Conversations in Bolzano by Sándor Márai, trs George Szirtes

Casanova outstays his welcome
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The Independent Culture

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Giacomo Casanova, Enlightenment man, soldier, spy, voluptuary, adventurer, author, has just burst head first out of "The Leads", a lead-chambered prison under the roof of the Doge's Palace in Venice, where he has been confined on charges of seditious magic. In reality, after prising off a grating with his pike, smashing a window, shinning down ropes and rackety ladders from a colossal height, off he strutted to Paris with the sordid Friar Balbi, to conduct more intrigue and invent the lottery. He became a millionaire, lost it all, and in exile wandered Europe, visiting Mozart, Madame de Pompadour, and Rousseau, confessing to 122 conquests in his readable Histoire de ma vie. But wait a minute: this sounds thrilling.

And Conversations in Bolzano, mostly, isn't. Sándor Márai captures Casanova in his celebrity moment, when his ebullient release brought Europe out (at least Casanova said so) in Casanova-mania. Márai, the Hungarian writer who fled into Italy from German and Soviet occupations, had his books burned by the Communists and committed suicide in 1989 in San Diego. Exile tasted bitter and perhaps in Casanova's eternal optimism Márai found consolation. If so, the balm is hardly conveyed. Márai invents a love-triangle in beautiful Francesca, with whose aged suitor (now husband) Casanova has fought a duel and been worsted. The double-bound relationship of the two males will be familiar to readers of the powerful novel, Embers, recently unearthed and justly acclaimed. The Duke and Casanova are "two mortal men in pursuit of Francesca". As in Embers, the female is merely the glue which, holding the paired men in contact, also sunders them, fating them to a lifetime tension of passionate desire and refusal. Beneath the motif lies a misogynist subtext and an unacknowledged homoerotic bond.

Embers dealt unforgettably with the degeneration of the Habsburg Empire and the fateful meeting of adversarial Doppelgangers in the persons of the long-sundered childhood friends, Henrik and Konrad. Their relationship is disturbingly moving, within a matrix of Gothic estrangement and alienation, which works both on the personal and political levels. Conversations in Bolzano begins promisingly with virtuoso writing, as Casanova, the libertine and libertarian, is acclaimed by a universal smile that "spread like influenza" through Europe. Casanova represents the saturnalian and carnivalesque principle, which can never be long repressed by despots. He is the phallic principle eternally awakening.

Márai also makes him a figure for the artist and writer and predicates upon his dialogues with the maidservant, Teresa, the Duke and the Duchess, a heavy weight of fable and allegory. The historical Casanova was the child of actors and Europe was his stage: Márai presents all his hero's actions as theatrical, as he turns living itself into an art-form. Kissing the maid, Teresa, is a "wordless dialogue". She herself, though an innocent, has, in the process of her maidservant's duties, understood through keyhole-peeping and changing beds with secret stains, the private theatre of intimacies that is the bedroom. The kiss between Casanova and Teresa is art as near to nature as it can be. And the novel's best writing occurs in relation to it.

But Márai's oddly unlibidinal Casanova aspires higher. He finds his destiny as an actor-writer, "who dips his pen, now in blood, then in ink". In an endless monologue, the aged but virile Duke invites his guest to take and sate Francesca for one night. Crossdressed as a woman, Casanova is informed by Francesca, crossdressed as a boy, "I am life, my love." They do not have sex. The artist, we are told, must preserve the veil over "the One" truth. The stilted and precious theatricality of the writing is not helped by the curious tic according to which Márai (to great purpose in Embers) favoured a technique of dialogue by one-sided monologue.

The prolix dulness of the allegory stands in contrast to the lean writing of the masterpiece, Embers. Give me the wit of Casanova's raunchy, pacy, labyrinthine and intelligent Histoire de ma vie any day - for the 18th-century work has not dated as this rediscovered novel, sadly, has.

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