The Jinx, by Theophile Gautier

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Purchased at Chapters.ca

Let’s start with a confession: I bought this book solely because of its cover. After two very positive experiences with novellas from Hesperus Press featuring two of my favorite authors (Henry James’ The Lesson of the Master and Edith Wharton’s The Touchstone), I visited Hesperus’ home page to see what else they had on offer. I’d never heard of Theophile Gautier or The Jinx, but the primary colors and the grotesquely smiling image jumped right off the screen. And, to prove that I am not just a pretty cover kind of guy, it also informed me that the book featured a forward by Gilbert Adair, whose own novella, The Death of the Author, was another positive experience in the 2009 reading year.

It was a great decision — the book is every bit as good as its cover. In fact, my biggest criticism is that the publisher should have retained the original French (actually Italian) title — Jettatura — instead of opting for The Jinx, but I’ll admit that is a quibble.

Born in 1812, Theophile Gautier was a contemporary and friend of Victor Hugo and Honore de Balzac. A biographical note informs that he is perhaps best known for coining the phrase “art for art’s sake” in the preface to his first novel, Mademoiselle de Maupin. A poet, travel writer and journalist, the same note says that Gautier is also known for his ballets, including Giselle, which I have certainly heard of but never seen performed. Adair, while acknowledging that Gautier’s fiction “has ceased to be much read”, calls him a forerunner of Oscar Wilde and a master of the conte fantastique or “fantasy in a frock coat”, a perfectly descriptive image of this book.

The jettatura of the original title is a phenomenon — superstition, actually — of Naples, where the novella is set. Perhaps better translated as “the evil eye” rather than the jinx, it is a gaze that produces tragedy and disaster in all those on whom it alights. The possessor of the jettatura, the Frenchman Paul d’Aspremont in this book, is not evil in and of himself; rather he has been cursed with the affliction.

We meet d’Aspremont on his arrival in Naples to resume his courtship of the well-bred Englishwoman, Alicia Ward, whom he first met on her home turf and to whom he is at least promised, if not formally betrothed:

He was a young man of between twenty-six and twenty eight, or least that was the age you were tempted to ascribe to him at first glance, for when you looked at him more attentively you found him either younger or older, to such an extent was his enigmatic expression a mixture of freshness and fatigue. His dark blond hair was that shade of colour the English call auburn, and in the sunlight it blazed with a coppery, metallic sheen, while in the shade it appeared almost black; his profile was composed of cleanly drawn lines: a forehead with such protuberances as would have attracted the admiration of a phrenologist, a nobly curving aquiline nose, finely moulded lips, and a powerfully rounded chin reminiscent of ancient medals; and yet all these features, handsome in themselves, did not add up to an attractive whole.

Those sentences capture much of Gautier’s style (very well translated by Andrew Brown in this edition). The descriptions are meticulous and extensive throughout the novella. The sentences cascade through detail but (presaging Marcel Proust) they build toward an end — if you like the subject to precede the object, Gautier is probably not an author for you. He builds to conclusions rather than stating them. Consider his introduction of Alicia:

Alicia was wearing a dress of grenadine with flounces festooned and embroidered with red palmettes, which went marvellously with the small-grained coral braid that made up her coiffure, her necklace and her bracelets; five pendant stones hanging from a multifaceted coral pearl trembled at the lobes of her small and delicately curled ears. — If you disapprove of this misuse of coral, remember that we are in Naples, and that fishermen come up out of the sea with the express intention of presenting you with those coral branches that turn red when exposed to air.

As the reader soon discovers, that reference to coral is important. The Neapolitans believe that the way to ward off the jettatura is to meet the gaze with a direct, forked response: a raised hand with pointed index and little fingers, animal horns worn as charms and the forks of coral will all do in a pinch. The plot thickens when we are introduced to Count Altavilla:

A third person completed the group; it was Count Altavilla, a young Neapolitan man-about-town whose presence brought to Paul’s brow that contraction which gave his physiognomy an expression of diabolical malevolence.

