By fluke, or destiny, Hungarian novelist Sándor Márai’s afterlife in English resembles the pattern of quietude and poetic exuberance found in his novels, of which Casanova in Bolzano is only the second to be translated. The pattern, more precisely, is this: precipitated by injustice, a long silence is undergone until, unexpectedly lifted, out flows a meditation on love and its vicissitudes. In the case of Márai, this injustice took the form of Communist officials who, after their rise to power in 1948, banned Márai’s work. Exiled first to Italy and later to America, Márai committed suicide in 1989, before the international community would fête him as a master.
For the eponymous rogue of Márai’s 1940 novel, escape from Venice’s infamous prison, the Leads, ends a similar exile. Fleeing his pursuers, Casanova and his accomplice, the defrocked friar Balbi, alight in the town of Bolzano. At the Stag Inn, Casanova encounters a suspicious innkeeper, an artless good-hearted chambermaid, and a garrulous barber, “the official traitor to the municipality.”
The comedic tone struck in the novel’s opening pages chimes with Márai’s stated intention that it is Casanova’s romantic rather than historical specter that he is interested in conjuring. Furthermore, his use of comedy, with its snappy typecasting—the merry friar, the uncomfortably stereotypical Jewish usurer—cushions the reader on a prop of familiarity, which the narrative gradually exploits.
Commissioned by the inn-keeper to spy on Casanova, Teresa, a chambermaid, gathers her female acquaintances. Their impression of the adventurer coheres with the purposeful thinness of characterization used by Márai to hatch comedic effects. After peeping through the guest’s keyhole, one of the women is quizzed on what she witnessed. She responds in a bedazzled fashion, “Aman.”
Lowly Teresa begins the slow erosion of the narrative’s comedic conceits when, after overcoming her initial fear of Casanova, she senses that “she was the stronger.” A clue is given as to why this is so in the previous sentence, “She was acquainted with love and was not afraid of it.” After an initial botched seduction, Casanova throws a mini-tantrum as he wonders if he’s lost his mojo. His subsequent equipoise is quickly shaken when he learns that the duke of Parma desires to see him.This news plunges Casanova into a well of introspection as he recollects his last encounter with the duke, five years prior, when in his mid-thirties he was nearly slain by the then-sexagenarian in a duel over the estimable Francesca.
This memory of Francesca triggers a tonal shift as the language sails into a poetic register. Casanova is gripped by a rapture untainted by lust. In an effort to console himself, he congratulates the exquisite manner in which he displays himself to the public—but it isn’t enough, and he is confronted by this unhappy truth: the mojo master is terrified of solitude.
When the duke calls upon Casanova, the comedy of the first half of the novel scatters. What remains is a thematic preview of Márai’s Embers, which was published two years after this novel, in 1942. Those who’ve read Embers will hear echoes of the General’s implacable logic in the duke and, later on, in Francesca as they mine the concept of agape—a love strong enough to bear and even invite betrayal—for spectacular results. As the protagonist withers beneath love’s gaze, the novel balloons into abundant three-dimensionality.