The «Fausts» of Gérard de Nerval

Intertextuality, Translation, Adaptation

by Stephen Butler (Author)
©2018 Monographs VIII, 278 Pages
Series: European Connections, Volume 40


Gérard de Nerval’s French translations of Goethe’s Faust are key works in Franco–German cultural relations, but they have often been mythologized. This book presents a nuanced view of works that continue to be the principal conveyors in France of arguably the foremost work of German literature. Less well known than his translations, Nerval’s own Faustian dramas – the Faust fragment (c. 1827), Nicolas Flamel (1831), and L’Imagier de Harlem (1851) – have received little scholarly attention and yet reveal much about his, and indeed other, French interpretations of Faust. The author examines Nerval’s convergences with and divergences from Goethe diachronically in order to identify and compare what may be termed Goethean and Nervalian Faustian paradigms, thereby unravelling hitherto unknown facets of Nervalian aesthetics. Alongside Goethe and Nerval, the book investigates intercultural relations that have a bearing on Nerval’s Faustian writing in France during this dynamic period. It opens up new avenues for thinking about intertextuality, literary translation and adaptation through two major figures of European writing.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements and Dedication
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: Contextualisation: The Gradual Assimilation of Faust and Other Foreign Literature in France
  • Nerval and Faust
  • Nerval, Germany and German Culture
  • Nerval, Women and Love
  • Nerval, Religion and Spirituality
  • Nerval and Printing
  • Faust in France
  • The Literary Arts
  • The Visual Arts
  • The Musical Arts
  • The Wider Literary Context
  • Shakespeare
  • Dante
  • Sir Walter Scott
  • Byron
  • Chapter 2: Nerval’s, Stapfer’s, and Sainte-Aulaire’s French Translations of Goethe’s Faust
  • Introduction
  • Contextualisation of the French Translations of Goethe’s Faust
  • The Issue of Domestication and Foreignisation in Translation
  • Contemporary Cultural Tensions: Lingering Neoclassical Aesthetic Values and Incipient Romantic Values
  • Censorship and Self-Censorship in the French Translations of Goethe’s Faust
  • Communication Barriers: The Difficulties of Translating Goethe’s Faust into French
  • Linguistic Barriers to Translation: Inherent Difficulties in the Translation of German into French
  • The Transference of Metaphor and Connotation: Evidence of Nerval’s Poetic Ability in His Faust Translations
  • Pervasive Divergences from the Goethean Faustian Paradigm in the French Translations of Faust
  • The Reduction of Goethean Ideology in the French Translations of Faust
  • Theatricality and Commercial Considerations in the French Translations of Faust
  • The Closeness of Nerval’s Faust Translations to Stapfer’s Earlier Translation
  • The French Translators’ Treatment of Religious and Spiritual Aspects of Goethe’s Faust
  • A More Traditional Devil in France
  • French Constructions of Margarete
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 3: Nerval’s Original Faustian Dramas: The Faust Fragment, Nicolas Flamel, and L’Imagier de Harlem
  • Nerval’s Faust Fragment and Nicolas Flamel
  • Paul Lacroix, ‘le bibliophile Jacob’, and his Soirées de Walter Scott à Paris (1829)
  • Friedrich Maximilian Klinger and his Fausts Leben, Thaten und Höllenfahrt (1791)
  • René-Charles Guilbert de Pixerécourt and Melodrama
  • An Investigation into the Originality of Nerval’s Faust Fragment and Nicolas Flamel
  • The Character of the Protagonists in the Faust Fragment and Nicolas Flamel
  • The Idealisation of the Principal Female Characters in Nerval’s Faustian Fragments
  • Nerval’s Portrayal of the Devil in the Faust Fragment and Nicolas Flamel
  • ‘Auerbachs Keller’ in Paris?
  • Nerval’s Faustian Fragments in the Light of Synchronic Romantic Cultural Developments in France
  • Nerval’s Divided Aesthetic Loyalties at the Beginning of his Literary Career
  • Nerval’s Final Faustian Drama: L’Imagier de Harlem (1851)
  • Contextualisation
  • A Summary of L’Imagier de Harlem
  • Printing and ‘Enlightenment’ Values
  • The Protagonists
  • Nerval’s Idealisation of the Female Characters
  • Nerval’s Portrayal of the Devil in L’Imagier de Harlem
  • Echoes of Goethe’s Fausts
  • L’Imagier de Harlem: Almost a Successful French Faustian Drama
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Primary Sources
  • Secondary Sources
  • Index
  • Series index

