Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Devil in Love

Thinking of ambiguity and seduction.

Jacques Cazotte was executed during the French revolution. Nothing ambiguous about that. His literary output was slight, a few tales read today by specialists in 18th century French Literature, and Le Diable Amoureux, The Devil in Love.

The latter haunts the spaces between the medieval fable or narrative, the folk tale or fairy story proper, and a modern short story. It’s one of those pieces, like a good fairy story or a bad horror movie, which escapes itself and becomes something far greater than it should be.

Alvaro, a young nobleman, raises the Devil, who (eventually) takes the form of a beautiful girl who calls herself Biondetta. The Devil seems to have fallen in love with Alvaro, and does everything she can to make him reciprocate. Alvaro is caught between his affection and desire for Biondetta and the nagging feeling that he can’t trust the devil to tell the truth. Is she really so in love with him, or is this just a ruse to win his soul? The story turns on the tension between Biondetta’s attempts to seduce Alvaro, and Alvaro’s attempt to get his mother’s blessing for their marriage before succumbing to his desire.

In purely narrative terms the ending is not good. The story crashes into bathos. Cazotte may have planned and discarded a sequel, and he certainly changed the original ending at the suggestions of friends. However, becuase the ending doesn't provide the usual neatly wrapped bunch of answers, the ambiguity of the story is only strengthened.

Since this isn't an attempt at a logically rendered opinion, I don’t feel I need to defend my interest in the story. The intro to the Dedalus European classics is sniffy, describing it as “pale and hesitant” in comparison with later tales of diabolical bargains. But what sets this one aside is the ambiguity at its core. We know Faust is screwed. We know the usual fictional devil is out for his soul at all costs. But what happens, if for once, the devil is genuinely in love?
Neither reader nor Alvaro can know if Biondetta is genuine in her passion. As in Carmilla, there is no way of resolving the issue.

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