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Miklós Szentkuthy: Széljegyzetek Casanovához (Marginalia on Casanova)

Miklós Szentkuthy’s epic ten volume but incomplete series known as St Orpheus Breviary has been hailed as one of the classics of European literature – by those who read Hungarian. French readers have been luckier than most, with the first four volumes published by Phébus in that language, though the most recent one was in 2006 with no sign of any later volumes. However, Belgian publisher Vies Parallèles have now taken up the mantle and they have published the first four, with the intention of publishing all ten in French. Contra Mundum published this volume, the first one, in English in 2012, and have promised to publish the rest but there is no sign of any later ones as yet (end of 2017).

The series has been described by the wonderful term roman-cathédralecathedral novel does not have quite the same resonance – which basically means a massive novel with lots going on in it. What the work consists of can best be described as a romp through European history, with a nod to various saints who sometimes turn out to be somewhat less holy than the Catholic Church officially maintains. It is witty, iconoclastic, extravagant and encyclopedic. As the translator of this volume comments it is no surprise to learn that Szentkuthy translated both Gulliver’s Travels and Ulysses into Hungarian.

The first volume, this one, was published in 1939. It was condemned for being blasphemous and profane (it is) and Szentkuthy was lucky to escape prosecution, though all copies of the book were confiscated. It was not republished till 1973. Five more volumes appeared in short order, up to 1942. There was then a gap of thirty years when the political situation meant he was, as the translator says, writing for the drawer. He did write and publish other works, primarily biographies, but this work was not resumed till 1972. The final volume was unfinished on his death. Accordingly, so far, this is the only one available in English.

As the title tells us, the book is about Casanova. Szentkuthy essentially takes Casanova’s Memoirs (the German version, the only one available to him at the time) and comments on it, while going through it more or less in chronological order. However, this is not a learned work (or, rather, it is but is not intended primarily as a learned work) but rather a discursive, witty, at times chaotic, rumbustious romp through Casanova’s life, his thought and his era.

As the other books do, this book starts off with the story of a saint – in this case Saint Alphonsus. Alphonsus is nearing the end of his life and has been banned from writing by his confessor because his writings are considered heretical. He gets round the problem by dictating to a nun – a nun whom he was destined to marry many years ago – and we learn what happened and why he became a priest instead of being a lawyer, which he was initially, and instead of marrying the duchess who is now a nun, which he was initially planning to do.

All of this leads to Casanova, as the two were alive at the same time for sixty-two years, though Alphonsus is twenty-nine years older. We follow Casanova’s life. Szentkuthy aims to point out that Casanova is not simply the man we know from history, the lover, forever changing partners and getting into trouble for it. Indeed, when we first meet him, he is the librarian of Count Waldstein, a post he held for thirteen years till his death.

However, there is no doubt that Szentkuthy is fascinated by Casanova’s amorous adventures and goes into them in a certain amount of detail. He gives us a detailed description of Casanova’s approach, which does not consist in just jumping into bed with the nearest woman. For Casanova it is something of a game, but a serious game, with its own rules. Of course, there are variations – watching Lesbians, threesomes and foursomes (a threesome with three sisters is described), cross-dressing and even paedophilia – this book, published sixteen years before Lolita shows that Nabokov certainly did not invent literary paedophilia.

But Casanova knows when to refrain and Szentkuthy praises him for it. He can also be reticent and nervous when starting out. Love for Casanova is not a woman, it is a dramatic performance but it is also simple. The fact of love is the most unproblematic and most simplistic imaginable fact in the world. It is also about an obligation to take advantage of an opportunity if it presents itself. It is a sin against God to leave that magnificent opportunity unexploited.

However, he also focusses on Casanova the man and this is where he charges off on his rumbustious romp, with tangents, digressions, strange comments and often outrageous remarks. What seems to be key for Szentkuthy is duality. He frequently comments on the two sides of both Casanova but also of other people and occurrences in this book. For example, Casanova is a Rousseau first and a Voltaire after. Casanova could only be Casanova by being Catholic, the duality between St Ignatius Loyola and Don Juan. Indeed as he says, civilisation is an affirmation of self-contradictions. The one I like best is There are already many who make art out of lies; Casanova knows how to produce joie de vivre as well.

Above all, what makes this book so enjoyable are the many commentaries made by Szentkuthy on Casanova, Casanova’s Venice, Casanova’s life, the era and anything else he feels he needs to comment on. If you wish to live, you can only be an actor, a comedian, he states, not necessarily an entirely original statement but he goes on to add like the gods, the cosmos. The finest novels were written, he maintains, when all that we know about a family’s life is learned from midnight conversations in the servants’ quarters, and where love… was equated solely with the master-servant relationship. You may not agree with his comments but they certainly give pause for thought.

Just as other people (Bill Clinton!) are remembered mainly or solely for their amorous adventures so Casanova is known for his. While Szentkuthy certainly does not shy away from this aspect of his life – how could he if he is doing a more or less chronological commentary on his Memoirs? – he shows us that there is more to Casanova. In a telling scene, early on in the book, a woman asks him how one becomes a philosopher, his answer is straightforward one thinks. Right through life, what is more, and one never finishes. In other words, the distinction between thought and life is lost: a life that is worth calling a life is thought. Szentkuthy’s Casanova thinks and so does Szentkuthy and, between them, it is their thoughts, often wild, chaotic and contrarian, but also reasoned and sensible, that make this book such fine reading.

Szentkuthy makes comparisons. There is a wonderful chapter comparing Casanova to the poet Andrew Marvell (Casanova comes out best) and another one involving Heloise and Abelard. But his comparisons draw far and wide, both with people from the past and more modern ones. Even Greta Garbo makes a brief appearance.

Like other readers of this work, I got lost at times with where Szentkuthy was going but that did not matter. Indeed, that is half the fun. It is a serious work but it is also a highly witty work, as Szentkuthy allows himself all too often to get carried away and it is, to a great extent, this that makes the work so original. This is no dry-as-dust commentary on Casanova’s life. It is a thoroughly enjoyable romp through Casanova’s life (and, yes, his loves), his thought, his Venice, his era and anything else that Szentkuthy wants to comment on.

Publishing history

First published in Hungarian 1939 by Hunnia Nyomda
First published in English 2012 by Contra Mundum Press
Translated by Tim Wilkinson