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Acknowledgements and Dedication

My thanks go to my supervisors, Dr Peter Cooke and Dr Judith Purver, at the University of Manchester for their always helpful and insightful engagement with my work. I also thank Dr David Bell who acted as supervisor in the early stages of my thesis; his contribution to the project has also been invaluable.

I dedicate this book to my parents and take this opportunity to thank them for their support.

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Any meeting of Goethean and Nervalian poetics would be intriguing, but becomes even more compelling when the focus is an exemplary text of world literature written and translated at a time of seismic cultural shift.1 But convergence with Goethe is only one aspect of Gérard de Nerval’s French translations of Faust; his divergences reveal much about Nerval the man and writer and the age and cultures that produced them. The socio-political and cultural contexts of the young Nerval’s beginning his literary career included vivid memories of the Revolution; the fall of Napoleon and subsequent improved international relations; the conservatism of Restoration France; a growing awareness of the staleness of traditional French aesthetics; the rise of popular theatre, entertainment and melodrama; and an increasing awareness of the theatre as business.2 Nerval was talented and ambitious but had much to prove to a father disapproving of his son’s desire to become a professional writer. He was also astute, focussing on a foreign work that had already met with enormous popular success at certain théâtres des boulevards and inspired French artists across different media. ← 1 | 2 →

Coexistent with his ambition was a profound, if in some respects ambivalent, passion for German culture, an interest in esoteric literature, and fascination, identification even, with the figure of Faust. These unique intersections, combined of course with great poetic ability, as well as a willingness to challenge, if perhaps modestly, French prosodic and syntactic conventions in the verse sections of his Faust translations, contributed to what may be termed the Nervalian Faustian paradigm; throughout this work I use the term paradigm in the sense of ‘an exemplary pattern’.3 Its discovery is the overarching aim of the study, the three areas of investigation being: the increasing influence of foreign literature in France; Nerval’s Faust translations with reference to the two other principal Faust translations of the period by Albert Stapfer and Louis Clair Beaupoil, comte de Sainte-Aulaire; and Nerval’s more original Faustian writing. His Faustian work may be conceptualised as a trajectory: from his immersion in the dynamic intercultural developments of his youth and his early active engagement with this innovative turn of events in translating Goethe’s Faust, to greater independence and appropriation of Faust. This path is reflected in the structure of this book: Chapter 1 addresses the wider cultural context that stimulated, directly or indirectly, the young writer’s passion for Goethe’s Faust; in Chapter 2 a close reading of Stapfer’s, Sainte-Aulaire’s, and Nerval’s translations of Goethe’s poetic play compares and contrasts their approaches to this seminally important foreign work; Chapter 3 deliberates on the question of Nerval’s achieving comparative independence from the Goethean Faustian paradigm, or Goethe’s dedication to and espousal of the complementariness of opposites as a galvanising force of progress, in his at least partly original Faustian dramas. Though Faust I is the focus of the work, Faust II also plays a part, particularly in Chapter 3 in relation to Nerval’s L’Imagier de Harlem (1851).

