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the Complete Review
the complete review - biographical

The Illuminated

Gérard de Nerval

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To purchase The Illuminated

Title: The Illuminated
Author: Gérard de Nerval
Genre: Biographical
Written: 1852 (Eng. 2022)
Length: 279 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Illuminated - US
The Illuminated - UK
The Illuminated - Canada
Les illuminés - Canada
Les illuminés - France
Los iluminados - España
from: Bookshop.org (US)
directly from: Wakefield Press
  • The Precursors of Socialism: Tales and Portraits
  • French title: Les illuminés
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Peter Valente

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Our Assessment:

B+ : nice collection of semi-fictional profiles

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Westminster and Foreign Q. Rev. . 1/10/1852 .

  From the Reviews:
  • ""Les illuminés", by Gérard de Nerval, is worth half a dozen novels. (...) Altogether, a more curious and readable book we cannot easily name." - The Westminster and Foreign Quarterly Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Illuminated collects seven 'tales and portraits' by Gérard de Nerval written between 1839 and 1851 (with four of them written in 1850 and 1851). Aside from the basically introductory 'My Uncle's Library', written in 1839 and only a little over a page long, they are fictionally embellished -- to varying degrees -- creative biographical portraits, with that on Restif de la Bretonne alone near novella-length at well over a hundred pages.
       'My Uncle's Library' introduces the project, Nerval expressing the desire: "to paint a portrait of certain eccentrics of philosophy", which is what he then proceeds to do in these pieces.
       This short chapter also closes very nicely:

     My poor uncle often said: "Always think twice before you speak."
     What should we do before writing ?
       The first, shorter portrait is of Raoul Spifame, 'The King of Bicêtre' (a mental hospital). Spifame is a real-life figure, who truly was apparently the spitting image of King Henry II. After people began referring to him as: "Sire and Your Majesty" he began to grow into the role -- ultimately convincing himself that he was Henry II, or rather seeing himself as: "both double and distinct". Locked up, he is harmless enough, to himself and others, and even finds a fellow madman who, as 'Royal Poet', helps him maintain his sense of (other) self. And the king keeps himself informed about this look-alike, and generously indulges his fantasies -- a nice odd little historical tale.
       The second piece presents the: 'History of the Abbé de Bucquoy', which finds de Bucquoy repeatedly incarcerated, and repeatedly -- if generally only briefly -- escaping from prison, presented, among other things, also to good comic effect. He is eventually kept at the Bastille, colorfully described -- remaining there also true to character. (Nerval wrote another, longer variation on this character and the 'salt smugglers' he dealt with, published in English as The Salt Smugglers (Archipelago Books).)
       'The Confidences of Nicolas' is a much more extensive biographical work, covering the life of the prolific Nicolas Restif de la Bretonne. Much of the focus here is on Nicolas, Restif de la Bretonne in his younger years, and his various infatuations; as someone warns him early on: "this passionate soul of yours pours into everything that surrounds you", and Nerval certainly presents him that way. (Meanwhile his later: "marriages are the sad aspects to his life: the dark flip side of this dazzling coin from which so many beauties shone with such a graceful profile".)
       Nerval finds that: "Never had a writer possessed the precious qualities of the imagination to a greater degree than Restif", but also notes how: "all the novels Restif wrote, with some modifications and names changed, are but different versions of the adventures of his own life" -- one reason Nerval also recounts these at greater length, rather than focusing more closely on the actual writing. (With little translated, and less that is readily accessible, Restif's work remains largely unknown to and out of the reach of English-speaking readers -- remarkable (and disappointing), given his enormous output.)
       Nerval nicely sums up Restif's graphomania (type-set-mania ?):
His writing was affected by the disorder of his imagination; it is irregular, wandering, illegible; ideas appear like a mob, pushing the pen, and preventing him from forming the letters. This is what made him the enemy of double letters and long syllables, which he replaced with abbreviations. Most often, as we know, he just composed straight from the printer's case.
       'Cazotte' tells of Jacques Cazottte, best-known as the author of The Devil in Love but who also, among other works, "continued The Thousand and One Nights", Nerval describing his efforts as:
not just a clever pastiche, but a serious and original work written by a man totally imbued with the spirit and belief system of the East.
       Here, for once, the most striking part is not in Nerval's invention but in a lengthy excerpt he quotes, from the memoirs of Jean-François de La Harpe, "the famous prophecy recorded" there, in which Cazotte is presented foretelling, in 1788, the fates of several prominent people at a gathering, come the Revolution. (As to his own, he foresees a crushing blow, though it came differently, if to the same effect, as he was sent to the guillotine in 1792.)
       As La Harpe also notes, Cazotte was: "unfortunately infatuated with the dreams of the Illuminati" -- though Nerval then finds that: "if most of his books bear witness to his interest in the science of the Cabalists, it must be said that he is generally not dogmatic about it". In any case, he's a quite interesting character -- and Nerval's account quite neatly turned, as, for example, he at one point notes:
     We have gotten ahead of ourselves: having reached barely two-thirds in this life of our writer, we have revealed a scene from his last days; following the example of the illuminated one himself, we have with one stroke united the future and the past.
       'Cazotte' is followed by 'Cagliostro', covering the life of one of: "the most famous Cabalists of the late eighteenth century" -- like Cazotte, one of the more obviously 'illuminated' (as in Illuminati, and the title of Nerval's collection) of the figures covered here, active in secret societies and lodges.
       Finally, in 'Quintus Aucler' Nerval profiles: "the last pagan", Gabriel André Aucler -- author of just a single book, The Thracian, from which Nerval quotes at length.
       In his Introduction, translator Peter Valente suggests that: "Collectively, these narratives show Nerval's attempt to map out an alternative history of France through examining the lives of six visionaries". If so, it is not a complete map, but the lives Nerval dwells on, and their different and often grand(iose) visions do make for an interesting perspective on French history, especially leading up to and around the Revolution. Helpfully, too, extensive end-notes provide useful information regarding the wide range of references and facts Nerval relies on and alludes to.
       The profiles in The Illuminated are also generally very engaging tales, with many parts very well told (though there are a few occasions when Nerval relies too much on long excerpts from others' work; the pieces work better in his own words). These are good stories, presenting often fascinating lives, -- both in historical context and on their own -- and the translation of this collection is long overdue in English.

- M.A.Orthofer, 21 February 2024

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The Illuminated: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Gérard de Nerval lived 1808 to 1855.

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© 2024 the complete review

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