Famous Readers of an Infamous Book the Fortunes of Gaspard de La Nuit

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  • Famous Readers of an Infamous Book: The Fortunes of Gaspard de la NuitAuthor(s): Marvin N. RichardsSource: The French Review, Vol. 69, No. 4 (Mar., 1996), pp. 543-555Published by: American Association of Teachers of FrenchStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/397288Accessed: 26/07/2010 21:10

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  • THE FRENCH REVIEW, Vol. 69, No. 4, March 1996 Printed in U.S.A.

    Famous Readers of an Infamous Book: The Fortunes of Gaspard de la Nuit

    by Marvin N. Richards

    ... tout condamne Bertrand ' atre un precurseur. ..

    -Raymond Schwab

    BAUDELAIRE WAS THE FIRST TO CREDIT ALOYSIUS BERTRAND With the inven- tion of a new model for poetry, the prose poem, found in the latter's Gaspard de la Nuit, which served as a model for the poems of the Spleen de Paris: "C'est en feuilletant pour la vingtieme fois au moins, le fameux Gaspard de la Nuit, d'Aloysius Bertrand ... que l'id"e m'est venue de ten- ter quelque chose d'analogue" (CEuvres 161). But in order for his own project to be original, he had to deny the importance of Bertrand: "Sit6t que j'eus commence le travail, je m'aperqus que non-seulement je restais bien loin de mon mysterieux module, mais encore que je faisais quelque chose (si cela peut s'appeler quelque chose) de singulierement diff6rent" (161). Most critics-who have less at stake than Baudelaire-follow this lead and cite Bertrand in a footnote to the history of the prose poem, but rarely take the time to examine Gaspard de la Nuit or trace the influence it had on modern French poetry. Perhaps this is because the prose poem is a form of modern poetry and as such anachronistic in the Romantic pe- riod in which Bertrand wrote (c. 1828). This study will not answer why Bertrand is excluded from the history of the genre he invented, but it will show that poets from Baudelaire to Breton considered him as an impor- tant reference.

    I have divided the history of Gaspard into three periods. The first begins in 1842 with the initial (posthumous) publication of Gaspard de la Nuit and extends to the death of Baudelaire 1867. A new period begins in 1867 because Villiers de l'Isle-Adam, in his Revue des lettres et des arts, repub- lished many of the texts of Gaspard, which had become rare. Mallarmd was at least partly responsible for this renewed interest, and he also pub-



    lished a few prose poems in his friend's Revue. His death in 1898 marks the end of the second period. Finally, Bertrand's importance is an- nounced in the preface of Max Jacob's collection of prose poems, Le Cor- net i~ des, published in 1917, and, in 1920, no fewer than four editors republish Gaspard de la Nuit, bearing witness to Bertrand's popularity among Breton, Reverdy, Eluard, and others.

    I. 1842-1867: The birth of a genre

    J'ai une petite confession 'a vous faire. C'est en feuilletant pour la vingtieme fois au moins, le fameux Gaspard de la Nuit d'Aloysius Bertrand ... que l'idee m'est venue de tenter quelque chose d'analogue ...

    -Baudelaire, Le Spleen de Paris

    Maintenant, qu'est-ce que Gaspard de la Nuit? C'est une ewuvre qui a un grand charme et qu'il serait dangereux d'imiter.

    -Revue des deux mondes 1 January 1843

    Gaspard de la Nuit was first published in November, 1842, nineteen months after Bertrand's death. The manuscript had been sold to Eugene Renduel in 1836, but he had retired to the countryside in 1841 without printing it. Two of Bertrand's friends, the sculptor David d'Angers and Victor Pavie, repurchased the manuscript and printed it with a notice by Sainte-Beuve (reprinted in Portraits litteraires). The Revue des deux mondes gave the first review of Gaspard in January, 1843, but the author G. Mo- lanes was unenthusiastic: "Gaspard de la Nuit a le tort d'etre une suite de tableaux executes sans pinceau et sans crayon avec les procedes unique- ment reserves au crayon et au pinceau" (343). He also remarks that the book is "une oeuvre qui a un grand charme et qu'il serait dangereux d'imiter" (342). La France litteraire published a more positive review, by Emile Deschamps, who predicted that "Gaspard de la Nuit de Louis Ber- trand, sera[it] bient6t dans toutes les mains litteraires" (102).

