Monday, August 12, 2013

Yvernelle by Frank Norris

For completists only
Frank Norris achieved renown as one of the greatest American novelists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His first published book, however, was not a novel. It was Yvernelle, a novella-length tale of medieval chivalry written entirely in poetic verse. Originally published in 1892, the work is heavily influenced by the writings of Sir Walter Scott, author of Ivanhoe. With the possible exception of a few of his short stories, it is unlike anything else Norris ever wrote, and bears absolutely no resemblance whatsoever to the naturalistic novels for which he is famous.

The story opens with a curse. Somewhere in Spain, the lady Guhaldrada is chastising her lover for toying with her affections and abandoning her to return to his native France. The spurned woman places a dire hex upon the departing knight, stating that the next woman he kisses will suffer tragic sorrow and ruin. Sir Caverlaye of Voysvenel, the recipient of this curse, returns to his homeland to reunite with his one true love, the beautiful maiden Yvernelle. When she offers him her lips, however, he refuses to kiss her in order to save her from the terrible fate promised in the evil spell. This rejection of her love devastates Yvernelle and enrages her guardian, Sir Raguenel, an intimate friend of Caverlaye’s who cannot forgive such a betrayal of the young woman’s love. Separated from his soul mate and despised by his best friend, Caverlaye wanders off to lead a solitary life. Will these two estranged lovers ever be reunited?

Yvernelle is not bad for what it is, but what it is holds little appeal for today’s reader. Norris has a good command of the English language and can skillfully craft a stanza of poetry, but a hundred pages of rhyming couplets produces a decidedly mind-numbing effect. The plot of the narrative is painfully simple, yet it takes a hundred words of verse to express what could be said in ten words of prose. Even if you really enjoy tales of knights and chivalry, you’d be better off sticking to the works of Scott or the Arthurian legends. Most likely the only audience that’s going to seek out Yvernelle are diehard fans of Frank Norris, in particular those attempting to finish his complete works. My advice to such readers would be to tackle all his novels first, his short stories second, and if you absolutely can’t get enough, Yvernelle should be the last work to check off your list.

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