Fantasy in a frock-coat

The Jinx, by Theophile Gautier

I love Naples. I studied there once, living in the middle of the Spaccanapoli for a month. I was back there recently for my wedding anniversary. It’s a filthy, chaotic and incredibly noisy place. There’s graffiti, piled-up garbage (partly due to yet another strike) and run down buildings and every other wall seems to have a small shrine to a local saint or to the Madonna.

When I stayed there I was in the crime-ridden heart of the city, but untouchable because the Camorra had put the word out not to harm tourists. They didn’t want the police being forced to investigate and so cramp the illegal lotteries and cigarette sales which generated real money.

I don’t believe in magic and I’m not religious, but I can still recognise that Naples is a city rife with faith and superstition. I’ve mentioned the ubiquituous shrines, but there are also churches filled with riches (while outside the poverty is inescapable) and shops selling all manner of religious paraphernalia. If you’ve ever wanted a lifesize Madonna for your home there’s more than one shop in Naples that can help you out.

All of which is rather a long winded way of saying that when I heard about Theophile Gautier’s 1857 novella The Jinx at Kevinfromcanada’s blog I knew I had to read it. A story about a North European falling into trouble among the superstitions of Naples? Gautier could have written it with me in mind.

Gautier isn’t well known now, but he was once much better regarded. He wrote the ballet Giselle, and advocated “art for art’s sake”. He was seen as a forerunner to Oscar Wilde (Wilde even quotes Gautier in Dorian Grey) and was a major literary figure of his time. Extraordinary how a man can achieve so much fame, and yet in the UK at least be so forgotten.

The Jinx is the story of a young Frenchman, M. Paul d’Aspremont who comes to Naples to see his fiancée Alicia who is recuperating there from an illness. She is English, pale and beautiful. Her uncle, who has accompanied her, is good natured but red faced and gouty. All of them are types instantly recognisable to any reader.

The novella opens with a ship bearing Paul and other well born travellers into the Bay of Naples. Each of them is perfectly dressed, unruffled and uncreased. Paul is in most regards a man typical of his class. He is civilised, rational, the flower of North European civilisation.

His clothes were elegant without drawing attention to themselves by any showiness of detail: a dark blue frock-coat, a black polka-dot cravat whose know was tied in a manner neither affected nor negligent, a waistcoat of the same design as the cravat, light grey trousers, beneath which was a fine pair of boots; the chain holding his watch was all of gold, and his pince-nez dangled from a cord of flat silk; his hand, elegantly gloved, was tapping a small slender cane in twisted vine stock, tipped with ornamental silver.

In one regard however Paul is atypical. Although each part of his face is on its own handsome, in combination his features do not blend well and the overall result is quite ugly. Most troubling are his eyes, which seem closer set together than they should be and the irises of which seem to change colour so that when he focuses them upon a target they change “from grey to green, [becoming] speckled with black spots and streaked with yellow fibrils”.

Paul’s gaze is a fierce one, particularly when he concentrates, and it does not take long for the superstitious locals to conclude that he possesses the jettatura, the evil eye. To them his gaze is like that of the cockatrice, and what he looks upon he destroys.

As the story progresses, Paul becomes slowly aware of the locals’ peculiar hostility. To them he is like a man carrying a plague – it’s not his fault that he carries the curse of the jettatura, but that doesn’t make it any the less serious. To be in his view is to invite misfortune, perhaps even death and soon whereever Paul goes he is faced with outstretched charms, hands held in peculiar gestures, horns and coral stems and other measures thought effective against his unwitting powers.

Paul is a man of reason. Alicia is if anything even more rational and level headed. She is a robust English protestant and there is no place in her worldview for magic. Any misfortunes or odd incidents that may occur near Paul are to her clearly just coincidence and nothing more. To the servants each such event is proof positive that he is what they think he is.

The Jinx then is a story of Northern Europe and Southern, and of reason and superstition. It’s original readers would have been men much like M. Paul d’Aspremont, Northern Europeans, rationalists and if religious at all most likely protestants. Gautier roots his characters in a recognisable world and a recognisable philosophy; but Naples is not Northern Europe, and things which seem impossible in the cool light of the North start to seem more credible in the more permissive South.

I’m going to say very little more about the story, but I will add one more detail. So far I’ve described this as a conflict of North and South and of credulity and doubt, but it’s also seems to be at first a conflict of class too with the educated middle classes coming face to face with the fears of the urban poor. Paul though is not the only man with designs upon Alicia’s heart. He has a rival.

The Count Altavilla is Neapolitan, but far from the servant class. He is a nobleman, rich and a feared duellist. He too accuses Paul of being a jettatore – a carrier of the evil eye. When he does so things become more serious because it’s no longer just a question of gossiping servants and market traders. With Altavilla present the supernatural is in the drawing room and unavoidable.

Here’s a description of the Count, as you’ll see he’s a potentially formidable opponent for any lover.

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.

What’s wonderfully clever in all this is that Gautier slowly (and in a precisely controlled way) led me into suspecting that Altavilla and the other Neapolitans were right. I started suspecting that Paul was a jettatore. As I suspected it, so within the narrative did Paul, so that as his worldview unravelled so did my certainties as to what was really happening.

What though is happening? By the time Paul and I both suspected him of being what he was accused of being, there still wasn’t really anything that couldn’t be explained away. That’s not a spoiler. That’s the point. Our experience of reality is based in large part on what we believe, and it can be hard to hold onto our beliefs when everyone around us believes something else, even if what they believe is extraordinary.

The Jinx then is disquieting because it’s in part about the subversion of a reality – Paul’s reality and that of the reader. In a way that’s much more frightening than a mere vampire or serial killer could ever be.

