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Sylvie by Gérard de Nerval



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Gerard de Nerval (1808-1855) was a French Romanticist and insane Parisian Bohemian, he (in)famously walked around with a pet lobster on a leash of blue silk ribbon. He was friends and collaborator with the Romantic era A-list, including Victor Hugo, Dumas etc.. but he never found monetary success and gave up early, hanging himself to death from a Latin Quarter street banister after a series of mental breakdowns. Yet not before writing what some consider the best French romantic poetry and prose of the era, including a hashish-filled travel book to the "Orient". His life-story reminds me of Syd Barret, a crazy diamond; or perhaps William Foster Wallace. He was a man of his times who took his art beyond the safety margins.

Sylvie is a novella that Marcel Proust called a "masterpiece". Umberto Eco spent three years studying it at University and read it continuously from youth. Harold Bloom included it in his The Western Canon (1994).

It's a lyrical piece with strong Romantic elements and, amazingly for its age, proto-modernistic symbolism. Grecian allusions, Medieval landscapes, Renaissance paintings come alive. Bring your historical dictionary. It concerns love lost, namely how an un-named narrator recounts when he was a younger man and managed to screw up three opportunities to obtain three woman. The women can be seen as allegorical of course and the work takes place on multiple levels, from the romantic to the literal to the psychological to the historical. It's one reason so many very smart people have been taken in by its charms as you can keep reading it over and over. It's also just a nice story on the surface that is universal, an older man looking back at youthful loves lost, told in a charming way with exotic settings.

There are a lot of translations around, I read an old one from the 19th century (intro by Andrew Lang), which in some ways better captured the lyricism and period flavor lost in some newer ones, but was also more difficult to follow the storyline. If your willing to read it slowly and carefully I think it's a good (and cheap) option, but Penguin Classics also has a newer translation (among others), and there is one from 1922 that is freely online.

--Review by Stephen Balbach, via CoolReading (c) 2010 cc-by-nd ( )
  Stbalbach | Nov 21, 2010 |
A short novel of love and illusion. A story flows like a small river in a spring sun light.
  CharlesSwann | May 5, 2008 |
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