“What is shrouded in the fogs of England becomes clear in the sunlight of Naples…”
The Jinx, a short tale from French author Thèophile Gautier is a tale of fate, love and the Evil Eye. My edition, translated by Andrew Brown, is from Hesperus Press, and it’s a perfect little tale to read and finish on a quiet Sunday afternoon.
The story opens with the arrival in Naples of a young Frenchman, Paul d’Aspremont.
His eyes in particular were extraordinary; the black lashes that bordered them contrasted with the light grey colour of his irises and the burnt brown tones of his hair. The thinness of the bones in his nose made these eyes seem set more closely together than the proportions established by the principles of drawing allow, and, as for their expression, it was quite indefinable. When they were gazing into space, a vague melancholy, a fondly lethargic expression could be read in them, and they had a moist gleam; if they focused on any person or object, the brows came together, contracted, and carved a perpendicular crease in the skin of his forehead: his irises, turning from grey to green, became speckled with black spots and streaked with yellow fibrils; his gaze flashed from them, piercing and almost wounding; then all resumed its initial placidity, and this character with his Mephistophean appearance turned back into a young man of the world.
While initially Paul appears to be a tourist, it’s soon revealed that he’s in Naples to join his fiancée, a young orphaned English girl named Alicia Ward, who’s travelled to a warmer climate in the company of her uncle. While the two young people reunite in joy, a dark cloud soon hovers over their relationship. Wherever Paul fixes his gaze, tragedy and disaster soon follow, and while the young lovers seem oblivious to this phenomenon, the people of Naples, including the Count Altaville, recognize the danger as … The Evil Eye!!
While this tale may sound a little over-the-top, Gautier is convincing with his presentation of inescapable fate and tragic love. Paul d’Aspremont and Alicia Ward are visitors to Naples, and the beliefs of the locals seem to have little relevance to the elegance of the fastidious Frenchman or the fresh, fragile beauty of the young Englishwoman. At first they appear to be untouched by the superstitions of the region. Gradually, however, with an ever-encroaching sense of doom, it becomes clear that Naples is not the problem…
The introduction mentions that Gauthier was influenced by Hoffmann, but that Gauthier soars above “his rivals,” with his “high stylistic sheen.” I’ve read and enjoyed a few Hoffman stories, but Gauthier’s tale seems superior. We arrive in Naples with d’Aspremont and see the city, and its foreign customs, through his eyes. D’Aspremont and Alicia seem ‘normal’ and wholesome (after all, here are two young lovers who have promised to marry), and it’s Naples and its inhabitants that seem dark, archaic and superstitious. Drawn gradually into the story, the easy dismissal of superstitious nonsense morphs into desperate hope until the full horror of the curse borne by d’Aspremont is revealed, and it’s this inversion, if you will, the evil carried unwittingly by an innocent that makes this story so powerful
Part of Gauthier’s skill resides in his imagery. At one point, for example, Paul likens Alicia to Ophelia, and Alicia talks about her dislike for bouquets and “the corpses of roses.” Even the gorgeous descriptions of lush landscapes harbor an undercurrent of exotic menace:
The calash left the main road, turned onto a track and stopped in front of a door formed by two pillars of white bricks, topped by urns of red clay, in which blossoming aloe flowers spread out their leaves, similar to sheets of tin plate and pointed like daggers. An openwork fence, painted green, served as a gate. Instead of a wall there was a cactus hedge whose shoots twisted themselves into irregular patterns and wove their sharp-pointed prickly pears into an inextricable tangle.
And to give another example of Gauthier’s silken, yet precise, sentences, here’s Paul looking in the mirror.
He stood in front of a mirror and gazed at himself with frightening intensity; that composite perfection, the result of beauties that are not usually found together, made him resemble more than ever the fallen archangel, and gleamed with a sinister light in the dark depths of the mirror; the fibrils of his eyes quivered like the bow from which the deadly arrow has just taken wing; the white furrow in his brow recalled the scar left by a bolt of lightning, and in his gleaming hair hellish flames seemed to be flickering; the marble pallor of his skin exacerbated each feature of this truly terrible physiognomy.
Paul felt frightened by himself-it seemed to him that the emanation of his eyes, reflected by the mirror, reverberated towards him in the shape of poisoned darts, like Medusa gazing at her horrible and charming head in the fawn reflection of a bronze shield.