Living and loving dangerously
Sandor Marai's Casanova in Bolzano
Casanova in Bolzano
It was as if it were utterly unusual and somehow freakish to find a man that was ugly rather than handsome, whose features were unrefined, whose body was unheroic, about whom they knew nothing except that he was a rogue, a frequenter of inns and gambling dens… a man about whom it was said, as of many a womanizer, that he was bold, impudent, and relaxed in the company of women: as if all this, despite all appearances, was in some way extraordinary. They were women; they felt something.
- Casanova in Bolzano
With this vivid description, Hungarian novelist Sandor Marai introduces Giacomo Casanova to the women of the marketplace and inns of a sleepy Italian town. It is an ambitious entrance for the hero of an ambitious novel, which with sweeping strokes attempts to get at the heart of a man who is part-poet, part-adventurer, and most certainly a great indulger in life. As Marai writes in a prefatory note at the front of the book, his Casanova only has a few things in common with the historic Italian lover: the date of flight from ‘Leads’ (a cell beneath the lead roof of the ducal palace in Venice) and later an arrival in Munich. In all other essentials, his work is one of ‘fable and invention’. Nevertheless, in Casanova in Bolzano the institutions of the eighteenth century loom as large as the human characters, with the decadence of Venetian revelry and masque balls, the verse of Voltaire, the Inquisition, Louis’ Versailles and the decline of the Italian gentry each playing a flitting moment on centre stage. And yet much of the book’s strength lies in Marai’s skilful off setting of these large, opulent backdrops with a much simpler, quieter and very modern tale of the crisis: the failure of language to convey accurately the intangibility of love.
The novel was first published in Hungary in 1940, but sixty years passed before it was translated into English for the first time by George Szirtes in 2004. Sandor Marai was born in Kassa in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1900 and acquired great acclaim during the 1930s as one of Hungary’s leading novelists. Unabashedly anticommunist, he lived through the war, but was persecuted by the communists, who forced him to flee his native country in 1948 for Italy and later the United States, eventually settling in San Diego where he committed suicide in 1989.
Casanova in Bolzano begins with Giacomo’s hurried escape from the infamous jails of Venice with a dissolute friar, Balbi, as an accomplice. His notoriety precedes him as he speeds across the Italian countryside, fleeing the police of the Inquisition under the cover of night. He arrives at the village of Bolzano, where he enjoys a comfortable bed, food, a good haircut and the pleasures of women after more than a year of deprivation. To the townspeople, he quickly becomes an object of mythic magnetism: women are enticed by him, gamblers come to spend the evenings at his table, moneylenders give to him willingly, and he acquires a reputation for healing the hearts of the love-struck. His bravado and devil-may-care nonchalance, however, conceal a far more complicated and ambitious psychology. As Casanova admits to Balbi midway through the novel, he is a writer before all other things, for, as he puts it, ‘writing is greater than…fate or time’. Fortunately given his predilections, writing and living fully are inextricably linked, and his voracious appetite to write can only be sated through experience: ‘I want to live. I cannot write until I know the world’. It is this passion for living, for pushing the boundaries of what is safe or probable, that brings Casanova to Bolzano; and Bolzano is not just any small town in Italy. Five years earlier, Casanova had fought a duel there with the Duke of Parma, the leading nobleman of the region, over a young girl, Francesca. He lost the duel, was wounded badly and nearly died; Francesca married her aged suitor and became the Duchess. The Duke of Parma, meanwhile, threatened him with death if he ever returned to Bolzano. When the Duke does eventually meet Casanova upon the latter’s return, he challenges him not to a duel but to a more difficult proposition that Casanova, as an artist and a man, cannot refuse. He gives Casanova a letter from the Duchess with the words ‘I must see you’, and dares him to use all his crafts to cure Francesca of her girlhood infatuation for him.
In a universe where Casanova has women easily and
often—chambermaids, actresses, nuns, the nieces of
Cardinals—Francesca remains an elusive, haunting image
in his memory, recalled wistfully in times of illness
and dire poverty. Was she truly ‘The One’, he questions;
for she was one of the few women he could never have.
This image of unrequited desire recalls Dante’s Beatrice
or Petrarch’s Laura, and the poet’s romantic yearning is
indeed heightened through spiritual longing rather than
through physical consummation. Certainly, Marai’s
descriptions of Casanova’s love for Francesca invoke the
courtly landscapes of troubador and trouvere song, and
are among the most affective in the novel:
This love matured slowly, for like the best fruit it needed time, a change of seasons, the blessing of sunlight and the scent of rain, a series of dawns in which they would walk through the dewy garden among bushes of flowering May, conversations where a single word might suddenly light up the landscape locked in her tender, cloistered heart, when it would be looking into the past and seeing ruined castles, vanished festivals where traps with gilded wheels rolled down the paths of neat, properly tended gardens past people in brightly colored clothes with harsh, powerful and wicked profiles. There was in Francesca something of the past.
Whether this is simply Marai’s description, or whether it has been filtered through Casanova’s lovelorn, fictionalising lenses, the reader remains unsure. Regardless, like much of the book, it plays with notions of authorship and literary tradition on a meta-textual level: it is both grounded in literary history by Marai’s neat hinting at the incipient Romantic age, and rendered ahistorical and timeless by the employment of such archetypal images.
I first discovered Marai through his novel Embers. Originally published in 1942 and first translated into English in 2001, Embers is a gauzy, lyrical, intoxicating work. Hailed by critics on both sides of the Atlantic, this first novel in English was described as a masterpiece and major literary rediscovery. In many ways, Casanova shares many similarities with Marai’s earlier work. Set during the wane of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Embers had told the story of two close friends, an aristocratic General and a bohemian artist, and their conflicted understanding of honour, duty and love in relation to the woman they both desired: the General’s wife. Structurally, Casanova in Bolzano is very similar to Embers in its three primary characters and plot organization; yet Embers tells the narrative almost exclusively from the point of view of the affronted General, while Casanova in Bolzano is a much broader and bigger story. While the artist (in the guise of the writer Casanova) has the predominant role within the novel, Marai also gives considerable narrative space (and several pages of dialogue) to both the antagonistic aristocratic husband and the young woman in love, presumably to advance further meditations on authorship. Casanova in Bolzano is a much more ambitious and unruly novel for this reason.
But this breadth of scope is also the book’s weakness. I felt compelled to make editorial comments of ‘cut, cut!’ in the margins as Marai’s overly-indulgent writing became too wrapped in the trivial egoisms and self-righteous philosophies of his characters, rendering the writing stilted, tired and dry. The brevity of Embers, and its fine choice of language and imagery, was a delight. Much of that lyrical poignancy can also be found in Casanova in Bolzano, but only after the laborious process of trudging through the rambling prose. Still, Marai is a gifted writer, and his work is well deserving of rediscovery.