Sándor Márai: Vendégjáték Bolzanóban (Casanova in Bolzano)
Yes, this novel is about the historical Casanova but, as Márai tells us in the foreword, while the circumstances of his escape from prison in Venice are taken from Casanova’s Memoirs, the rest of the book is fiction. My excuse is that it was not so much the romantic episodes in my hero’s life that interested me as his romantic character.
We first meet him in this book just after his famous escape from prison in Venice. He and the somewhat scurrilous priest, Father Balbi, who helped him escape, are fleeing. We meet them in Treviso, where Casanova chases Balbi away and says they will meet up in Bolzano. Bolzano was, at this time, part of the Holy Roman Empire and therefore not under the jurisdiction of Venice.
He arrives in Bolzano in rags but tells the innkeeper he wants the best room and best food, his appearance being because he had been robbed. He even signs his own name so immediately the Secret Service begin asking questions. More importantly, the locals, particularly the local women, are excited having such a famous person in their midst. Interestingly, the news soon travels throughout Europe and people, including the Pope and King of France, seem pleased that has escaped.
One of the maids is called Teresa. She has been at the inn for four years and is now sixteen. The innkeeper asks her to keep an eye on Casanova and let him know what he is up to. She not only spies through the keyhole but even invites her friends to do so. Casanova spots them and sends them all but Teresa away. He has not had any sexual contact with a woman for some time, because of his imprisonment and now tries to proposition Teresa. To his surprise, she is neither afraid nor particularly attracted to him. Indeed, when he finally kisses her, she tells him that she feels nothing. Here she stood and there was nothing he could do with her because she was neither defending herself nor yielding to orders and demands.
Then he asks himself Could this be the One? but he and we know the answer before he has asked the question. He already knew that she wasn’t, or, more precisely, that she was only one among many others who were also not the One.
While having his haircut, the barber tells him that the Duke of Parma would like to see him. Casanova and the Duke have met before. They fought a duel over a young woman, Francesca. Though the Duke was some thirty years older, he easily won and Casanova was badly injured and still has the scar, just beneath his heart.
Casanova decides he has to look his best and, using borrowed money and credit, he splashes out on a new wardrobe. Money is, indeed, an issue for him and he is happy to get it any way he can. He has a patron in Venice, Signor Bragadin, whom he persuades to send him money but, in the meanwhile, he is happy to borrow money from the moneylender and buy on credit. He also plans to augment his income by having a set of cards marked so he can win money at cards. He also offers advice to the lovelorn, charging for this advice. He has many clients.
He learns Francesca is holding a ball but he has yet to receive an invitation. We know and he knows he has stayed in Bolzano, a town which does not appeal to him, solely because of Francesca.
However, he is surprised to see the grand entrance of some dignitary who can only be the Duke of Parma. The Duke has come to see him. He is particularly surprised because the Duke made it clear that if Casanova were to approach Francesca ever again, he would kill him. The Duke and Casanova have a long conversation, which takes up a large part of the book and is nearly all the Duke talking.
The Duke is getting old and wants to spend the last part of his life loved by his wife. Yet, it seems, she still loves Casanova. She has sent a letter to Casanova, which the Duke has managed to intercept. The Duke spends a lot of time explaining this letter, not least because Francesca has only learned to read and write in the past year and because she seemingly has no access either to paper or pen and ink. There is much build-up to this letter but we finally learn that it consists of just four words and the letter F as her signature.
The Duke damns Casanova – you cannot truly love a woman, because you are doomed never to be satisfied and however extraordinary the love of the duchess for you, it is still more extraordinary that you should love the duchess: it is as if you were breaking the very laws of your existence. However, he makes him an offer which he hopes Casanova cannot refuse. It is a somewhat surprising offer but one for which Casanova will he handsomely rewarded, though there are veiled threats if he does not do as the Duke says.
However, both the Duke and Casanova have forgotten that there is one other party in this arrangement and that party is Francesca. She is not their puppet as they may think but very much her own woman, with her own views on love and on both the Duke and Casanova.
This book is bombastic and overblown. It is clearly, at least in part, mocking Casanova’s own memoirs. As mentioned at the beginning, Márai is focussing on Casanova’s character and not the historical events of his life. Both the Duke and Casanova himself know what he is like. He may feign love, even think he is in love but really has no idea what love entails and, really, no interest in being in love. Lust is what drives him and clearly seduction of women is his strong suit. Given that he is certainly not the only man who felt that way, it is surprising that, more than two hundred years after his death, he is still very much, along with Don Juan, the role model for the seductor. This may be partially due to his copious memoirs and to his daring prison escape and, also, perhaps because he is Italian – we cannot, for example, imagine a German Casanova – but, also because people have written about him and continue to do so.
First published in Hungarian 1940 by Révai Kiadón
First published in English 2004 by Alfred A Knopf
Translated by George Szirtes