Here’s a supernatural novella from a great of the French literary world, Jettatura (1856) is a mysterious work steeped in 18th century lark.
Théophile Gautier (1811-1872) is pretty famous in poetry circles, but his novels are lesser known. Here we have a supernatural tale with concerns over the nature of the human gaze.
Jettatura the Supernatural Novella
The novella is translated by Andrew Brown and he provides a brief introduction, explaining some of the superstitions of the late 20th century and how this work relates to our times.
“The gaze, it was said, converted the rich and living variety of the world into an assembly of inert, mortified things, displayed for the predatory delectation of the eyes of insatiable spectators.”
But what of this strange word heading up this novella? “Jettatura” means “the evil eye” and bad luck. The word originates from Italian.
This novella is a reminder of the obsession many human societies have with averting “the gaze” and its implications.
Although steeped in a sense of the supernatural, at heart Jettatura is a tale of a doomed romance. We follow Paul d’Aspremont as he arrives in Naples.
He joins his fiancée Alicia Ward, but after the initial joy of their reunion she begins to grow increasingly pale under his watchful eyes.
Worse still, an Italian suitor called Count Altavilla is trying to win the lady over.
With these actions, and the subtle nods from locals, d’Aspremont gradually becomes convinced he suffers from “the evil eye” and must protect his fiancée from himself.
“Beneath his ardent gaze, Alicia, fascinated and charmed, felt a sensation of voluptuous pain, delightful and deadly; her life was intensifying and fading away; she was blushing and growing pale, turning cold and then burning hot. A minute later, her soul would have left her.
She placed her hand over Paul’s eyes, but the young man’s gaze burnt through Alicia’s frail, translucent hands like a flame.”
Gautier ladles on such imagery in strong fashion as the tone of the novella becomes quietly menacing.
There’s a malicious air to proceedings, but the reader is left to determine if Paul d’Aspremont is indeed a “jettatore” or not.
As it’s a short work (readable in a day or two), the murky atmosphere is reminiscent of other novellas such as Heart of Darkness (1899). Jettatura builds inexorably towards something unpleasant, sapping life and laughter out of characters by the closing pages.
And it’s an interesting read. If you’re of a poetic bent and like classical love stories doomed to failure, then Jettatura is well worth a look.
For many others readers, it’ll also provide an introduction to Gautier—one of the more obscure greats of the French literary world.
A Bit About Théophile Gautier
The chances are you haven’t heard of Monsieur Gautier. We certainly hadn’t until recently, but he was a poet, dramatist, novelist, journalist, and critic.
A distinguished looking gentleman, he was big on Romanticism but was also happy to dabble in genres such as symbolism and modernism.
Paranassianism was another favourite. Gautier was the father of this method, which is difficult to pin down as a literary genre. So we’ll quote this definition:
“Parnassianism: The theories and practice of a school of French poets in the 19th century, especially an emphasis upon art for art’s sake, careful metrics, and the repression of emotive elements. — Parnassian, n., adj.”
Got it? Oui? Bon! And Gautier was held in great esteem by his peers, such as Balzac, Baudelaire, Flaubert, and even Oscar Wilde.
His position in society eventually rose to access to the court of Napoleon III. And in 1862 he became the chairman of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts.
So he’s now most famous for his poetry, but his works of literature are readily available. Although Jettatura appears to be a much more obscure work from his canon.