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Review of The Salt Smugglers, from Stephen Romer, Times Literary Supplement

The Piranesi “Carceri” etching that provides the cover image for this translation of Gérard de Nerval’s Les Faux Saulniers could scarcely be more appropriate. Not only is it reminiscent of the endless stairways and the central galleries and hidden cells that Nerval uses to allegorize his own mind in Aurélia, his retrospective description of his mental breakdown, it also refers to the carceral universe of the Prison de Fort-L’Évêque, and then to the Bastille itself, both of which figures in this extraordinarily digressive text. The subtitle, Histoire de l’abbé de Bucquoy, signals the (endlessly thwarted) narrative that sets out to trace the life history of this abbot, a kind of intellectual Houdini or Papillon, who thumbed his nose at the twilight despotism of the Sun King by escaping from the Central State Prison in the opening years of the eighteenth century. As both Richard Seiburth, the genial translator of this text, and Jacques Bony, who edited it for the three-volume Pléiade edition of Nerval, both suggest, even the title is a red herring. Les Faux Saulniers, rendered here as The Salt Smugglers, refers to the rather romantic, swashbuckling figures who aimed to foil the hated salt tax, or gabelle, imposed on the populace by Versailles, which obliged them to purchase a certain amount of salt each year at an abusively high price. In Nerval’s text, the smugglers operate around the writer’s childhood home of the Valois, just to the north of Paris on the way to Compiègne, thereby enabling him to wax lyrical about the beautiful, melancholic landscapes of woods and lakes and fields of that region; these also find their way into several texts of his maturity, including his masterpiece, Sylvie.  The smugglers have a brief, eventful and somewhat perplexing brush with Nerval’s hero, the abbé de Bucquoy, in fact a documented historical figure, Jean-Albert D’Archambaud, comte de Bucquoy (1650?-1740). But apart from that they play no part in the rest of this shaggy dog story, recounted, in Sieburth’s apt phrase, with “Shandyan amiability” — and indeed Nerval became known as “le Sterne français.”

The historical background to The Salt Smugglers is as complex as the narrative itself: a clumsy attempt at censorship, brought in under the government of the “prince-président,” Lous-Napoleon, in July 1850, directly contributed to the tortuous and highly original form of Nerval’s tale. A law known as the Riancey Amendment set out to impose a stamp tax on all newspapers that published the type of roman-feuilleton, or serial number, that had recently made the fortune of Alexandre Dumas, Nerval’s one-time Maître, and with whom he had collaborated on a number of dramatic works. But Nerval was no Dumas — a ripping yarn like The Count of Monte-Cristo was beyond him — and in any case, this new law expressly forbade that kind of enterprise. Officially, the Riancey Amendment was introduced to protect the book trade, but its true motivation, as Jacques Bony suggests, was political. It was introduced to suppress anything that might resemble Eugène Sue’s monumental and avidly read serial novel Les Mystères de Paris, which was judged to have spread dissent and subversion in the minds of the people. The general [political] climate throughout Europe, after the failure of the so-called liberal revolutions of 1848, had turned repressive, and certainly this was the case in France. Nerval’s text had been scheduled to run in the newspaper Le National during the autumn of 1850, which was just after the introduction of this new attempt at censorship, and a year before the establishment of the Second Empire with Louis-Napoleon’s coup d’état of December 1851, and the consequent removal into exile of Victor Hugo.

The Riancey Amendment did not impede Nerval, whose text appeared as scheduled in the liberal-leaning Le National between October and December of 1850. In fact, it provided something resembling a fruitful literary constraint, for as Paul Valéry once remarked, “la constrainte produit.”  In Nerval’s case it gave a wonderful opportunity for a game of cat-and-mouse with the censors. Ostensibly declaring that he is writing nothing but straight documentary history, the fragmentary, chaotic, and generally inaccessible nature of his material continually threatens by its very nature to transgress the shadowy boundary between fact and hypothesis, especially as one long section is devoted to the life story of the dashing, petticoated, rebel-for-love Angélique de Longueval, apparently the abbé de Bucquoy’s great-aunt. Nerval comes across her “autobiography” while searching for traces of her great-nephew in the Paris Archives. None of its contents can be verified by other “objective” sources. As Sieburth remarks in his “Translator’s Post-face,” with the Riancey Amendment the state “was now prepared to police the boundary separating the real from the imaginary.”

The Histoire de l’abbé de Bucquoy itself does not commence until well over halfway through Nerval’s text, once he finally gets his hands on the volume that supposedly serves (though in fact it doesn’t) as his principal source — which he first found at a bouquiniste’s stall in the markets of Frankfurt but did not buy, thinking he would be able to acquire it more cheaply back in France. This volume does indeed exist, and the present translation reproduces its original frontispiece, showing a sinister engraving of the Bastille mounted on its ancient escarpment (a section of which is still on show in the Bastille métro station) with wedge-shaped steps stacked at regular intervals along it, very much something out of Gérard’s nightmare in Aurélia. The first two-thirds of the text is a prodigiously prolonged exercise in throat-clearing and digression, which only the brilliantly gauged tone — that “Shandyan amiability” — of the first-person narrator, identified as Gérard de Nerval himself, sustains it all. It contains letters to the Directeur of Le National, bookplates and bibliographical details fastidiously reproduced, copies of legal writs and an eviction order served on the narrator himself, letters from his readers, repeated and elaborate apologies to his readers, followed by promises to embark on his real theme when the long-sought volume, obtained in the end at a private auction, comes into his possession. Meanwhile, he dances nimbly around the Riancey Amendment, taking ironic potshots at its absurdity, and even cutting audaciously close to the bone, comparing Germanic censorship favourably to the French system: “Given our national character, there is always the tendency to exert force simply because one possesses it, or to abuse power simply because one happens to exercise it. — What to expect of a situation that so seriously endangers the interests and even the security of non-political writers?”  In fact, the one most significant thing that Les Faux Saulniers reveals about Nerval is his political knowingness and foresight — not at all a quality usually associated with this otherwordly Romantic. Sieburth goes so far as to call him “one of the savviest political novelists of the Second Republic.”