The opening chapter addresses two interrelated aspects: Faust in France and the influence of foreign literary aesthetics prior to Nerval’s engagement with Goethe’s Faust. French Romanticism was a comparatively conservative cultural movement, despite some of its claims, that was not ← 2 | 3 → quite free of neoclassical values. Certain key foreign writers were essential to the aesthetic shift in France and more indirectly to increased French interest in Faust. The most important of these was Shakespeare, whose name was almost synonymous with Romanticism during this period, but the influence of Dante, Scott, and Byron on new aesthetic developments was also considerable. Each of these foreign writers not only galvanised incipient French Romanticism, but also contributed, either directly or indirectly, to the passion for Faust and the Faustian that was at its height in France from the 1820 to the 1840s. The French Romantic enlistment of certain canonical foreign authors in the struggle against normative neoclassical values was highly selective; timidity characterises their approach, for, although Goethe, Shakespeare, Dante, Byron, and Scott served as models, many French Romantic writers’ engagement with them was filtered by their country’s neoclassical heritage. Early nineteenth-century French writers, translators, critics, artists and composers reacted in a similar way to canonical foreign texts; the more ‘Romantic’ works presented very similar challenges to a country that had not yet entirely rejected neoclassical aesthetic values. But Goethe, Shakespeare, Dante, Byron, and Scott certainly also offered new and exciting possibilities to French writers. It is in fact partly the distinctive amalgam of admiration for and caution towards foreign aesthetics that makes early to mid-nineteenth century French literature such a rich and multi-layered source of intertextual analysis.

Intertextuality is a flexible critical term that may be viewed from a structuralist or a post-structuralist perspective. My approach here is perhaps more structuralist than post-structuralist in that it assumes some degree of stability in, and communicability of, the Goethean Faustian paradigm. Owing to the flexibility of the term, some discussion of the development of the critical concept of intertextuality, and my use of it, is necessary. Though intertextuality may be considered to have originated in the early years of the twentieth century in Ferdinand de Saussure’s seminal linguistic theories, a more specific form of intertextuality was developed by literary theorist Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin who was more concerned with the social aspect of language use than Saussure. The term intertextuality originates in France in Julia Kristeva’s essays, in particular ‘The Bounded Text’ and ← 3 | 4 → ‘Word, Dialogue, Novel’. Written in the 1960s these texts engaged with the work of Bakhtin, particularly his concept of ‘dialogism’, and began to demonstrate its intertextual nature.4 Kristeva’s engagement with Bakhtin’s work occurred during a dynamic period in the development of cultural theory, a period during which, in broad terms, post-structuralism was beginning to supersede structuralism.

Crucial to this shift was Roland Barthes’ questioning in his essay ‘La Mort de l’auteur’ the role of the author in the creation of meaning in literary texts: ‘L’explication de l’œuvre est toujours cherchée du côté de celui qui l’a produite, comme si […] c’était toujours finalement la voix d’une seule et même personne, l’auteur, qui livrait sa “confidence”’.5 Though Nerval’s psychodrama is highly pertinent to his engagement with Faust, his translations and adaptations are multi-layered interpretations that show both the traditional concept of literary influence, as well as being acted upon by the cultural, social, and political developments discussed in Chapter 1. Pertinently, Barthes continues:

Nous savons maintenant qu’un texte n’est pas fait d’une ligne de mots, dégageant un sens unique, en quelque sorte théologique (qui serait le ‘message’ de l’Auteur-Dieu), mais un espace à dimensions multiples, où se marient et se contestent des écritures variées, dont aucune n’est originelle: le texte est un tissu de citations, issues des mille foyers de la culture.6

As Allen notes, ‘Barthes’s poststructuralist texts are examples of a radical form of intertextuality rather than intertextual theory as it might exist in critical practice.’7 Certain later critics, however, demonstrate a more practical approach to intertextuality: ‘Gérard Genette and Michael Riffaterre both employ intertextual theory to argue for critical certainty or at least for the possibility of saying definite, stable and incontrovertible things about ← 4 | 5 → literary texts.’8 Gerald Prince contrasts Barthes’ and Kristeva’s interpretation of intertextuality with Genette’s:

In its most restricted acceptation (Genette), the term [intertextuality] designates the relation(s) between one text and other ones which are demonstrably present in it. In its most general and radical acceptation (Barthes, Kristeva), the term designates the relations between any text (in the broad sense of signifying matter) and the sum of knowledge, the potentially infinite network of codes and signifying practices that allows it to have meaning.9