    If Bertrand's book did not find its way into the hands of all the literary figures, it certainly made an impression on some. No mention is made of Gaspard for eighteen years, but in 1861, two significant articles appear in the Revue fantaisiste. The issue of 15 October 1861 contains a study of Ber- trand by Fortune Calmels, "Les Oublids du dix-neuviame sibcle," who notes that Bertrand and his book are unknown and that "Seuls, de trbs rares dilettanti en possedent un exemplaire, et ceux-lk, je vous l'affirme,


    ne le cederaient pas pour beaucoup d'or" (304). Calmels concludes by signaling Bertrand's cult status with a quote from Tennyson: "Sceptique au front assombri, n'approchez point! tout ici est terre consacr&e" (315).

    Baudelaire was certainly not deaf to this memorial, for in the next issue of the Revue fantaisiste (1 November 1861), he published nine prose poems, under the heading (for the first time) of "Poemes en prose." These were not his first attempts; in fact, he had published two texts as early as 1855, "Le Crepuscule du soir" and "La Solitude," whose initial versions differ greatly from the later ones. The original poems bear a considerable formal resemblance to Bertrand's model, with four short paragraphs which could almost be called couplets (the term employed by Bertrand [301]).

    Soon after these poems were published in the Revue fantaisiste, Baude- laire sent two more manuscripts of prose poems to Houssaye with the letter dated Noel 1861 that would later serve as the preface to Le Spleen de Paris:

    "I1 y a plusieurs anndes que je rave a mes poemes en prose ... Mon point de depart a ete Gaspard de la Nuit d'Aloysius Bertrand, que vous connaissez, sans aucun doute; mais j'ai bien vite senti que je ne pou- vais pas perseverer dans ce pastiche et que l'oeuvre etait inimitable" (Le Spleen de Paris 215-16).

    According to Prarond, Baudelaire read Gaspard as soon as it was pub- lished (when he was twenty-one), and his enthusiasm for the book may have been the reason for Asselineau's edition of 1868: "Je dois noter l'im- pression que firent sur lui [Baudelaire], des qu'elles parurent, les Fantaisies d'Aloysius Bertrand. Il en garda la marque, et c'est a cette estime parti- culiere, dont herita plus tard Asselineau, que Gaspard de la Nuit doit son edition de Paris-Bruxelles, 1868" (Prarond 11, cited in Rude 47). In any case, we know that Baudelaire worked on and published several of his prose poems from 1855 until his death in August, 1867, just two months before Villiers de l'Isle-Adam's Revue des lettres et des arts started to repub- lish some of the poems of Gaspard de la Nuit, which had become a rarity.

    1867 marks a new period, then, in the history of Bertrand's fortunes, for he became available to a new generation who read Villier's Revue, and a new edition with an introduction by Asselineau was to appear in 1868. Adding to this interest was of course Baudelaire's "confession" of Ber- trand's influence (first published in La Presse on August 26, 1862, with nine prose poems) which accompanied the posthumous publication of the Petits Poemes en prose (1869). As Rude explains, "Toujours est-il qu'au moment oii mourait Baudelaire, Bertrand devenait accessible a une nou- velle generation de pontes: Lautreamont, Rimbaud n'ont pas pu ne pas le connaitre et allaient se retrouver en lui" (51).

    II. 1867-1898: The symbolists discover Bertrand

    ... un anachronisme a causi son oubli. -Mallarmd to Victor Pavie


    Mallarme represents probably the most enthusiastic reader of Bertrand, and, interestingly, he was born in the same year as Gaspard, 1842. Mon- dor suggests that the poet read Bertrand's work as early as 1862 and remarks that Mallarme certainly read Calmels's article on Bertrand as well as Baudelaire's prose poems in the Revue fantaisiste (Mallarm6 CEuvres completes 1550-51). The most evident signs of Mallarme's enthusi- asm for Bertrand may be found in three letters he addressed to Ber- trand's first publisher, Victor Pavie, in 1865 and 1866. Mallarm6, who was then teaching English at Tournon, wanted a copy of Gaspard and wrote to Pavie for one. He also suggested that Pavie reprint the book. The major passages deserve quotation in toto:

    Monsieur, J'ai comme tous les pontes de notre jeune generation, mes amis, un

    culte profond pour l'ceuvre exquis de Louis Bertrand, de qui vous avez eu la rare gloire d'etre l'ami. Exile, pour un temps, dans une petite ville de province, je souffre de voir ma bibliotheque, qui renferme les mer- veilles du Romantisme, privee de ce cher volume qui ne m'abandonnait pas quand je pouvais l'emprunter a un confrere.

    S'il vous restait encore quelques exemplaires de Gaspard de la Nuit je vous demanderais en grace, Monsieur, de vouloir bien me ceder l'un d'eux: croyez qu'il ne serait nulle part plus religieusement conserve. J'ose esperer que vous ne me refuserez pas cette supplique, et je vous remercie deja, tout heureux....

