annotations as students or general readers might need to make their way through the maze of Nervalian allusion.
As the above Table of Contents indicates, virtually all of the 400 pages of these Selected Writings consist of Nerval's prose - a major shift of emphasis from my initial rhapsodic encounter with the haunting musicality of a single line of verse, for I had now come to realize that it was Nerval's prose, and not his poetry, that had exercised the most decisive impact on such French writers of the twentieth century as Proust, Breton, or Leiris. This shift in emphasis from Nerval's verse to his prose in turn fundamentally affected my approach to the translation of his poetry. Having seen an early version of my manuscript, Paul Keegan suggested in his very tactful way that I might consider merely supplying "plain prose versions" of Nerval's sonnets in the venerable Penguin tradition. I was of course utterly crushed: I had spent years trying to get The Chimeras into some sort of poetic shape, but once I had gotten over the severe depression into which this suggestion had plunged me, I realized the wisdom of his counsel. After all, it was through the modest prose translations at the bottom of the page in the old Penguin paperbacks of Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Rimbaud that I myself had first discovered French poetry and, as a student of Walter Benjamin, this kind of humble literalness (or Wörtlichkeit) had a definite theoretical (and ethical) appeal. In addition, I realized that this particular translation strategy was in effect far more deeply Nervalian than my earlier verse efforts had been: he himself had chosen to render Heine's poetry into French poèmes en prose; even his magnificent translation of Goethe's Faust had evolved, over the course of successive revisions, more and more into the exploration of prose as a medium for poetry. Nerval quoted the Sage of Weimar himself in justification of this practice:
All honour no doubt should be accorded to rhythm and rhyme, for they are the primordial and essential attributes of poetry. But there is in a poetic work something far more crucial and fundamental, something that produces the profoundest of impressions and that works with the greatest effect upon our spirits - namely, that which remains of a poet in prose translation, for only this conveys the true values of the material in all its purity and perfection.
Poetry, in this sense, is not that which gets lost in translation, but rather that which survives it or, to follow Benjamin, that which lives on in it, even in the melancholy after-image of prose. And it was precisely in this spirit of melancholia "Le Soleil noir de la Mélancolie" that I mournfully set about to abolish my verse versions and transform them into prose. In the process of this deconstruction, I discovered that Nerval's poems in fact sounded far stranger, far more foreign in English prose than they did in verse precisely the distance (or "alienation effect") I was after. For to read his sonnets as prose that is, to read them as a series of sentences or paragraphs rather than as stanzaic sequences of rhymed and metrically equivalent lines is to attend to the particular (il)logic of their propositions and, as a result, to discover just how dysfunctional they render the traditional syntax of the sonnet. In short, haunted as they were by the debris of my previous verse versions, these prose translations now read, to my bitter satisfaction, like the ruins (or aftermath) of the lyric. I had paradoxically come round to the exact point where I had initially started, that is, to the final lines of The Waste Land - which now, more attuned to the music of loss, more adept at the process of grieving (and forgetting) the original, I was finally in a better position to hear:
Le Prince d'Aquitaine à la tour abolie
These fragments I have shored against my ruins
Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo's mad againe.
Return to features homepage