A French writer and translator associated with the Romantic movement, Gérard de Nerval produced a varied, protean body of work. The Middle East, where he travelled from 1842 to 1843, polarised his aesthetic and spiritual quest during his entire life.
Gérard de Nerval (1808-1855), the French writer and translator associated with the Romantic movement produced a varied, protean body of work. Literary history above all remembers his late texts in which a melancholic evocation of the past rubs up against “supernatural reveries”, all written between 1854 and 1855, a period punctuated by severe fits of insanity: a collection of poems (Les Chimères), a series of short stories (Les Filles du feu) and a dream narrative (Aurélia ou Le Rêve et la Vie). Influenced by the Germanic world, he published a translation of Goethe’s Faust in 1827. He also depicted a Paris which was as working-class as it was disturbing, as well as the Valois of his childhood. However, it was the Middle East that focused his aesthetic and spiritual quest during his entire life: Gérard de Nerval travelled there from 1842 to 1843. His itinerary led him to Greece, Egypt, Lebanon and Turkey. This experience (following the basis of earlier journeys) provided the material for several articles published in 1844 and later, brought together in the two volumes of Scènes de la vie orientales published in 1848 and 1850, then in Voyage en Orient in 1851. Before his suicide on 26 January 1855, the writer was planning another stay in the lands of the Middle East.
The Bibliothèque nationale de France possesses several autograph manuscripts of Gérard de Nerval: an early version of Aurélia, a projected complete works, drafted at the end of his life, and the notebook which the author produced during his stay in Egypt in 1843, also called Carnet du Caire. This exceptional document was mentioned for the first time by Aristide Marie in 1926. Its origin is uncertain: it had probably been handed down via a descendant of Arsène Houssaye. Perhaps subsequently reorganised, this uncomplete series (some pages have been cut or torn out) of 25 sheets measuring 14.8x9.5cm (some of which are marked by oil stains) is organised into two parts: the first (f.1 to 16) contains the author’s travel impressions and reading notes, the second (f.17 to 25) brings together his accountancy, by day and by spending (from Tuesday 7th February to Saturday 1st April 1843). In the original notebook, they must have been respectively at the beginning and end, in such a way that he had to turn the book over, before doing his accounts. The first page of the notebook is illustrated by a watercolour depicting, perhaps, the banks of the Nile, as well as a map of Cairo drawn by hand. The large number of different inks, and the variations in the handwriting, seem to show that the book contains notes taken at different times during the stay, and perhaps even afterwards. However, the absence of any mention of Greece and Lebanon suggests that it was initially drafted during Gérard de Nerval’s stay in Cairo in 1843.
The initial transcription of the beginning of the Carnet was made by Pierre Martino in 1933 in an article in the Revue de littérature compare, in which he identified a large number of the works copied out in it by Nerval. These analyses were taken up and refined by Albert Béguin and Jean Richer, then by Claude Pichois in their respective editions of the Voyage en Orient in Nerval’s Œuvres complètes (Bibliothèque de la Pléiade) in 1961 and 1984. Jacques Huré carried out the initial transcription of the second part of the notebook in 1985 (Cahier Gérard de Nerval, n°8).
An examination of the works cited or copied out by Nerval reveals the great variety of the traveller’s preoccupations: “books of Egyptian history, old translations of oriental chroniclers, travel accounts, articles from dictionaries, books of Biblical or Cabalistic exegesis, old Arabic legends about Solomon, the Queen of Sheba, the pre-Adamites, etc.” (Marie, 1930). Some of these religious sources lie at the origin of the “Histoire de la reine du Matin et de Soliman, Prince des Génies”, included in Voyage en Orient. Several pages of the notebook group together travel impressions, thus also prefiguring the chapters dealing with this journey.
These works were consulted by Nerval at the library of the Société Égyptienne (also called the “Association Littéraire de l’Egypte”). This society, founded in 1842, had around a hundred members; at the time of Nerval’s stay, its library included some 200 volumes donated by Great Britain and presented by Prisse d’Avennes. This collection today belongs to the library of the IFAO in Cairo. An analysis of the works consulted by the author during his travels has shown up the existence of manuscript notes matching Gérard de Nerval’s handwriting: for example, the copy of L’Égypte de Murtadi conserved by the institute includes a long series of references that correspond to the notes taken by Nerval in his Carnet du Caire (f.14 and 15).
These two sets can be rounded off by a final autograph manuscript conserved at the Bibliothèque de l’Institut de France: a series of notes taken from Herbelot de Molainville’s Bibliothèque orientale. This work was consulted by Gérard de Nerval during his trip, as can be seen in the Carnet du Caire (f. 1 and 7), but a copy was also borrowed by the author from the Bibliothèque Impériale in 1854, as Huguette Brunet pointed out in an article in 1982, in which she analysed his borrowings from the Bibliothèque Royale, Nationale and then Impériale: the Bibliothèque orientale was in fact the last work to be lent to Gérard de Nerval before his death in January 1854. This remarkable fact illustrates the permanence of this writer’s interest in the Middle East and in oriental sources throughout his life.
Image caption : Gérard de Nerval (gravure)