“For me Gérard de Nerval, who killed himself in Paris at the age of 46, is the 19th century’s French literary equivalent of Vincent van Gogh and, on his good days, shared the brightness of the latter’s vision. I once had a go at translating what most people would think of as his prose masterpiece, “Sylvie”, because I knew then and had visited not Ermenonville, mentioned in this story and famous for its French landscape garden and having the tomb of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, but Buc-en-Yvelines  near Versailles and equally French in the same charming way that the village wedding depicted by Greuze in “L’Accordée du Village” is, a work also referenced in “Sylvie”. I don’t know if Gérard de Nerval liked sunflowers but “Sylvie” and this story too are bathed in the equally radiant light of the for this author special Île de France.” – Michael Wooff

LA REINE DES POISSONS

GÉRARD DE NERVAL 

Il y avait dans la province du Valois, au milieu des bois de Villers-Cotterêts, un petit garçon et une petite fille qui se rencontraient de temps en temps sur les bords des petites rivières du pays, l’un obligé par un bûcheron nommé Tord-Chêne, qui était son oncle, à aller ramasser du bois mort, l’autre envoyée par ses parents pour saisir de petites anguilles que la baisse des eaux permet d’entrevoir dans la vase en certaines saisons. Elle devait encore, faute de mieux, atteindre entre les pierres les écrevisses, très nombreuses dans quelques endroits.

Mais la pauvre petite fille, toujours courbée et les pieds dans l’eau, était si compatissante pour les souffrances des animaux, que, le plus souvent, voyant les contorsions des poissons qu’elle tirait de la rivière, elle les y remettait et ne rapportait guère que les écrevisses, qui souvent lui pinçaient les doigts jusqu’au sang, et pour lesquelles elle devenait alors moins indulgente.

Le petit garçon, de son côté, faisant des fagots de bois mort et des bottes de bruyère, se voyait souvent exposé aux reproches de Tord-Chêne, soit parce qu’il n’en avait pas assez rapporté, soit parce qu’il était trop occupé à causer avec la petite pêcheuse.

Il y avait un certain jour dans la semaine où les deux enfants ne se rencontraient jamais… Quel était ce jour? Le même sans doute où la fée Mélusine se changeait en poisson, et où les princesses de l’Edda se transformaient en cygnes.

Le lendemain d’un de ces jours-là, le petit bûcheron dit à la pêcheuse: -Te souviens-tu qu’hier je t’ai vue passer là-bas dans les eaux de Challepont avec tous les poissons qui te faisaient cortège… jusqu’aux carpes et aux brochets; et tu étais toi-même un beau poisson rouge avec les côtés tou ruisselants d’écailles d’or.

– Je m’en souviens bien, dit la petite fille, puisque je t’ai vu, toi qui étais sur le bord de l’eau, et que tu ressemblais à un beau chêne vert, dont les branches d’en haut étaient d’or… et que tous les arbres du bois se courbaient jusqu’à terre en te saluant.

– C’est vrai, dit le petit garçon, j’ai rêvé cela.

– Et moi aussi j’ai rêvé ce que tu m’as dit: mais comment nous sommes-nous rencontrés deux dans le rêve?

En ce moment, l’entretien fut interrompu par l’apparition de Tord-Chêne, qui frappa le petit avec un gros gourdin, en lui reprochant de n’avoir pas seulement lié encore un fagot.

– Et puis, ajouta-t-il, est-ce que je ne t’ai pas recommandé de tordre les branches qui cèdent facilement, et de les ajouter à tes fagots?

– C’est que, dit le petit, le garde me mettrait en prison s’il trouvait dans mes fagots du bois vivant… Et puis, quand j’ai voulu le faire, comme vous me l’aviez dit, j’entendais l’arbre qui se plaignait.

– C’est comme moi, dit la petite fille, quand j’emporte des poissons dans mon panier, je les entends qui chantent si tristement, que je les rejette dans l’eau… Alors on me bat chez nous!

– Tais-toi, petite masque! dit Tord-Chêne, qui paraissait animé de boisson, tu déranges mon neveu de son travail. Je te connais bien, avec tes dents pointues couleur de perle… Tu es la Reine des poissons… Mais je saurais bien te prendre à un certain jour de la semaine, et tu périras dans l’osier… dans l’osier!

Les menaces que Tord-Chêne avait faites dans son ivresse ne tardèrent pas à s’accomplir. La petite fille se trouva prise sous la forme de poisson rouge que le destin l’obligeait à prendre à de certains jours. Heureusement, lorsque Tord-Chêne voulut, en se faisant aider de son neveu, tirer de l’eau la nasse d’osier, ce dernier reconnut le poisson rouge à écailles d’or qu’il avait vu en rêve, comme étant la transformation accidentelle de la petite pêcheuse.

