The Salt Smugglers: History of the Abbé de Bucquoy, Gerard de Nerval (trans. Richard Sieburth). Archipelago Press. 220pp, $16.00.
Nerval is remembered as a minor literary figure, an eccentric who walked his pet lobster on a ribbon in the Palais Royal, gabbled his poetry in doorways, read at night with a candlestick on his head, and slept in coaches with his head in a noose, habits that endeared him to aesthetes and literary anecdotalists.
“Do not wait up for me tonight, for the night will be black and white” were the last words he wrote. He was found hanged from a grille with an apron string that he, in his madness, thought was the Queen of Sheba’s girdle. A protean figure, Nerval’s artistic worth is still in dispute 150 years after that fateful, freezing night in Paris.
Born Gerard Labrunie in Paris, Nerval was a schoolboy prodigy and, in his essence, a precursor. Various artists and schools have claimed him as their own, including the surrealists, Artaud, and even a couple of rock bands. While he was at school, his books of lyric poems showed a Byronic romantic strain that invoke the Valois countryside where he had grown up. His translation of Faust at an early age impressed Goethe and deepened the poetical and romantic association among the Jena crowd. The modernists and postmodernists also staked their claims.
For Baudelaire, Nerval was the source of decadent travel imagery, the same fund of impressions that would later exemplify for Edward Said a chaotic and personal (as opposed to “official”) orientalism. However, Said admired Nerval’s literary genius, just as much as Proust who valued his masterpiece Sylvie for its superb handling of time. The literary positivist Umberto Eco, following Proust, devoted one of his Norton lectures to constructing an elaborate chart of time shifts in Sylvie, which he includes as a pre-postmodernist narrative.
There have been other interpretations, other Nervals.
For Bettina Knapp and Alfred Dubruck, Nerval was a Germanic mystic caught in the memory theater between vision and reality. A translator of Heine and a biographer of Boehme, Nerval had created a mishmash of esoteric Christianity, oriental lore and ancient mysteries that later loosened his grip on reality.
His characterization of Raoul Spifame in The Illuminati, tricked by lies and his likeness to Henry II into believing he was the king, prefigured Nerval’s own descent into madness. (Nerval later claimed he was related to the Roman emperor Nerva and was descended from Napoleon). His account of asylums anticipates Foucault’s analysis of psychiatry as a tool of power for the suppression of political and religious dissent.
Writers are rarely shrewd political observers. Assembly-line producers of industrial-grade fiction in North America avoid politics altogether as a point of pride, but they may have much to learn from Nerval. “I have never engaged in politics,” Nerval says but The Salt Smugglers, a collection of feuilletons recently published as a book for the first time by Archipelago, reveals yet another, highly political Nerval. After the failure of the 1848 revolution, which Nerval had supported, laws were enacted to curb populist fiction in newspapers, such as Dumas’ ephemera and Eugene Sue’s serial novels, that the authorities believed had stoked the masses into action.
A committed socialist, a working journalist, and Dumas’ ghostwriter, Nerval chafed at these laws, and in The Salt Smugglers accurately predicted the coming military state. Insisting at times that “this is not a novel” (as Diderot did with a short story), so it could not be taxed, Nerval chose to call his book a “history” and thus thumbed his nose at the restriction of press freedoms. The Abbé de Bucquoy was a real enough figure who had escaped from the Bastille. Nerval included the abbé in his book on the precursors of socialism, but in The Salt Smugglers the telling is anything but historical.
Published in twenty-seven installments in Le National, a newspaper associated with the 1848 uprising, The Salt Smugglers takes the form of letters addressed to the newspaper’s director. This epistolary roman feuilleton opens with an account of how Nerval had found a biography of this Valois aristocrat and Frondeur in Frankfurt (the name, nobility, and profession are opened to speculation) but had decided not to buy it. He had hoped to get a copy in Paris. A delightful farrago follows.
It is easy to see from this book why Nerval was known as le Sterne francaise. The two-column format employed by Archipelago for this short book emphasizes the mad rush of the digressions punctuated by Nerval’s trademark dash. His playfulness is foregrounded as he reaches his nine-month quest to lay his hands on the history in France:
“And then…” (This is how Diderot began one of his stories, someone is bound to remind me.)”
“You have merely imitated Diderot.”
“Who had imitated Sterne . . .”
“Who had imitated Swift . . .”
“Who had imitated Rabelais . . .”
“Who had imitated Merlinus Coccauis . . .”
“Who had imitated Petronius . . .”
“Who had imitated Lucian. And Lucian had imitated various others. . . . And most particularly, the author of Odyssey, who led his hero around the Mediterranean for ten years before finally bringing him home to the fabled Ithaca, whose queen, hounded as she was by some fifty suitors, spent every night undoing what she had woven that day.”
“But Ulysses [sic] finally found his way back to his Ithaca.”
“And I found my way back to my abbé du Bucquoy.”
“Tell me about it.”
The return to Nerval’s Ithaca is circuitous. In between the “history” from different sources, which includes a brief encounter with the salt smugglers of the title, we find jokes about dead birds, two stories about seals (one talking seal speaks with a marked Nordic accent), accounts of arrests and trysts with officialdom, misadventures with the post office, and trips to the Valois and Ermenonville where Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s suicide by hemlock and pistol shot is recreated (a prefiguring of Nerval’s own death). Nerval reused some of these narratives in other works, most notably in The Illuminati and the short story “Angelique.”
According to the translator, Richard Sieburth, the book embodies Bakhtin’s idea of the polyphonic or dialogic novel where narrative authority is undermined. In this playful, pre-postmodern work, the frame dominates the story. In Sieburth’s words, Nerval
serves up a carnival feast of proven recipes for fiction: the quest romance, the picaresque novel, the adventure story, the detective tale, the confessional memoir, the folk legend, the anecdote, the conte fantastique and, of course, the historical novel¬—all punctuated by various found textual objects that are collaged into the narrative (police reports, book catalogue entries, snippets from manuals of heraldry, tombstone inscriptions, not to mention periodic strains of verse, both rhymed and free, that sing forth from the contrapuntal motifs of his prose).
The Salt Smugglers’ insistence on the porosity of history and fiction foreshadows the works of Vico and Hayden White and draw a clear line of influence to Claude Manceron’s anecdotal history of the French Revolution. However, that porosity takes on poignant overtones for Nerval, who looked for authority and stability all his life while denying it in his fiction.
To his friend Theophile Gautier, his friend Nerval was a gentle, polite, and elusive figure who could only be discovered through his works. The Salt Smugglers, as Sieburth observed, is unusual for its confessional offerings to the reader; while his creative hold over the narrative is tenacious, Nerval’s dreamlike accounts of Valoisan idylls and various digressions foreshadow his growing madness.
Beggared by several theatrical misadventures and kept wanting by his father and by Dumas, who ensured that his collaborator would never be as successful, Nerval was to lose his grip on reality shortly after the book appeared in 1850.
He died in 1855 after refusing help from his friends.
Sieburth, who translated Nerval’s selected work for Penguin, has produced a highly readable book, and his postscript is a model of scholarship. The Salt Smugglers is a gem and is as much for the casual reader as for students of French literature or Nerval.
Ahmad Saidullah is a prizewinning Canadian writer. His Happiness and Other Disorders: Short Stories was published in Canada and India in 2008 and was shortlisted for the Danuta Gleed Literary Award in 2009. He lives in Toronto.
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