The Count was, indeed, one of those men whom one doesn’t like to see too close to a woman one loves. He was tall and perfectly proportioned; his hair was jet black, swept up into abundant tufts over his smooth and finely-sculptured forehead; a gleam of Naples’ sunshine sparkled in his eyes, and his teeth, broad and strong yet as pure as pearls, seemed to be even more dazzling because of the bright red of his lips and the olive hue of his complexion. The only criticism a meticulous taste might have found to make against the Count was that he was just too handsome.

It is no surprise that the Count has his own designs on Alicia; more important, however, it is he who introduces to Alicia, her guardian and indeed Paul himself the notion that d’Aspremont possesses the jettatura (an observation that has already been made by the much more suspicious Neapolitan underclasses who have come in contact with the Frenchman). As well, the Count has both a reputation and a record as a superb duelist; this is the nineteenth century, after all, so that too will become an important factor as the novella unfolds.

Paul and Alicia are rationalist Christians from the north and this southern superstition is beyond them — at first. Yet slowly, inexorably, Paul in particular begins to lose that reason-based view. Memories of disasters in his past, which had been neatly filed away with rational explanations, return and need to be re-examined: Could the “evil eye”, in fact, be the explanation?

Thus, Gautier poses the question of when does superstition overtake rational thought and become reality itself. The author does resolve it, as Adair concludes in his forward:

Well, given that for most of us a monster in a frock-coat is inherently scarier than one with horns, scales and claws, The Jinx in its entirety proves to be a curiously terrifying work.

I can offer no better summary. The writing in this novella is superb (I’ve overrun this review with quotes already — there are numerous other examples describing Naples and its people that are every bit as good). And all of that talent is put to work to create and deliver a “curiously terrifying” story. The Jinx in the final analysis is every bit as good as the promise of its wonderful cover.

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12 Responses to “The Jinx, by Theophile Gautier”

  1. Guy A. Savage Says:

    This is a bit of a coincidence as I was drawn to Mademoiselle de Maupin for the cover too.
    Thanks

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I like Hesperus for both their design and selection — have a Malraux and Gogol on hand for future contemplation.

  3. Guy A. Savage Says:

    They do make nice, sleek little paperbacks. The Mademoiselle de Maupin cover I liked so much is a Penguin copy. Black and white.

    I took a look at Hesperus and Gogol. Do you have The Squabble? I haven’t read that one yet but it sounds marvellous. A Ukrainian Jarndyce vs Jarndyce? I read Dead Souls earlier this year and was ambushed by its wonderful humour.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I noticed that Penguin cover as well — liked The Jinx well enough that I may give that one a try in a few months. The Gogol is The Squabble — I was attracted by that same angle. And the Malraux is The Way of The Kings. I have been meaning to return to Man’s Fate (first read decades ago for a university course) to see how it stands up to what has happened since and when I came across the listing for this one, I thought I would take a novella detour first.

  5. Guy A. Savage Says:

    Thanks for the tip on Malraux–I will go and look it up. I don’t re-read many books (just the really good ones or the ones that haunt me), but re-reading is such an interesting event as I always seem to have a slightly different feeling or approach to the book x years later. Obviously the book hasn’t changed, so the change is in me.

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I should confess that that course was in 1970 (and call The Modern European Novel — not sure Man’s Fate would qualify now). Since the novel was published in 1933, I figure that a four decade span between publication and first read, followed by four decades to the reread doesn’t seem out of order.

  7. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Thanks Kevin, a definite buy. It sounds quite marvellous and beautifully written too.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Max: I do think The Jinx fits your tastes — while it is short, every paragraph deserves to be savored. And both the format and length make it a perfect book for those who do some of their reading on the tube. The narrative comes in the kind of ride-sized chunks that are perfect for that style of reading.

  8. Kerry Says:

    This is an author who has escaped my attention. The cover is excellent (and Halloween appropriate), and you have made a great case for the work. I enjoyed the excerpts, so I might try it.

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Quite right about the Hallowe’en angle, Kerry — it was not a deliberate choice, but is appropriate.

  10. Fantasy in a frock-coat « Pechorin’s Journal Says:

    [...] Jinx. Kevin’s review is here. Kevin discusses a bit more of Gautier’s background, has some excellent quotes from the book [...]

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