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Sylvie - Gérard de Nerval
"I went to bed but found no rest; and as I lay there between sleeping and waking, memories of my childhood thronged about me. In this state, where the mind still resists the fantastic combinations of dreams, the important happenings of a long period of one’s life often crowd themselves into a few moments."


Gérard de Nerval's Sylvie seems to me a woefully overlook French nouvelle. It was first published in 1853, meaning that it is far out of copyright - and so anyone intrigued by this review, I recommend to read the English translation here. The story was a favorite of Marcel Proust, and the parallel themes of memory, time, love and jealousy are poignant in Sylvie, though in much smaller doses than in Proust's epic. A review this now, in the midst of "2013 - the Year in Reading Proust" in the hope that someone will discover this opalescent curio of literature, and that it will add even a small light to their experience of Proust.

Nerval's Sylvie is a brief tale of love lost, lost given-up, love forgone, but ultimately, unrequited love - and significantly self-delusion. Our lover turned narrator is a man with ideals, not moral ideals - no, he is a bit of a rake, though a passionate and romantic one, but rather aesthetic ideals, particularly as they pertain to love and romance. His memories are honeyed with these ideals, and are presented to use under the honeyed patina of nostalgia. If "distance makes the heart grow fonder," then distance in time captures the heart completely, the loves of his past are vouchsafed and solipsized so deep in the narrator's heart and memory that they are diminished to tiny gold phantoms of his self-styled illusions. His blending of dream, reality, and memory is something of which he warns us often: "As I set down these words I cannot help wondering whether the events they describe actually took place or whether I have dreamed them." And isn't memory something like a dream? Something like rêverie? In memory, in a moment, we are transported somewhere else in time, in place; sights, smells, emotions, and sensations return to us slightly altered - we are dually aware in memory, we have two "selves" - the minor self, the actor of our memory, and the major self, our current self who is the critic watching intently from behind the proscenium. So at one and the same time, it is reality, as it was or appeared to be at the time to our minor self, and dream or reality as a performance (as it seems in retrospect) to our major self. This is a central obfuscation of the nouvelle's narration - dream, delusion, or reality? The remembrance of things as they were, or the appearance of things then as they appear now?

The drama of the story is the narrator's return to Loisy, where his childhood visions were borne. He is newly rich by an inheritance, and has been pursuing with ardor a pretty young Parisian actress named Aurelia. However, when sleep is withheld from him by a "half-dreamed memory," he resolves to return to the sanctuary of his childhood loves, Syvlie (and also Adrienne, a young girl he loved but who was sent to a convent). We find in Sylvie the class-founded ideal of the "peasant girl," and idyllic kind of romantic ideal which is completely divorced from the reality of the person. When the narrator returns to her, he finds her engaged and also, more painful to him, that she has risen in class. Sylvie makes gloves for a living, and as a result has risen in social status beyond the precipice of peasanthood, into something like the working class (the sandwich filling between petit bourgeoisie and serfdom). He is heartbroken to find her so much changed (though for herself, she has changed for the better) - any change to his ossified ideal image of the past is a blemish to the immutable perfection of the past. When he asks her to sing a peasant song from their shared memory, she responds that "one doesn't sing that song anymore." he is heartbroken, and when asked why so, he responds "Because I love those old melodies and because you will forget how to sing them." This is the height of the narrator's disillusionment, she refuses to sing the little melody and thus shatters the memorialized ideal of his rural love. There is a tangible sense of regret, not for loving her, but for returning to her. As Flaubert warns in Madame Bovary: "Never touch your idols: the gilding will stick to your fingers." He sets off in his return to Paris, gilding on his fingers and a smudged idol, fallen from its erstwhile tabernacle.

The true beauty of this work, is not simply the confusion of memory, not simply the treatment of loves and ideals, but the blending of the two into a sort of self-delusion for the narrator. While Sylvie remains unattainable, and so far changed, undesired as her present self, and Aurelia remains coyly distant, Adrienne approaches apotheosis as the ideal which the narrator feels unites his loves, surpasses his loves. His love turned nun remains the unattainable ideal of his youth and increasingly his present, as other ideals fall by the way. The narrator even insists on Aurelia's likeness to Adrienne, and brings Sylvie to the Parisian theatre in order to confirm this likeness (does he doubt his own eyes? Does he fear they delude him?). He brings Aurelia to the place where he had previously fallen in love with Adrienne, but is dismayed that she is not struck by her surroundings as he is:
These places, full of precious memories for me, awakened only a mild interest in Aurelia, and even when I took her to the green lawn in front of the château near Orry, where I had first seen Adrienne, she was unmoved. So I told her how my love had been awakened by that slender figure bathed in mist and moonlight, and how, since then, that love had lived only in my dreams, now to be realized in her. She was gravely attentive, and when I had finished speaking she said, ‘You don’t love me at all! You’re only waiting for me to tell you that the actress and the nun are the same person. All you want is a drama, and the climax evades you. I’ve lost my faith in you completely!’

Aurelia pinpoints the internal conflict of the narrator, and I turn to Proust for his explanation of the phenomenon, which far surpasses my own ability:
Forgetting that beauty and happiness are only ever incarnated in an individual person, we replace them in our minds by a conventional pattern, a sort of average of all the different faces we have ever admired, ... and thus carry about with us abstract images, which are lifeless and uninspiring...

The narrator has imbued all of his love's value on the three women of his past and present, and as their ideals begin to show signs of fatigue, their individual values, their individual perfections and beauties, rather than diminishing in number, they are grafted upon the loves which the narrator feels remain to him: simply Aurelia. And we can see this double-grafting of Sylvie and Adrienne in his description of her on the day of the preciously mentioned confrontation: "Dressed in her riding-habit, and with her hair streaming out in the wind, Aurelia rode through the wood like a queen of bygone days, to the great bewilderment of the peasantry." The remaining "queen of bygone days" is Adrienne, as she rides through the sacred ground of the narrator's and Adrienne's tryst, and the reference to peasantry is an allusion to his idealized love for Sylvie. None of his loves can ever come to fruition because he does not love any of them wholly, but loves small aspects of them, even small illusions or romantic stereotypes of them, and never gets at them completely, never digs deep into himself to discover what he loves, he loves only on the surface. But in the end it is inconsequential whether he remembers these women exactly, whether he conflates them, or makes them up, because they are not real and he does not really love any of them, but rather loves a phantasmic ideal which glows blindingly behind them: making them mere shadows, silhouettes on the edifice of his passionate desires.