Returning to Gerard de Nerval briefly. I was obsessed by him while I was writing my book, and I think he’s someone that – if you’re fascinated by the fantastic – is well worth checking out.
His work covers a very broad range, from vividly evocative reportage of nineteenth century Paris to (quite genuinely) unhinged visions and fantasies, drawn directly from his experiences of mental illness. He was a travel writer, combining the utterly unreliable with the completely truthful into a bonkers, frequently plagiarised, but always wildly entertaining whole. His short stories are fascinating – simultaneously very directly autobiographical and very self consciously fictionalised, as all our memories can be.
It’s that combination of the directly experienced, the (more or less deliberately) misperceived and the entirely fantasised that I love about him. He was very aware of the ways we use fictions to create acceptable versions of the self. He realised that, if you want to be a Realist, you have to engage with fantasy; because fantasy is a part of every one of our worldviews.
And quite apart from that, he’s a great person to spend time with. What’s not to like about someone who gets all the way to Cairo and then bitches about how the real thing isn’t up to much compared to the version you get at the Paris Opera? Or who, visiting Switzerland, can’t be bothered to go and check out Mont Blanc so admires its shape in a passing mountain-like cloud instead? And then wanders off into reveries combining Masonic rituals with the Great Pyramid at Giza, topped and tailed with evocations of Egyptian street life so vividly observed that you’ll need a passport just to read them…