Il osa la défendre contre Tord-Chêne et le frappa même de sa galoche. Ce dernier, furieux, le prit par les cheveux, cherchant à le renverser, mais il s’étonna de trouver une grande résistance: c’est que l’enfant tenait ses pieds à la terre avec tant de force, que son oncle ne pouvait venir à bout de le renverser ou de l’emporter, et le faisait en vain virer dans tous les sens.

Au moment où la résistance de l’enfant allait se trouver vaincue, les arbres de la forêt frémirent d’un bruit sourd, les branches agitées laissèrent siffler les vents, et la tempête fit reculer Tord-Chêne, qui se retira dans sa cabane de bûcheron.

Il en sortit bientôt menaçant, terrible et transfiguré comme un fils d’Odin: dans sa main brillait cette hache scandinave qui menace les arbres, pareille au marteau de Thor brisant les rochers.

Le jeune roi des forêts, victime de Tord-Chêne – son oncle, usurpateur -, savait déjà quel était son rang qu’on voulait lui cacher. Les arbres le protégeaient, mais seulement par leur masse et leur résistance passive…

En vain les broussailles et les surgeons s’entrelaçaient de tous côtés pour arrêter les pas de Tord-Chêne, celui-ci a appelé ses bûcherons et se trace un chemin à travers ces obstacles. Déjà plusieurs arbres, autrefois sacrés du temps des vieux druides, sont tombés sous les haches et les cognées.

Heureusement, la Reine des poissons n’avait pas perdu de temps. Elle était allée se jeter aux pieds de la Marne, de l’Oise et de l’Aisne, les trois grande rivières voisines, leur représentant que si l’on n’arrêtait pas les projets de Tord-Chêne et de ses compagnons, les forêts trop éclaircies n’arrêteraient plus les vapeurs qui produisent les pluies et qui fournissent l’eau aux ruisseaux, aux rivières et aux étangs; que les sources elles-mêmes seraient taries et ne feraient plus jaillir l’eau nécessaire à alimenter les rivières; sans compter que tous les poissons se verraient détruits en peu de temps, ainsi que les bêtes sauvages et les oiseaux.

Les trois grandes rivières prirent là-dessus de tels arrangements que le sol où Tord-Chêne, avec ses terribles bûcherons, travaillait à la destruction des arbres, sans toutefois avoir pu atteindre encore le Prince des forêts, fût entièrement noyé par une immense inondation, qui ne se retira qu’après la destruction entière des agresseurs.

Ce fut alors que le Roi des forêts et la Reine des poissons purent de nouveau reprendre leurs innocents entretiens.

Ce n’étaient plus un petit bûcheron et une petite pêcheuse, mais un Sylphe et une Ondine, lesquels, plus tard, furent unis légitimement.

THE QUEEN OF THE FISH

GÉRARD DE NERVAL

There was once, in the province of the Valois, amid the woods of Villers-Cotterêts, a little boy and a little girl who met, from time to time, on the banks of the region’s small rivers. The boy was obliged by a woodcutter by the name of Oaktwist, who was his uncle, to gather dead wood. The girl was sent out by her parents to seize small eels that the lowering of the water level makes it possible to glimpse in mud at certain times of year. She had too, in the absence of anything better, to catch among the rocks crayfish, which were very numerous in some places.

But the poor little girl, always bent double with her feet in the water, had such compassion for the sufferings of animals that, more often than not, seeing how the fish she took out of the river contorted themselves, she put them back and hardly brought home anything other than crayfish, which often pinched her fingers till they bled and towards which she then came to feel less indulgent.

As for the little boy, who made bundles of sticks from dead wood and bales out of heather, he was often the butt of Oaktwist’s reproaches, either because he had not brought enough back with him, or because he was too busy chatting to the little fisher girl.

There was a certain day in the week on which the children never met… What day was that? The same day no doubt that the sprite Melusine changed into a fish and the Edda princesses were transformed into swans.

The day after one of those days, the little woodcutter said to the fisher girl: “Do you remember that yesterday I saw you pass by over there in the lake of Challepont with all the fish attendant on you… even carp and pike. You were yourself a beautiful goldfish. All your sides were dripping golden scales.”

“I remember it well,” said the little girl, “since I saw you by the side of the water and you looked like a fine green oak tree, whose topmost branches were of gold… and all the trees in the wood bowed down low to the ground to greet you.”

“It’s true,” said the little boy. “It was in my dream.”

“And I also dreamed what you told me. But how was it that both of us met in the dream?”

Just then their conversation was interrupted by the appearance of Oaktwist, who hit the little boy with a big club, telling him off for not having bound yet so much as one bundle of firewood.

“And didn’t I,” he added, “tell you to twist off the branches that give easily and add them to your bundles?”

“The forest warden would send me to prison,” said the boy, “if he found living wood in my bundles… Besides, when I tried to do it like you told me to, I heard the tree groan.”

