By Theophile Gautier (F.F. Lovell & Co; 1888)
Theophile Gautier (1811-1972) is one of France’s most famous authors, and AVATAR, a two-part anthology comprised of the titular 1856 novella and the same year’s “Jettatura,” contains pretty much everything that comes to mind (mine at least) at the mention of French literature: sappy romance, excessively florid descriptions (“their heaving bosoms swelled out beneath their curling fringes of foam”) and an overall atmosphere of opulent refinement. Yet these two tales also showcase a real love of horror and the fantastique (also on display in Gautier’s novels SPIRITE and THE VAMPIRE, and the Lafcadio Hearn translated collection ONE OF THE CLEOPATRA’S NIGHTS), and also contain reasonably compelling narratives.
Originally serialized in the Moniteur universel periodical, “Avatar; or, The Double Transformation” is an early example of the ever-popular body swap formula, which over the years has turned up in everything from Thomas Mann’s TRANSPOSED HEADS to FACE/OFF. In Gautier’s account the participants are Octavius de Saville, a lovesick young bachelor, and Count Olaf Labinski, who’s married to the object of Octavius’ affections.
The switch is effected by Dr. Balthazar Cherbonneau, Octavius’ eccentric physician. The latter has just returned from a sojourn in India, where he claims to have learned all sorts of neat magic tricks, among them the ability to transpose personalities. This he does with Octavius and Count Olaf in effort to help the former win the Countess’ affections, but the situation quickly turns nightmarish for both parties, culminating in a duel and a not-entirely-happy resolution.
The overall conceit is somewhat less-than-believable, and Gautier, a committed Romantic (in every sense of the word), does little to render it plausible. Where his talent really shines through is in the wonderfully vivid descriptions, particularly those of the protagonists having to face the world in different bodies.
Descriptive power is also the main draw of “Jettatura,” a near twin of “Avatar.” A tale that like its predecessor began life as a newspaper serial, it again features an all-consuming romance marred by a supernatural intrusion, and again climaxes with a duel.
The protagonist here is Mr. Paul d’Aspermont, a young man who upon traveling to Naples to join his beloved, the saintly Alicia, learns he possesses a most unusual ability: he has the Evil Eye, a.k.a. Jettatura, meaning his gaze makes terrible things happen to anyone unfortunate enough who meet it. Belief in Jettatura is apparently rife among the people of Naples, who immediately recognize Paul’s affliction. Another problem is with his relationship with Alicia, who’s heartbroken that Paul can’t seem to make eye contact. She furthermore has a suitor, one Count d’Altavilla, who’s looking to remove Paul from the picture entirely–hence the above-mentioned duel.
Unlike in “Avatar,” Gautier here makes a concerted effort to render his premise believable, taking pains to present Paul’s evil eye as if were a common affliction. The gambit doesn’t quite work (at least not for modern readers), but I’d say Gautier’s biggest fumble here is his storytelling, which often lags. Particularly grievous flaws include the too-late third act introduction of a pivotal character and the unexplained death of another in the final pages, leaving what could–nay, should–have been an effective supernatural potboiler with a rushed and inconclusive finale.