Two episodes in particular, neither of them much connected either to the salt smugglers or to the abbé de Bucquoy, may serve as illustration. A recurrent and endearing feature of Nerval’s rackety life involves his scrapes with the law (he once wrote a piece called “Mes Prisons”). The events of this kind in The Salt Smugglers will be familiar to readers of La Bohème galante and of Angélique and Sylvie from Les Filles du feu, for the good reason that Nerval later recycled and cannibalized Les Faux Saulniers in three different places (the history of the abbé de Bucquoy is more commonly found in its truncated form in the volume on Enlightenment eccentrics and proto-republicans — the “prophètes rouges” — that were gathered under the title Les Illuminés). Moving from questions of censorship to the behavior of common gendarmes, the narrator recounts his arrest in Senlis by provincial policemen suspicious of his Parisian garb. The police commissaire demands his passport, which Gérard — or the narrator — does not have. But typically in this text, the tension is diffused when the narrator declares himself to be engaged in historical research. “Ah, Monsieur is a writer?  Well so am I!  I wrote poetry as a young man…. I composed a tragedy…. We were clearly not out of the woods; — the police officer was threatening to invite us home to dinner in order to read us his tragedy.”  A little further on, in another digression, a similar but less good-natured episode is recounted involving an archaeologist who is arrested from examining a church somewhere in the Oise, too attentively for the taste of the baffled local gendarme. The archaeologist is arrested and transported back to Paris. The tone is still light, but Nerval’s message is clear — and it is a continuous stout thread running through the text of The Salt Smugglers: we are not so far from having a police state instituted under our very noses. The analogy created throughout, and this is another brilliant and apparently artless tactic of the accident-prone narrator-historian, is with the despotic fin-de-règne of Louis XIV. This is a regime that can throw the abbé de Bucquoy into gaol for no other reason than that he might be a quite other gentleman from a similar-sounding name, the abbé de la Bourlie.

One well-worn device that Nerval uses to bate the censors is the old rhetorical trick of praeteritio, that is, of saying something by insisting that you are not saying it. Once into the story of the abbé proper, when the narrative picks up some welcome pace, Nerval still cannot resist elaborating a semi-fictional character, the shadowy Captain Roland, leader of a group of salt-smugglers, and then declaring “What a fine novel all this material could have made! The abbé de Bucquoy and the captain are quite compelling as characters. Let’s imagine what would happen if we slightly nudged the story along a different route…” etc. The point being, of course, that he thereby insists that he is not perpetrating a novel. When the abbé is finally incarcerated in the Bastille, in the section called “l’Enfer des Vivants,” rendered here as “Living Hell.” we enter on by far the most entertaining and sustained passage of the narrative, though here again, its major elements are not provided by the original Histoire of the abbé, but by Constantin de Renneville’s L’Inquisition française (1724). The early, honeymoon days of the abbé’s “stay” in the Bastille are highly entertaining, the place described sounding more like a gentleman’s club, or an Oxford college with an excellent cellar, than a state prison. “The abbé of Bucquoy, playing at piquet with Renneville under a trellised arbor, remarked: ‘How comfortable we are here; with evening soon approaching, who would even think of trying to escape?’” But as time goes on, the abbé himself, having suffered the horrors of being thrown into “the hole,” and being apprised of the corruption of the turnkeys, and of the scandalously arbitrary sentences imposed upon the “guests” of the Bastille, tries repeatedly to escape — and finally succeeds.  His latter days, spent writing mildly proto-republican tracts in Hanover, and in Holland, are briefly sketched by Nerval to round off his tale.

There is some excitement in the blurb, and Sieburth himself lends support to the “spin” that would recruit Nerval’s strange narrative as a kind of postmodern text avant la letter. He calls it “polyphonic,” and it is true that Gérard allows multiple voices to sound, including the rustic Sylvain’s, who recounts his fantastical drama concerning the death of Rousseau. But what is surely most remarkable is the sostenuto of the unified narrative voice, and its genial tone, which announces the “auto-fictions” of Sylvie and La Bohème gallante with their ramblings around the magical place names — Mortefontaine, Loisy, Senlis, Chaâlis, Ermenonville — of the Valois, or the Parisian noctambules recounted in Les Nuits d’octobre. At one point Nerval announces all his intertexts, beginning with Diderot and Sterne, and going back all the way to The Odyssey, that foundational epic digression. But there is nothing of the knowing or the programmatic nature of postmodernism in this utterly original work, this récit indécidable, this oeuvre transgénérique, it we care to use such modish approximations. What is certain is that it was invented week by week, on the hoof, by an ingenious and financially strapped jobbing newspaper columnist. To my mind, the more interesting trace of the postmodern lies in Nerval’s spellbound diachronic descriptions of topology, as in his visions of Senlis: “I greatly enjoyed this town where virtually every street, stable, or cellar offers a glimpse of Roman antiquity, the Middle Ages, or the Renaissance. I mentioned ‘the Roman towers in ivy clad!’” In this elegant, sprightly translation, Sieburth has added a valuable text to his own previously published selections from Nerval. The Salt Smugglers is also a delight, because in it we encounter a Nerval who seems relaxed, urbane, witty and even chipper, his mind clear, his intelligence unclouded. And for once, he is not obsessed or lovesick, except by proxy, and that is indeed a sweet relief.

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