“It’s the same with me,” said the girl, “for when I carry fish off in my basket, I can hear them singing such sad songs that I throw them back into the water… Then I get beaten at home!”

“Shut up, little witch!” said Oaktwist, who seemed to be heated by drink. “You’re stopping my nephew from working. I know who you are, with your pointed pearly teeth… You’re the queen of the fish… But on one certain day of the week I’ll be able to catch you and you’ll perish in my willow hoop net… in my hoop net of willow!”

The threats that Oaktwist had made while drunk were not long before they were carried out. The little girl was trapped in the body of a goldfish, foisted on her by fate on certain days. Fortunately, when Oaktwist, dragging his nephew in to help him, sought to pull his willow hoop net out of the water, the nephew recognized the red fish with the golden scales he had seen in his dream as being the fortuitous metamorphosis of the little fisher girl.

He dared to defend her against Oaktwist and even kicked him with his wooden-soled shoe. The latter, furious, grabbed him by the hair and tried to pull him over, but was surprised to encounter great resistance on his part: the child dug his feet in the ground so firmly that his uncle could not topple him or carry him off and made him turn in vain first one way then another.

Just as the child’s resistance was going to be vanquished, the trees in the forest shuddered with a dull thud as the winds were allowed to whistle through their agitated branches. The storm pushed Oaktwist back and he took refuge in his woodcutter’s hut.

He soon emerged, however, terrible, transfigured like a son of Odin. In his hand shone that Viking axe used to fell trees as the hammer of Thor is used to break rocks.

The young king of the forest, the victim of Oaktwist, his uncle, the usurper, knew already what his status that they wanted to hide from him was. The trees were protecting him, but only passively, with their bulk…

In vain the undergrowth and saplings interlaced on every side to hinder Oaktwist’s progress. The latter has summoned his woodcutters and is forging a path through these obstacles. Already many trees, formerly sacred in ancient druidical times, have fallen to hatchets and axes.

Fortunately, the queen of the fish had not wasted time. She had gone to throw herself at the feet of the Marne, the Oise and the Aisne, the three great neighbouring rivers, pointing out to them that if the depredations of Oaktwist and his companions were not stopped, the too thinned-out forests would no longer retain the vapours that produce rain and provide water for streams, rivers and lakes. Moreover, the springs themselves would dry up and would no longer spout the water needed to feed the rivers; not to mention that all the fish would be destroyed in next to no time, as well as wild animals and birds.

The three great rivers at this took steps to make it that the forest floor where Oaktwist, along with his terrible woodcutters, was working to destroy the trees, without forasmuch having yet reached the Prince of the forests, was completely washed away by a huge flood, which only receded after all the wood’s aggressors had been drowned.

It was only then that the King of the Forests and the Queen of the Fish could resume their innocent conversations.

Now they were no longer a little woodcutter and a little fisher girl, but a male dryad and a water nymph who, when they were older, were married.

Translation © Michael Wooff

800px-Félix_Nadar_1820-1910_portraits_Gérard_de_Nerval

Gérard de Nerval ( 22 May 1808 – 26 January 1855) was the pen-name of the French writer, poet, translator and playwright Gérard Labrunie. He started writing at a very young age: At age 16, he wrote a poem that recounted the circumstances of Napoleon’s defeat called “Napoléon ou la France guerrière, élégies nationales”. Later, he wrote satire (poems about Prime Minister Villèle, the Jesuit order, and anti-liberal newspapers). In 1826 he started publishing his work. At 19, with a limited knowledge of German, he began to translate Goethe’s Faust and other works. He, therefore, played a major role in introducing French readers to the works of numerous German Romantic authors, including Klopstock, Schiller, Bürger and Goethe.

Nerval was a major figure of French Romanticism. He was best known for his poetry and novellas. Worth mentioning is his work Les Filles du feu. His later works merged poetry and journalism and were known to influence such great writers as Marcel Proust and André Breton.

The work presented here is from A tale of the Valois.

The complete works of Gérard de Nerval are published in three volumes by Gallimard in the collection Bibliothèque de la Pléiade.

 

wooff

Michael Wooff is a literary translator based in the UK. He translates from French, German and Spanish. Among his works we find: A History of European Literature, Routledge, Taylor & Francis, 2000; a novel by Bernard Clavel (for practice and personal pleasure); a series of articles in French on life in Morocco and the Maghreb for an on-line newspaper (2008-2009); the diaries of an Austrian medic stationed on the Italian front in 1916-1917; La bille de verre (“The Glass Ball”) by the Belgian writer Maurice Carême, Littlefox Press, Melbourne, 2016; three books from French to English for David Daniel Agou; and short works for Babylon Human Translation and http://www.traductik.fr

Painting: The Banks of the Orge at Epiney, Ile de France
by Armand Guillaumin
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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