Perhaps the most unenviable form of literary fame is to be considered an important precursor of more famous writers. The writer so afflicted is mentioned as an important historical influence on the development of a style or as a pathfinder for a later greater writer, but remains far less frequently read than mentioned. Cazotte’s literary reputation appears to fall into this category. An important figure in the development of the Fantastique, read and admired by Nerval and Hoffmann, but comparatively under appreciated. Jacques Cazotte deserves a little more than our passing attention as a name and a figure.
Jacques Cazotte’s life has something about it of a novella fantastique. He was born in Dijon in 1719. Educated by Jesuits, he studied law, before entering the Marine Civil Service. His postings saw him taken as far afield as the Caribbean. Active in the literary salon culture of the day, he produced works of a light and amusing nature on many of the fashionable literary subjects of the day, these include a series of fables, stories in an oriental manner after Galland, a comic novel and a burlesque of chivalric romance. He joined the Martinists, an eccentric mystical sect of freemasons that followed the teachings of one Martinez de Pasqually. An avowed monarchist, he was arrested and condemned after a number of his private letters that discussed plans for a counter-revolution were discovered. He was guillotined in September 1792.
The Devil in Love is Cazotte’s most famous work. The book’s protagonist is Don Alvaro, a Captain in the King’s Guard of Naples. He is a young Spaniard of aristocratic ancestry hailing from the Extremadura region of Western Spain, famous for being the cradle of the Conquistadors, Cortes and Pizarro. He is full of the pride and hot bloodedness that was long stereotyped as a typical Spanish trait. During a night of carousing with his peers, he is fascinated by an older and maturer Flemish acquaintance, by the name of Soberano. His youthful comrades withdraw and leave him in this man’s company. Impressed by the young captain, Soberano dazzles him with feats that hint at Occult initiation. Our young Spaniard pesters his acquaintance constantly as to how he can also converse with powerful spirits. On being told it would take years of initiation to safely summon spirits, Alvaro impatiently scorns such concessions to prudence and vaunts his courage to pull even the devil himself by the ears.
An assignation is arranged where Soberano’s fellow initiates will instruct Alvaro how to call the Devil. He is lead through the Portici into a deep, dark vault. One of the initiates draws a circle and pentagram in the earth and explains that Alvaro must stand in the centre of the circle, repeat a number of incantations and then fulfil his proud boast. Left alone to complete his foolhardy challenge, Alvaro awaits some sort of trick to be played by Soberano to scare him. After repeating the incantation he invokes Beelzebub three times. A window opens in the air, unnaturally bright light streams into the room and Alvaro is confront by a large ugly camel’s head, that asks “Che vuoi” (What is it you wish). After mastering his initial fear Alvaro orders the spectre to assume a more pleasing shape. The spectre is cowed by the authority in his tone and takes on the form of a little spaniel at his request. After the transformation Alvaro steps from the circle and pulls the little dog by the ears.
With the completion of his bold purpose Alvaro orders his new found servant to transform the desolate vault into a lavish reception for Soberano and his two friends. After the magical transformation of the vault, the little dog transforms into an attractive young page, who is addressed by the name Biondetto (little blond). Alvaro impresses and frightens Soberano and his associates by the extravagance of the reception he lays on for them. But Alvaro little heeds them as he has begun to be distracted by the handsome young page, who at times appears to be no male and no page, but in fact a uniquely beautiful woman.
Alvaro finds himself unable and unwilling to part from his new found servant, who is now consistently in the form of a beautiful woman (called Biondetta throughout the rest of the novella). As well as being attractive and possessing ingratiating magical powers, Alvaro is flattered by his servant’s tale that she was a spirit of the air, a sylph, who chose to take the form of a mortal woman for love and admiration of Don Alvaro’s bravery and worthiness. Alvaro flees his old employment after his temptress cozens him with stories of a plot against him and herself. He travels to Venice where he receives dubious communications from friends and family alike, all of which bear the mark of his companion’s deceptions. He idles away his time attempting to distract himself from her beauty and her charm, but always there seems to be a snare of her art designed to bring them together.
The remainder of the novella focuses on the attempt of Biondetta to seduce Alvaro away from his chivalric and religious duty to save himself until marriage; and to ensure that Alvaro cannot reach Extremadura to receive the guidance of his beloved and virtuous mother. Much of what I have described will naturally sound very familiar from many other gothic and fantastic works: the bold young nobleman, the Italic setting, a Masonic and occult background, spirits and devils, there is even a scene later in the novella where Alvaro attempts to divine his fate with Biondetta by consulting two aged gypsies who naturally have exceptional powers of divination.
One doesn’t need to make a case for the book purely on its influence though. There is something pleasantly exuberant about the rollicking pace and the mixture of styles. I was struck by how many times in such a short little book I saw the possibility of an entirely new tone and story developing. There are so many occasions where Cazotte touches a new narrative path and then moves on, leaving that possibility for another writer to take. When Cazotte introduces his Devil figure twice in the novella with a camel’s head, one feels he could make his devil sinister or into a Bottom-like ass. Indeed Cazotte’s devil goes from ugly abomination to clown, to tame and then to a beautiful gender swapper. Borges praised Cazotte in particular for creating a temptress who so effectively enchants the reader, creating sympathy rather than dread or repugnance.
Cazotte did not write to make a living, or with a pompous sense of literary destiny. Yet for all his apparent amateur dallying with literature, his sparkling little book feels like it is constantly hatching new narrative possibilities. This lies in part down to Cazotte changing the ending from Alvaro becoming the Devil’s agent to an ending where he is unaccountably spared the Devil’s corruption. One can quite easily reconcile the tone and plot of the entire book with an ending of damnation, one of redemption, even a bizarre modern tale where Alvaro marries his demon.
The Devil in Love is an elastic mercurial little book, that rises above the status of influential precursor to be an idiosyncratic minor classic.