August 2009

Elizabeth Bachner


The Salt Smugglers by Gérard de Nerval and Richard Sieburth

"Certain minds ought to have lived in a German town during the Romantic period, wrote E.M. Cioran. "How easy it is to imagine a Gerard de Nerval in Tubingen or Heidelberg!" It's funny, though -- I have trouble imagining de Nerval living anywhere but Paris. Well, I can see him in the Lake District, tripping on laudanum cut with amber or pearls. I can picture him at Altamont, maybe, right before the Hell's Angels got there, or on a weird, long trip to Harar like Rimbaud, or in Arabia. (In fact, he did have a real-life stint in Egypt and Lebanon in the early 1840s, the subject of his Voyage to the Orient.) Most of his prose, if you can call it prose, reads like the protagonist is about to vaporize into the afterlife. He might've gone crazy like a German Romantic in some turreted university town, but his suffering seems different -- less about separation and more about illusion. There's something feathery about everything he touched, something dreamy and mystical, something that takes flight, even if he did end up suffering too much and hanging himself in the streets, allegedly with the Queen of Sheba's garter. Maybe Cioran was projecting, or maybe I am. Perhaps it is my stereotype that the French become beautifully hallucinogenic when they lose their shit, while the Germans just get agonized.

The Salt Smugglers, which was originally printed as a serial in Le National in 1850, is a fascinating historical document as well as a good yarn. If you're looking for the trippy de Nerval of Aurelia, you won't be disappointed (he meanders into all sorts of strange tales of troubled love). But there's also another de Nerval here: a scathing political wit, a truly godless "child of Voltaire." (Although, to be fair, de Nerval wouldn't have much liked the wit part. "Here in France," he writes, "everyone is a wit.") Publishing fiction in newspaper serials is illegal, so de Nerval pretends that this tale of his quest to find a book about the history of the Abbé de Bucquoy is purely factual. In the meantime, he writes a weird, sprawling romantic novel, and gets in little digs at just about everyone. He takes on French history, the nature of literature, bibliophilia, and contemporary social mores with panache. It's hard to understand how someone with this much bonhomie and joie de vivre ever ended up hanging himself from a subway grate, whereas when you read Holderlin you can always see how bummed out and overwrought he was and how he was destined to pass through a loony bin before convalescing alone in a turret.

Translator Richard Sieburth, who seems equally versed in rendering brooding Germans and wayfaring Frenchman in lively, contemporary English, offers a meaty postscript detailing de Nerval's personal and historical context. There are also good, thorough notes, and the story is printed in columns, to give the reader an authentic sense of the newspaper's layout and pace. But, as with de Nerval's other works, it's fine to just pick up The Salt Smugglers and read it over the course of a few slow spring days. It will appeal especially to readers who are always gallivanting around the countryside in search of elusive books, or those who love strange libraries. It will appeal especially to writers, who are often forced to cleverly disguise one kind of work as another, dissolving the boundaries of what we're reading. And of course, it will appeal to readers (or writers) who want to escape Tubingen or Heidelberg or Chicago or New York or 2009 and end up, instead, in a series of misty adventures. De Nerval has this way of startling the reader into a reverie, startling fiction into history and back again, and startling prose into poetry. Maybe he's not such a child of Voltaire after all. But he's most definitely a child of Paris.

"One will say that prose is the only thing we know how to write. -- But wherein does poetry lie? measure, in rhyme,--or in the idea? The road was devilishly long, though I don't know how long the devil is. -- this is the kind of fool question only a Parisian would ask himself."


The Salt Smugglers by Gérard de Nerval and Richard Sieburth
Archipelago Books
ISBN: 0980033063
220 Pages

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