Everything I’ve written so far makes this sound like a dark and disturbing tale. Well, it is, but it’s not just that. It’s also delightfully and wittily written. It’s full of jokes, most of them at the expense of the English…

The letter, enclosed in a thick envelope of azure cream-laid paper, sealed with aventurine wax, was written in that hand – angular down-strokes and cursive up-strokes – which denotes a high level of aristocratic education, and which young English ladies of good family all possess, a little too uniformly, perhaps.

The Jinx is a beautiful example of a novella. It’s clever, skilfully crafted and extremely well written. Andrew Brown’s translation is as good as it can be (I’ve read a few of his translations it turns out, I need to add him to my categories) and the physical production is up to Hesperus’s usual high standards. To add to it all, there’s also a rather good introduction by Gilbert Adair that’s well worth reading after you finish the story.

The Jinx is a novella which works as art for art’s sake. It’s in turns amusing, subversive, disturbing and even tragic. It’s a delightful little work and one which I can easily imagine influencing Wilde. I’m grateful to Kevin for introducing me to it and my only complaint would be one that he made too. The original title (of this work written in French) was in Italian, Jettatura, and I think it would have been better left untranslated. That said, when that’s all I have to complain about I’m pretty happy.

The Jinx. Kevin’s review is here. Kevin discusses a bit more of Gautier’s background, has some excellent quotes from the book and discusses Gautier’s style in a way that I certainly found very useful.

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13 Comments

Filed under 19th Century Literature, Brown, Andrew (translator), French Literature, Gautier, Theophile, Naples, Novellas

13 responses to “Fantasy in a frock-coat

  1. This sounds excellent. Gautier has (at least) one more Naples-set story. Or, really, Pompeii-set. Heck if I can remember it’s name. It’s in the My Fantom collection published by NYRB. I wish someone would put together a more comprehensive collection.

    I wrote a post, actually, about the exact scene where Dorian reads Gautier, to distract himself from his, um, troubles.

  2. GB Steve

    My Naples story is Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Zanoni which is a to a large extent wish fulfillment. As a piece of literature I don’t rate it but it has the Gothic/Occult side which did grab me. It doesn’t quite start “It was a dark and stormy night” but it could have.

    Although Gautier had an enormous output, I’m only familiar with him because one of the streams at school was TG for Théophile Gautier. I was in JV – Jules Verne, the bottom stream was WD – Walt Disney which may have been a joke, I’m still not sure.

  3. I’ll look out for that NYRB collection, they’re usually reliable at putting these things together and making interesting choices.

    AR, there’s a ton of Gautier on your blog: http://wutheringexpectations.blogspot.com/search/label/GAUTIER%20Th%C3%A9ophile I’ll be reading that little lot for days.

    Steve, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, is he the chap who wrote The Coming Race? He was an early pulp writer with pretensions if I recall correctly (which I may well not).

    Was Gautier a good stream? What was top? Flaubert? Proust?

  4. GB Steve

    JV was the top stream, TG was somewhere in the middle but I can’t remember the names of the others. I started out in WD, not being able to speak French was a bit of a handicap but moved to JV in my second year.

  5. Max: Your review is a reminder of how much Gautier packed into this novella — it is a superb example of how complete some of these short works can be. And I too part way through started thinking “okay, what if this really might be the case?” Eerie, and a tribute to the author for creating it.

  6. I’m a big fan of Kevinfromcanada, so I agree!

    Oh. I also think all men should be required daily to wear a cravat.

  7. I’m planning to get more Gautier actually Kevin, I’ve taken to him. Thanks for the introduction.

    Shelley, I quite agree.

    Steve, JV top? I have to say, I’m not sure I agree with their literary judgement.

  8. leroyhunter

    Nice comments about Naples, Max. I’ve been lots of places in Italy but never there; I’d love to visit. A close friend who has lived in Italy for the last 10 years or so reckons it’s his favourite place pretty much anywhere in the world, and admits part of the attraction is that it’s quite capable of scaring the life out of him.

    I read My Fantoms a while back and liked it: a couple of the stories really struck me but they’re all well worth reading. Creepy and louche, as you might expect from someone admired by Baudelaire. This sounds great, I hadn’t looked up any more Gautier so thanks for the pointer.

    By the way, have you read Naples 44 by Norman Lewis? A must-read for any Napoli-phile, I reckon.

  9. I know of Naples 44, but I haven’t read it. Sounds like I should though, so I’ll put a copy on order.

    Wuthering here (http://wutheringexpectations.blogspot.com/2009/05/out-of-consideration-for-reader-whom-we.html?showComment=1287593554005#comment-c3070856070624662251) said that My Fantoms was fun, and given I’m currently doing heavy hours at work (or I’d be reading Proust, my reading goals for this year really aren’t going well) fun sounds good. So with Wuthering’s and your recommendations, My Fantoms is also getting ordered.

  10. Nice review, as always.

    It seems I should give another try to Gautier. I couldn’t finish Capitaine Fracasse. So pompous.

    Or maybe your translations suppress the pompous ? After what I’ve seen on the 2002 Proust translation, I think it can happen.

  11. I’m catching up my reading of book critics and I just came accross a book from Shirley Hazzard entitled The Ancient Shore: Dispatches from Naples. You might be interested by the Naples setting.

  12. This one isn’t that pompous, I hope it’s not being suppressed though, if it’s there the translation should let it shine through.

    Shirley Hazzard, have you read her at all?

  13. I’ve never read Shirley Hazzard. Lisa, from ANZ Lit Lovers reviewed this book here

    http://anzlitlovers.wordpress.com/2010/09/19/ancient-shore-despatches-from-naples-by-shirley-hazzard/

    Her name was also in “Au Bon Roman” (A Novel Bookstore).

    Then I saw this article, as this book has just been translated in French. Télérama is a reliable magazine, a 4 stars “grade” means something.

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