In part because he wishes to distance himself from the post-structuralist associations of intertextuality, Genette renames the concept, or at least names his very similar concept, ‘transtextuality’. It has five subtypes: intertextuality, which is used quite differently by Genette and refers to a direct transference of language from one text to another, as in ‘quotation, plagiarism, and allusion’. Paratextuality is concerned with aspects outside the main body of the text, such as chapter headings, titles, and notes. Metatextuality encompasses the critical commentary on other texts. Hypertextuality refers to self-conscious intertextuality, such as parody and pastiche. Architextuality categorises texts according to genre.10 Genette’s is a pragmatic approach to close reading; in a sense his desire to ‘place any specific example of textuality within a viable system’ contrasts with the textual elusiveness proposed by Barthes.11 In ‘Structuralisme et critique littéraire’ Genette states, ‘L’ambition du structuralisme ne se borne pas à compter des pieds ou à relever des répétitions de phonèmes: il doit aussi s’attaquer aux phénomènes sémantiques qui […] constituent l’essentiel du langage poétique.’12 For Genette, ‘textual transcendence, or transtextuality, […] includes issues of imitation, transformation, the classification of types of discourse, along with the thematic, modal, generic and formal categories ← 5 | 6 → and categorisations of traditional poetics. This change in perspective allows Genette to conclude his examination of the history and current state of poetics by moving to what in Palimpsests, he will call an open structuralism’:13

Il y a, dans ce domaine, deux structuralismes, l’un de la clôture du texte et du déchiffrement des structures internes […]. L’autre structuralisme, c’est par exemple celui des Mythologiques, où l’on voit comment un texte (un mythe) peut – si l’on veut bien l’aider – ‘en lire un autre’.14

Genette’s pragmatic approach to intertextuality, as expressed in his ‘Introduction à l’architexte’, Palimpsests, and Seuils, is closest to this book’s use of intertextuality as a critical tool.15

Several persistent divergences from the Goethean Faustian paradigm emerge from a close reading of Nerval’s Faust translations and adaptations; the problems of translating a German myth into French and the different dramaturgical, aesthetic, and prosodic traditions and conventions in the two countries are addressed throughout this book. Faust is an adaptable and persistent myth that reflects the times of its various literary incarnations; it is dynamic:16

Literature often draws on myth as a direct source for events and characters, in which case the relationship is one of transcriptive retelling. […] Thus the original legend of Faust dealt with a knave, but in Goethe’s hands he becomes a figure representative of man’s aspirations.17

As Laurence Coupe states, ‘literary works may be regarded as “mythopoeic”, tending to create or recreate certain narratives which human beings take to be crucial to their understanding of their world.’18 The ways in ← 6 | 7 → which Stapfer’s, Sainte-Aulaire’s, and Nerval’s French translations may be considered ‘transcriptive retellings’ of Goethe’s Faust are considered throughout this study, for as Coupe continues, ‘both making myths and reading myths imply a drive towards completion, an insistence on seeing through to as near their full development as is practicable.’19 This sense of ‘becoming’ is also very Goethean. This book traces the mythopoeic transformations of Goethe’s Faust across cultural and temporal boundaries. The ways in which the French translators develop the German text are, then, both mythopoeic and intertextual; they construct, whether intentionally or not, a French version of the German myth of Faust. As Osman Durrani discerns, with reference to the myth of Faust, ‘the observation of ever-changing transplantations of the theme into successive cultures is part of the enduring fascination of the material.’20

In general, Stapfer, Sainte-Aulaire, and Nerval failed adequately to communicate through their translations the wider allegorical significance of Faust; Goethe’s idiosyncratic interpretation of the myth was perhaps too alien. Their simplified portrayals of the interactions between ‘protagonist’ and ‘antagonist’ are particularly notable. The perennial tensions between high and low culture and popular and intellectual theatre are of some consequence in this, as is the common Romantic idealisation of women, for it leads to the construction of a Marguerite that differs significantly from Goethe’s Margarete/Gretchen. Psychodrama also contributes greatly to what one might describe as the Nervalian Faustian aesthetic; in certain respects Nerval’s Faust translations should not be considered as separate from his other work: typically personalised themes and motifs are ubiquitous across his œuvre. However, his divergences from Goethe in his translations of Faust become even more pronounced in his Faust fragment ([1827] (?)) and incomplete Nicolas Flamel (1831): their protagonists exhibit a degree of mundanity absent from Goethe’s principal character; their impotent suffering is emphasised; a greater sense of despair is pervasive; and, somewhat contradictorily, and in contrast to the German Faust, they are depicted in loving family relationships. A more respectful, sometimes solemn, register is often given for ← 7 | 8 → Goethe’s darkly humorous language. This is especially evident in the three French translators’ interpetations of bawdy scenes but is also discernible in their Christianising of the source text’s pagan and pantheistic elements. Yet, as will be seen in Chapter 3, Nerval demonstrates a greater insight into typically Goethean dialecticism in his later work, L’Imagier de Harlem.

