Periodical Press and Formal Innovation in Aloysius Bertrand's Gaspard De la Nuit

By Gosetti, Valentina | Australian Journal of French Studies, May 1, 2017 | Go to article overview

Periodical Press and Formal Innovation in Aloysius Bertrand's Gaspard De la Nuit


Gosetti, Valentina, Australian Journal of French Studies


To what extent can it be argued that one of the greatest forces for change in nineteenth-century literature is not so much a school, or a theory, or even an individual, but the demands, techniques and limitations of publishers and editors of the periodical press? My contention in this article is that Louis Bertrand's assiduous collaboration with the local press in Dijon - his native city - played a crucial role in encouraging his formal experimentation.

Better known under the medieval-sounding pseudonym of Aloysius, Bertrand is the author of Gaspard de la Nuit: Fantaisies a la maniere de Rembrandt et de Callot, a collection of "fantaisies" - short compositions in prose - written, for the most part, in the 1830s, but published only posthumously in 1842. 1 Because of his rather unusual formal choice and peculiar abandonment of verse, Bertrand is often remembered as the canonical inventor of the poeme en prose in French literary history.2 Although seemingly flattering, this classification has had its downsides, often leading to a retrospective appreciation of Bertrand's work in light of the better-known authors that succeeded him in the history of this genre, such as Baudelaire and Mallarmé.3 As a result, Bertrand is often still viewed as a relevant author because of this "invention", but is ultimately considered a marginal and provincial petit romantique, who never really managed to emerge, nor to enjoy success in the capital.

Yet, if we shift our Paris-centric perspective, we discover that Bertrand was at the very heart of the literary and cultural activities of Dijon. Amongst these, he wrote extensively for the periodical Le Provincial, founded in May 1828, which, although published for only four months, unquestionably left a mark on Bertrand's poetic development, exposing the poet to various literary and cultural exchanges. As Nathalie Ravonneaux has suggested, "la nécessité de répondre a l'urgence des publications d'un journal a joué un rôle important dans la maturation des projets de Bertrand".4 I propose that it is especially Bertrand's journalistic experience - both as a contributor to Le Provincial and, briefly, as its editor in chief - which informed his typographical and spatial awareness in Gaspard de la Nuit. More specifically, as Valéry has noted with reference to Mallarmé, Bertrand too might have "étudié tres soigneusement (meme sur les affiches, sur les journaux) l'efficace des distributions de blancs et de noir".5

To prove my point, instead of approaching Gaspard de la Nuit as representative of the initial phase in the historical evolution of the prose poem, I shall try to focus on Bertrand's own unique synthesis of the literary material available at the time of his poetic experimentation. Indeed, within the heterogeneous "champ générique"6 of the French Romantic period, there are many lesser-known texts, which clearly exemplify a widespread desire to experiment with traditional genres.

Romantic experimentations with genre

The year 1823 saw the publication of the Tablettes romantiques, a collection of compositions by lesser and better known authors, including Chateaubriand, Marceline Desbordes-Valmore, Victor Hugo, and Lamartine, a volume which can be considered as the first of the periodical series Les Annales romantiques, published between 1825 and 1834. In the Bibliographie sommaire des keepsakes et autres recueils collectifs de la période romantique, it is stressed that this volume was of ground-breaking importance:

Il y avait quelque chose de changé dans notre poésie; les Tablettes Romantiques en mettaient la preuve incontestable sous les yeux du public. [...] Elles sont la premiere æ uvre collective qui arbore ouvertement le drapeau du romantisme.7

The Tablettes demonstrated that something had indeed changed in French poetry and this was shown, first of all, by the choice of the anti-classicist themes of the collected compositions - fascinations with the Middle Ages and with northern mythology, the revival of Christianity, to name but a few - but also by the remarkable variety of genres characterising these texts. …

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