The fun of de Nerval’s The Salt Smugglers

By David Varno

"This is not a novel," wrote Diderot repeatedly, in his Quixotic, polyphonic Jacques the Fatalist and his Master. You could say he was ripping off Sterne, who ripped off Rabelais in the grand tradition of Swift; you could even go as far back as Homer, as Gérard de Nerval suggests in the ingenious Les Faux Saulniers, first published serially over six months in the newspaper Le National, in 1850. The Salt Smugglers, translated from the French by Richard Sieburth, appeared in a newspaper facsimile edition from Archipelago Books this past August. Sieburth will be reading from the book this Thursday at Cornelia Street Café in New York.

De Nerval was forced to work in the guise of nonfiction by the Second Republic’s new censorship laws, which outlawed serial novels. He wanted to write a straightforward adventure, based on the life of a minor aristocrat known for escaping from the Bastille, in the vein of his friend Alexander Dumas, with whom he’d previously collaborated (and who had made a tidy sum with the serialized Count of Monte Cristo). Determined, de Nerval promised his editor at Le National a historical narrative of the abbé Bucquoi, and masked the picaresque tale with the early metafictional forms of Diderot and Sterne (now known popularly as pre-postmodernism) in a way that left room for sharp political commentary.

The two-column format may be difficult to get used to, but it can be appreciated with the context provided by the translator. According to Sieburth's notes on the typography, de Nerval’s digressional dashes "earned him the sobriquet of 'le Sterne français.'" But his digressions are closer to the surface than Sterne’s, and when he adds quotes and points of view from other characters, or longer citations, they look like reportage. De Nerval was getting paid by the line; he learned from Dumas the art of “typographical padding,” which, as Sieburth argues,

 

created a new kind of visual prosody: given the precipitous speed at which these serials hurtled along, the half-distracted newspaper reader needed only to scroll down the column of print, rapidly scanning the events that unrolled upon the filmstrip before the eyes.

 

It is rather fun to read at a varying pace, allowing one’s attention to focus more on some episodes than others, growing hungrier for the next episode on the abbé as de Nerval narrates his quest to find a book he once saw in a Frankfurt stall that would give him the whole story, meanwhile switching to autobiographical anecdotes of struggles with the censorship bureau and excursions with a childhood friend named Sylvain, with whom he shares a play that imagines the death of Rousseau, auto-executed with both hemlock and a pistol.

Informed by Diderot’s textual dialogue between his narrator and “Reader,” de Nerval gave the entire work verisimilitude by framing the 27 installments of cobbled, speculative narrative as correspondence with his editor. And as "the author of the Odyssey [led] his hero around the Mediterranean for ten years before finally bringing him home to the fabled Ithaca," de Nerval the journalist, in three months of newspaper columns, weaves his way back to the fantastic escape of the historical abbé Bucquoi from the Bastille in 1709.

 

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For a lively summary with more of the book's features, and notes on Seiburth's translation, see Elizabeth Bachner's review in Bookslut. Also watch for a review in the winter issue of The Quarterly Conversation.


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