During times of economic hardship and political upheaval, the allure of entertainment that flatters our escapist sensibilities becomes nearly irresistible. Perhaps that’s why Sándor Márai, a late Hungarian novelist who hit his peak at the start of World War II, chose to focus his attentions on a character so romantic and mythologized, he’s nearly cliched: the notorious Venetian lover, Giacomo Casanova. Perhaps that’s also why Knopf chose to publish its first English translation at the end of 2004, in the midst of high-profile worldwide warfare and suffering. Unless you’re a professional philosopher or Dr. Ruth, there’s just so little to worry about in broad, esoteric musings on love.
It’s easy to be seduced by Márai’s florid Casanova in Bolzano. The novel begins just after his famed escape from jail, in 1756. At that time, Venetian streets hummed with the energy of a decadent aristocracy, (commemorated today through cheaply painted porcelain masks at tourist kiosks). As a character, Casanova himself fits into the masculine ideals of his age. He is dramatic, wily, and witty; charming, elusive, and bold. He stops in a small town en route to his freedom. Bolzano, however, is no petty stopover, no Traveloggia off Highway 1. The town of Bolzano is the setting of a duel that won’t abandon his heart—a duel with a Duke that he failed to win, which cost him “the One,” Francesca.
She’s not “the One,” exactly, as we’re led in fairy tales and self-help books to understand the term. Francesca was a 15-year-old woman and the only “One” he hadn’t managed to forget. The prize of a memorable duel with the Duke of Parma, Francesca hears word of his presence through the grapevine that grows in any small town. Her commitment to the Duke seems to disintegrate, and the news of his arrival forces her to pen a request for a meeting.
So begins the laborious journey into the facts and falsehoods of amore—not to mention the nearly 300 pages that detail it. Márai proves himself to be both extravagantly eloquent, and tiresome. Each well-articulated insight about life and love seems to be accompanied by paragraphs of exhaustive exposition.These characteristics define the strengths and weaknesses of the novel.
Let’s start with the positive: Márai’s true talent lies in playful renderings of common ideas. That is, he is capable of distilling our own musings and insecurities about love and sex, and putting them in terms that allow many of us to blame our dysfunction on what seem to be universal truths. Whether these “truths” have any bearing on reality is beside the point- we can retreat into the captivating illusion that we are all swept into drama beyond our control. Casanovas or Francescas, Márai allows for a certain philosophical freedom that appeals to the parts of us that just can’t explain love.
On the other hand, what tedious explanations! Characters, including the Duke of Parma and Casanova himself, deliver pages-long monologues that, after awhile, border on the kind of Dickensian excess that would make Hemingway turn in his grave. Flamboyant soliloquies have their place, but I’m not sure that place is smack in the middle of an otherwise well-paced novel. Small town Italy could be a reader’s playground, yet we’re grounded in a room with the curtains drawn. (And despite Casanova’s reputation, there’s disappointingly little “play” inside that curtained room in the first place.)
That’s not to say the journey doesn’t have its charms. Márai writes of subjects we may have exhausted over coffee or tequila, but haven’t quite figured out: what it means to love, to lust, and to live. Written as a play, the book and its indulgences would have made for a superb one-act. Márai employs a sort of tongue-in-cheek, borderline bawdy humor that was no doubt refreshing in the context of his time. Imagining the sort of Kevin Kline-esque manner that would accompany any modern, theatrical adaptation of this book is easy. Furthermore, a talented actor would be able to bring to life what is, as a page of prose, simply monolithic. We don’t have a Kevin Kline or Kenneth Branaugh, and Márai does not give us enough to make one of our own. Still, those who are willing to abandon cynicism for a moment will be easily won over by eloquent turns of phrase. If that’s not enough, an 18th century woman in drag and a man wearing the head of an ass may suffice.
Casanova in Bolzano benefits from its niche audience. The hardcore literati will no doubt swoon over only the second English translation of a Hungarian master, and those looking for a fix through centuries old romance won’t be disappointed. It’s those of us caught in between who will scratch our heads and twiddle our thumbs. The novel provides enough satire to allow us to trust its tangents, but careens off course just short of each pay-off. The result is frustratingly uneven. Approach the book as you might an ex-lover, as something beautiful you probably don’t want to take home.