Book review: Conversations in Bolzano

(This was written for the Hindustan Times; should’ve mentioned that what I liked most about Marai’s book was that it sent me back to Casanova’s memoirs. That’s one of the bits about reviewing that’s fun: you get to say, hang on, I’ve got to read this and move off to Casanova’s memoirs (as with Conversations) or Ursula K Le Guin, whom I read alongside Ishiguro’s latest, and you can defend all your digressions by virtuously saying you’re just doing your homework.)

Conversations in Bolzano
Sandor Marai
Viking,
294 pages, POUNDS 10.50

If Sandor Marai had read Giacomo Casanova’s memoirs, he would have read either the German translation or the French. Neither was a reliable version; the full history of the great seducer’s exploits was only released in the 20th century, and the translations until then were based on incomplete versions of the original. It was only in the 1960s that Casanova’s Memoirs were translated into English.

We read Sandor Marai’s works across the same yawning gap. Conversations in Bolzano is a book set in 1758 and written in 1940 that was first translated in 2004, only the second of Marai’s works to be brought to a wider audience. Marai himself was born in 1900 and survived World War II, but at a high price; he committed suicide in 1989, but left behind a literary legacy that is only gradually being exhumed for a non-Hungarian audience.

His first book, Embers , was translated into English only a year or two ago. That tale of two men tested by war and the vicissitudes of life, returning to an unfinished battle over the soul and heart of an extraordinary woman, leapt the barrier of time effortlessly. Despite the long speeches Marai places in his characters’ mouths and the old-fashioned setting, Embers was a riveting, oddly contemporary read, as it held ideas like loyalty, fidelity and honour up to the light and examined them more closely.

The premise of Conversations in Bolzano is audacious—to examine love and its meaning by way of the man whose name is synonymous with seduction. In 1758, by Marai’s account, it has been two years since Casanova managed to escape from the prison in Venice where he spent several uncomfortable years. Marai is at pains to point out that his Casanova is fictional—“it is not so much the romantic episodes in my hero’s life that interests me as his romantic character”. In his telling of the tale, Casanova comes to Bolzano, the place where he lost a duel and a woman to the Duke of Parma. He has hardened in prison—Casanova went into jail a lighthearted youth given to mischief, and came out a colder, cynical survivor intent on the pursuit, however brief, of love.

The Duke has long since married Francesca, but their marriage has been marred by Casanova’s shadow. He could run Casanova out of town, again; he could exert the full force of his power on the seducer and kill him or exile him permanently. Given that he had once bested the younger man in a duel, he might even contemplate fighting Casanova again. But none of these options will be of any use to him, for they will leave Casanova’s image enshrined in Francesca’s heart. Therefore, he has a business proposition to put before Casanova: he will allow the former lovers one perfect night of seduction, when they can celebrate and inter the passion they once felt—and then Casanova must leave.

But this bargain solves nothing: with the Duke’s seal of consent stamped upon the night, their passion will have been just another expensive purchase. And Francesca has her own ways of exacting revenge, her own demands to make; the real betrayal happened for her when Casanova turned his back on what the two of them had and fled from it.

All this unfolds in steady, measured setpieces, formal and stylized in a manner the novel has long since discarded. It is hard to believe that this was written in the same decade that a whole new generation of writers were dismantling the structure of the old ways of seeing literature and experimenting with language, form, ideas. Conversations in Bolzano is a finely crafted argument, and offers a distinct portrait of Casanova: “a man that was ugly rather than handsome, whose features were unrefined, whose body was unheroic”, but who was “genuinely, most resolutely a man, just that and no more”, perhaps the only real man left in the world.

But it reads like a museum piece, a mothballed relic from another day and age. The three main characters go through their motions like clockwork toys; the fine and noble dilemma before them is resolved through words and musings, not through duels or seductions. Marai attempted to confront a question that has tormented many; how could a man love so many women so persistently and with such relentlessness? His answer is that there must have been one woman who was Casanova’s muse and inspiration, who by remaining unattainable, inspired his lifelong devotion. It is a banal answer, satisfying perhaps only at a certain moment of time, and in a day and age that no longer exists.

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