Consider Gérard de Nerval’s Pet Lobster

I’ve been reading Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel The Map and the Territory on my Kindle Fire, which is handy because I can easily hover my index over an unknown reference and figure out what Mich-dawg is getting at. Anyway, near the beginning of Part III, H-bomb drops a reference to French Romantic poet and essayist Gérard de Nerval, whom I will cop to not recognizing. But the detail seemed significant, so let my index finger hover I did, but, no dice, Nervs wasn’t in the preloaded dictionary—so I went to the next option: Le Wikipedia. And here’s a snapshot of what I saw:

The man’s life is divided into seven neat sections there on Wikipedia, and what’s right square in the middle? Pet lobster. Holmes had a pet lobster:

I’m guessing if you know about Nerval you probably know about his lobsterkins, but I didn’t. Harper’s ran a piece about Nerval and his lobster back ’08. From the piece:

 With all due respect for cats, however, let us consider the case for the humble lobster. The poet Gérard de Nerval had a penchant for lobsters, or at least for one lobster. Nerval was seen one day taking his pet lobster for a walk in the gardens of the Palais-Royal in Paris. He conducted his crustacean about at the end of a long blue ribbon. As word of this feat of eccentricity spread, Nerval was challenged to explain himself. “And what,” he said, “could be quite so ridiculous as making a dog, a cat, a gazelle, a lion or any other beast follow one about. I have affection for lobsters. They are tranquil, serious and they know the secrets of the sea.” (The episode is captured by Guillaume Apollinaire in a collection of anecdotes from 1911). Was there any basis to this story? A generation of Nerval scholars attempted to debunk it, but then a letter to his childhood friend Laura LeBeau was discovered. Nerval had just returned from some days at the seaside at the Atlantic coastal town of La Rochelle: “and so, dear Laura, upon my regaining the town square I was accosted by the mayor who demanded that I should make a full and frank apology for stealing from the lobster nets. I will not bore you with the rest of the story, but suffice to say that reparations were made, and little Thibault is now here with me in the city…” Nerval, it seems, had liberated Thibault the lobster from certain death in a pot of boiling water and brought him home to Paris. Thus we know that it was Thibault, and not just “some lobster,” who went for that celebrated promenade in the gardens of the Palais-Royal.

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One comment

  1. P.T.Smith · March 12, 2012

    I’m pretty sure Baudelaire wrote about him somewhere. Or Benjamin. Someone, somewhere, writing about the flanuer, wrote about him.

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