Friday, May 19, 2006

Valois mists

‘There was a slight stretch of open country to cover before reaching Othys. The village spire was already visible on the bluish hills that extend from Montméliant to Dammartin. The Thève was once again burbling over rocks and pebbles as it dwindled to a narrow stream near its source – where it rests among the meadows forming a small pond amid irises and gladioli’.  
This is a landscape in the Valois described by the narrator of Gerard de Nerval’s ‘Sylvie’ (1854). The translation is by Richard Sieburth, who observes that Nerval worked like a plein air painter: Nerval’s ‘limpid landscapes have often been compared to those of his friend Corot’. However, as with Corot, there is more to Nerval than mere description – this simple landscape quoted out of context conveys almost nothing of what makes ‘Sylvie’ so special (for me ‘Sylvie’ is one of the most perfect works of literature). Sieburth writes that ‘Sylvie’ is not simply ‘a regionalist roman champêtre in the bucolic manner of George Sand’. It has affinities with Poe and Proust: a shifting landscape of memory and ghosts. The Valois of Nerval’s youth merges with that of Rousseau, Catherine de Medici and Charlemagne. So perhaps a more representative landscape is from a dream in which the narrator sees a castle lit by the setting sun, its green lawn framed by elms and limes and on it young girls dancing. The shadows descend and ‘thin clouds of mist drifted over the lawn, spreading tufts of white upon the tips of the grass. We thought we were in paradise.’

For more on ‘Sylvie’ see this French Nerval site.

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