The Riancey Amendment passed into law in France on July 16, 1850 and imposed a serial novel tax on newspapers, charging one centime per copy of any newspaper that included an installment of a serial novel. The law was based on the belief that serial novels had been responsible for fomenting subversive ideas. Gérard de Nerval’s The Salt Smugglers is, in large part, a response to this law.
Awarded with a commission for a historical serial novel, Nerval’s plans were thwarted by the new law. Instead of a novel, he undertakes to write a history of the life of the abbé de Bucquoy, a historical figure of questionable authenticity. This endeavor proves to be difficult, and the work devolves into the story of a quest for information as Nerval visits numerous libraries and historical sites in and around Paris, encountering many adventures and colorful characters along the way (though all the while insisting “Have no fear,—this is not a novel.”) Nerval’s “history” is mostly composed of diversions, including the story of the failed romance of one of the abbé’s relatives. Other diversions have even less connection to the abbé, like Nerval’s examination of “the musical possibilities of unrhymed verse” or his quotation of the eviction notice he receives when his apartment is expropriated for public purposes.
Not until three-fourths of the way through the book does Nerval get to the story of the abbé that he initially set out to tell. Although this delay is frustrating at times, the abbé’s story is not the real point of The Salt Smugglers. Nerval’s true purpose is to reveal the undefined the border between fact and fiction.
Throughout his “history,” Nerval scrupulously relies on actual sources, but he undermines those sources by exposing their questionable accuracy. Nerval also relates numerous anecdotes that are indistinguishable from fiction, always being careful to follow each one with a tongue-in-cheek avowal of its truth: “I don’t know whether this simple story of a young lady and a pork butcher’s son will prove to be entertaining for my readers. It at least has one thing going for it: it is, beyond the shadow of a doubt, entirely true.” The overall effect is one of humorous, if distracted, subversion. The book’s design—double columns of text recalling the newspaper columns in which The Salt Smugglers originally appeared—adds authenticity to the reading experience.
The Salt Smugglers by Gérard de Nerval (translated by Richard Sieburth) is published in the United States by Archipelago Books.
Gwendolyn Dawson is the founder of Literary License. Her reviews appear there and here every Wednesday.