Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Goethe's "Novelle"

The lovely ivory plaque above (now in The Metropolitan Museum of Art; 2003.131.2) was made in Paris in about 1350. Originally the back panel of a casket, it shows a hunting party emerging from a castle on the left. On the right is a stag, already wounded by the hunter's sword, drinking from the waters of a fountain. (Click the image for a larger view.)

When I saw this image (it is reprinted in the November 2008 issue of The Burlington Magazine, p. 797), I immediately thought of the opening of Goethe's Novelle, which he began working on in 1797 but did not publish until 1828, four years before his death. Despite the title, it is not a novella in the conventional literary sense, derived from the Italian novella (lit. "a little, new thing"), a short tale in prose exemplified most famously by Boccaccio's Decameron.

Thomas Mann is one of the best-known practitioners of the form, as in Death in Venice or (one of my favorites) The Black Swan. (In German, the latter is called Die Betrogene, or "the deceived one," and was Mann's last tale.) Both are about impossible loves.

It is somewhat mysterious why Goethe chose Novelle for the title of his tale. (He also wrote Das Märchen, which is unlike any fairy tale you are likely to encounter.) It begins with a scene much like that pictured in the ivory, with the duke of a well-off town riding out from his castle with a group of nobles to hunt. He leaves his young wife behind at the castle, looking out the window (as in the ivory) at the departing riders. Nothing much happens in the story: the duchess and her husband's uncle and a young courtier named Honorio visit the ancient site of the family's castle in a nearby forest. While they are out, a fire breaks out in the town, and a tiger escapes from its cage into the forest. Of course, the tiger is not dangerous, since it was part of a menagerie and its killing by Honorio (who thinks he must protect the duchess) is unnecessary. A lion has also escaped, but the child of the menagerie owner is able to calm it with gentle music and song and lure it back to its cage. So, the story is about different ways of taming the passions.

I have always thought that Novelle would make a wonderful movie, something along the lines of Ever After: A Cinderella Story, a movie from 1998 starring (I kid you not) Drew Barrymore. It was a delightful re-creation of the fairy tale, with Cinderella, although put upon by the wicked stepmother (in another star turn, Angelica Houston), being the rescuer of the prince. Even in Goethe's time, Novelle must have had a similar otherworldly quality, and I imagine the story set in the years before the French Revolution. This is a movie script I would like to write.

No comments: