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The Jinx - Theophile Gautier

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Author: Theophile Gautier / Genre: Classic Literature

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      03.11.2007 08:26
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      Originally published 1857, reprinted by Hesperus in a new translation (2002).

      A rather obscure early horror novel from the French romantic period, Theophile Gautier’s ‘The Jinx’ has been resurrected as part of Hesperus Press’ 100-page series, an endeavour aimed at promoting lost, forgotten, unknown or otherwise ignored ‘classics’ of international literature through new translations and nicely coloured covers. This short novel has always been one of Gautier’s lesser known works, compared to his (slightly) more famous ballets and poetry, but unlike the majority of Hesperus’ obscure classics (surely a contradiction in terms?), it’s actually a really good read and surprisingly modern in its approach and outlook.

      Still, the novel remains firmly rooted in its time, and the nineteenth-century literary tradition specifically, by focusing on a small cast of obscenely wealthy characters, whose privileged lives involve little more than travelling, lounging around in holiday mansions for the majority of the year, and seeking each others’ hands in marriage. The story follows the life of Paul d’Aspremont on a visit to Naples, accepting the invitation of his beloved Alicia Ward, an English girl in her late teens who lives with her devoted uncle. Paul’s love is much requited, to the extent that the intruding affections of a local Count with the hots for Alicia don’t appear to pose any kind of threat, until he unveils the apparent and shocking evidence that Paul has the signs of a “jettatore,” bringing the curse of the evil eye on those closest to him. Although Paul is a rational and enlightened nineteenth-century guy who considers himself above such primitive superstitions, it becomes increasingly difficult for him to ignore the evidence, and although his beloved Alicia will never concede that her rapidly deteriorating health is due to his presence, even demanding that he fix his gaze on her to prove his love, Paul begins to contemplate their options.

      I never studied the Romantics in any detail, certainly not the French ones, but I gained enough awareness of the period to recognise some of its most significant themes being touched on by Gautier. The characters’ devotion to scientific rationality (albeit, filtered through firm Christian belief) is placed in direct opposition to this superstitious idea from a bygone age – allegedly still practiced by many savage cultures, if we’re to believe the author’s slightly dodgy world view – and the resulting conflict of truth is handled in a very satisfying and yet still slightly cryptic way; even by the end of the novel, there’s no tangible ‘proof’ that the curse existed, only a long line of unfortunate incidents from Paul’s life that are either down to coincidence... or something more sinister.

      This interesting analysis would certainly be the novel’s most famous aspect if it had achieved any degree of fame whatsoever (alas, not so much as a bullet point on Gautier’s Wikipedia page, and the first link to be found on Google is for this very review), and its outmoded emphasis on a specifically Protestant form of rationality dates it in an even more interesting way than the author perhaps intended, allowing his characters’ intelligent discussion over the wisdom of the Ancient Greeks, in spite of their primitive beliefs, to develop a new layer of sediment over time (I’m not meaning to offend any Christians or anything. Well, not much). ‘The Jinx’ is surprisingly ahead of its time in some other areas too, notably including Alicia’s enlightening deconstruction of her own disturbing dream imagery, and while it’s something of a stretch to class it as horror (though Edinburgh Central Library doesn’t think so, happily slapping a skull sticker onto its thin spine), the final chapter is quite ghastly and disconcerting.

      Despite the term ‘novelist’ coming several steps down on Gautier’s CV, this book proves that he has a talent for extended writing beyond mere pretty description (which overflows in remarkable painterly detail each time a new character or setting is introduced), and some of the more self-consciously literary scenes (i.e. those drenched in natural and emotional symbolism) even seem quite modern, particularly in Paul’s vivid imaginings of the final day of Pompeii as he wanders the city’s ruins before his duel with the Count. At the same time, the novel’s age and agenda all impede its effect slightly, with several dozen too many allusions and references to works of mythology, art and literature used to clarify the author’s points to his contemporary French audience in varying degrees of pointlessness – I ask you, is it really necessary to dredge up an account of Ulysses’ son Telemachus being thrown into the sea by Minerva in the shape of the wise Mentor in Fénelon’s ‘Télémaque’ just because an insignificant background character has fallen out of a boat?

      Of course, another significant barrier to this novel’s reception by an English audience is the fact that the whole thing has been translated from the original French, though the process has clearly been a thorough and careful one by Andrew Brown, Gautier fan and expert (someone has to be, I suppose). Brown provides a lengthy, insightful and incredibly dull introduction applying Gautier’s use of ‘the gaze’ to more recent literary studies of the phenomena, following a more generalised and enjoyable foreword by Gilbert Adair. Being someone who enjoys flouting his self-proclaimed abstinence from mainstream culture and opinion, I can relate to Brown’s obvious enthusiasm for the subject matter – even if it is ever so slightly misguided as the strongest enthusiasms tend to be. Brown’s devotion to conveying the author’s words exactly as intended mean that this is a slightly trying read, with some word choices and multi-comma’d sentences being even longer and more convoluted than mine in this review, if you can conceive of such a thing.

      Nevertheless, the reader becomes accustomed to this rather quickly, taking it in their stride as the eccentricity of an old book processed through a modern-day translation, but there were still many instances when I felt Brown was pushing the authenticity a little too far, rather than simply editing things together in a slightly tidier way (an example that particularly struck me from one of the first pages describes “that long line of hills which, from Posillipo to Vesuvius, delineates the marvellous gulf at the head of which Naples reposes like a sea nymph drying herself on the shore after her swim, was starting to show more clearly its violet undulations, and stood out more firmly from the dazzling blue of the sky; already a few white spots, piercing the dark landscape of the fields, betrayed the presence of villas scattered through the countryside.” See what I mean?)

      These niggles aside, Gautier’s novel would still provide a satisfying and fairly brief read for anyone partial to nineteenth-century fiction, especially that which features dark or mystical overtones. While I thoroughly enjoyed the author’s detailed word-portraits of each character and setting as a nice deviation from the rushed brevity of modern literature, some people will likely find it tedious and perhaps even indicative that he never should have given up his profession as a painter in the first place (a meeting with Victor Hugo was the source of that decision). Additionally, being well over a hundred years old and from a slightly different culture, there are more than a few unintentionally comical moments in which the author voices his opinions on English and Italian customs and habits for the benefit of his French readers, most being well-intended but others of which are downright cheeky.

      Despite the plot’s central female acting as the typical young, beautiful virgin at the centre of a male triangle of ownership and conflict, Alicia comes off rather well, presented as incredibly intelligent and thoughtful despite a tragic devotion to her love, a blight that similarly afflicts her male suitors. And it’s comforting to know that there have always been girls out there who are attracted to men for largely based on their “eccentricity.”

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    • Product Details

      A painter who later became a novelist, Théophile Gautier formulated the notion of ‘art for art's sake'. In this story, the gaze is the central character as the eye of the beholder turns deadly. Paul d'Aspremont, on holiday in Italy, meets his fiancée in all but name, a young English girl named Alicia Ward. What begins as an urbane and courtly affair descends into a Gothic nightmare as Paul is revealed to possess the ‘evil eye', a jinx that kills all those he befriends.