    Tournon, 30 d6cembre 1865.

    [January 1866] Monsieur,

    Je vous remercie infiniment d'avoir encore retrouve pour moi un vo- lume de Louis Bertand. C'est un ami que vous me rendez, et vous de- vinez quelle peut etre ma gratitude....

    -Maintenant, avant de terminer cette lettre, permettez-moi une ques- tion indiscrete. Pourquoi ne faites-vous pas une nouvelle edition de Gas- pard de la Nuit? outre ce qu'il y aurait de noble a faire refleurir l'ceuvre d'un porte, vouee A l'oubli par une vraie fatalitY, je crois meme, grace au bruit que ferait autour de mes Maitres et de mes amis qui deplorent son abandon, que vous y auriez un avantage reel ...

    [February 1866] Bien cher Monsieur,

    ... Mais on peut reAditer Louis Bertrand de loin! Ce que vous me racontez m'a navr&. Un volume en vingt-sept ans!

    Cependant celui que possede la Bibliotheque imperiale ne quitte pas les mains des lecteurs au point qu'on ne peut l'avoir. Si vous placiez douze exemplaires chez Pincebourde ... il les vendrait-inevitablement! ...

    Et qui sait si, alors, avec un peu de bruit facile dans les journaux, il n'y aurait pas un rel avenir pour une belle .dition, pr1c~dde de notices, et d'une douzaine de pokmes, A la mdmoire de Bertrand, par les meilleurs pontes de ce temps? Ce monument 6lev6 par notre g~ndration & Louis Bertrand serait d'autant plus naturel qu'il est vraiment, par sa


    forme condensee et precieuse, un de nos freres. Un anachronisme a cause son oubli. Cette adorable bague jetde, comme celle des doges, a la mer, pendant la furie des vagues romantiques, et engoufrde, apparait maintenant rapportee par les lames limpides de la maree.

    . Mais comme on reve, en parlant de ceux qu'on aime! Adieu, cher

    Monsieur, pensons tous deux, cependant, a ce songe qui se realisera peut-etre! (Correspondance 1 188, 196-200)

    The editors of the Correspondance remark correctly apropos of this letter that "Mallarme songe donc, pour la premiere fois, a un Tombeau: ici, celui de Louis Bertrand, jamais execute" (199). The absence of such a monu- ment to Louis Bertrand does not mean that Mallarme lost interest in Gas- pard. As Suzanne Bernard notes, "Causerie d'hiver et La Thte sont tous deux divises en courts couplets" (259), the model provided by Bertrand, but the importance goes beyond mere borrowings of stylistic elements and resides in a shared aesthetics of poetry.

    Several critics have pointed out this affinity. Schwab, for example, be- lieves that "Beaucoup des Divagations sont sffrement une sequelle de re- veries sur Gaspard" (6). Mondor writes, "Baudelaire et Aloysius Bertrand sont ... au point de depart de l'incursion que fit Mallarme dans le do- maine du poeme en prose" (Mallarme CEuvres completes 1551). Bernard remarks upon an "esthetique de la suggestion" (70) and compares Ber- trand and Mallarme first on the basis of a common reverence for the evo- cative power of the word, and secondly from the importance accorded to "les blancs" (70). Both Milner and Richer insist on this latter element and rightly so, for it represents one of the important aspects of Bertrand's for- mal innovations as well as one of the fundamental principles of poetry explored by Mallarm&.

    Milner's discussion focuses on the features of Bertrand's style which distinguish his from the other poetic prose of early Romanticism: "[Ber- trand] deconstruit la logique narrative du recit et donne a celui-ci une allure enigmatique et inquietante" (25). Commenting on Bertrand's revi- sions of "La Citadelle de Wolgast" (237-38), he notes, "Dans la version definitive, ne subsistent plus que quelques details, separes par un blanc qui resume mieux que toute parole le tragique de la situation et l'isole- ment de la citadelle heroique" (27). Milner points out that Bertrand "avait parfaitement conscience de l'importance de ces blancs, qui donnent a ses poemes leur allure elliptique et lacunaire" (27), and he quotes the poet's instructions to the type-setter: "Regle generale. -Blanchir comme si le texte etait de la poesie... [M. le Metteur en pages] jettera de larges blancs entre ces couplets comme si c'etaient des strophes en vers" (301).

    No one who is familiar with the "Coup de des" can read these lines without some surprise, given the importance of both "les blancs" and the haunting "COMME SI" that opens and closes the fourth page. My space is too limited to undertake a longer analysis of the role of the whiteness in the texts of Bertrand and Mallarmb, but Bertrand's instructions clearly


    demonstrate that his aesthetic goes beyond the narrow cate...


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