Despite their divergences from Goethe’s play, Nerval’s Faust translations are often celebrated as canonical works of world literature and crucial texts in the development of Romanticism in France. Goethe himself praised Nerval’s translation of 1828 highly, according to Eckermann’s record of his conversation with Goethe on 3 January 1830: ‘Die erwähnte Übersetzung von Gërard, obgleich größtentheils in Prosa, lobte Goethe als sehr gelungen. “Im Deutschen,” sagte er, “mag ich den Faust nicht mehr lesen, aber in dieser französischen Übersetzung wirkt alles wieder durchaus frisch, neu und geistreich”’ (MA, XIX, 347). And yet they remain under-researched, in spite of an increased interest in Nerval’s original writing.21 His Faustian adaptations are even more neglected though they reveal much about his, and indeed other French interpretations of Faust, as well as the cultural and aesthetic struggles that took place in France from the 1820s to the 1840s; a comparative study of Nerval’s Faust translations and adaptations has never before been undertaken. Similarly, the use of the Goethean Faustian paradigm as a theoretical tool to investigate Nerval’s Faust translations and adaptations is innovative and proves highly rewarding. The influence of his translations in Franco-German literary relations is not limited to the nineteenth century: their longevity testifies to the importance of Nerval’s efforts as an agent of world literature, and as a crucial figure in the cross-cultural communication of Goethe’s seminal text. Perhaps most striking in this respect is the fact that Nerval’s translations of Faust are still the versions most used in French schools and universities;22 they continue to shape French perceptions of arguably the foremost work of German literature.

1 In conversation with Eckermann on 31 January 1827 Goethe made the following momentous comment on the advent of world literature: ‘Ich sehe immer mehr […] dass die Poesie ein Gemeingut der Menschheit ist, und dass sie überall und zu allen Zeiten in Hunderten und aber Hunderten von Menschen hervortritt. […] Ich sehe mich daher gerne bei fremden Nationen um und rate jedem, es auch seinerseits zu tun. National-Literatur will jetzt nicht viel sagen, die Epoche der Weltliteratur ist an der Zeit und jeder musst jetzt dazu wirken, diese Epoche zu beschleunigen.’ See Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Sämtliche Werke nach Epochen seines Schaffens (Münchner Ausgabe), ed. by Karl Richter et al., 33 vols (Munich: BTB Verlag, 2006), XIX, pp. 206–7. Further references to this edition are given after quotations in the text.

2 Eva Bouillo, Le Salon de 1827: classique ou romantique? (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2009), pp. 33–4.

3 Laurence Coupe, Myth, The New Critical Idiom (London: Routledge, 1997), p. 1.

4 Graham Allen, Intertextuality, The New Critical Idiom (Abingdon: Routledge, 2000), pp. 14–15, 21.

5 Roland Barthes, Le Bruissement de la langue: Essais critiques IV (Paris: Seuil, 1984), p. 64.

6 Ibid., p. 67.

7 Allen, p. 94.

8 Ibid., p. 4.


VIII, 278
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2018 (November)
Franco-German literary relations Faust in France Goethe’s influence on Nerval
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2018., 286 pp.

Biographical notes

Stephen Butler (Author)

Stephen Butler holds a PhD in German Studies from the University of Manchester. He specializes in comparative literature, in particular Franco–German cultural relations in the nineteenth century, and also has an interest in the translation of English literature into French. He is currently working on a study of Amédée Pichot’s French translation of Byron’s Manfred.


Title: The «Fausts» of Gérard de Nerval