The legendary lover is the beleaguered antihero of this hitherto untranslated 1940 novel.
Hungarian expatriate author Márai (1900–89), best known here for his small masterpiece Embers (1942; Eng. trans. 2001), begins with Giacomo Casanova’s 1756 escape from a notorious Venetian prison (“the Leads”), accompanied by a dissolute friar (Balbi) who poses as his “secretary” while the pair take refuge in the village of Bolzano. The reader is immediately struck by Márai’s elegant style (smoothly rendered by veteran translator Szirtes): lengthy, crowded serpentine sentences that create the impression of a hurtling, impatient intelligence eager to communicate all it has experienced and absorbed. And this is Casanova: a libertine intellectual, persecuted for “immorality” (specifically, for seducing prominent men’s women), who views himself as an artist gathering raw material for eventual self-expression (“I am that rare creature, a writer with a life to write about!”). Alas, the story developed from this promising premise is redundant, turgid, and dull. Márai piques our interest when Bolzano’s women crowd around the notorious stranger’s bedroom door, watching through a keyhole as he sleeps—and when his hopeful seduction of a semi-innocent teenaged maid is interrupted by Balbi. But Márai drones on inexcusably when Casanova reiterates his love-hate relationship with Venice (his birthplace), crafts an appeal for money to an indulgent patron, and matches wits with the aged Duke of Parma, who had bested Casanova in a duel fought over beauteous Francesca (now Duchess of Parma)—and who offers his former rival the ultimate challenge. If Casanova will create his “masterpiece of seduction,” thus relieving Francesca of her lingering obsession with him and releasing her from his spell, the libertine will be handsomely rewarded and his life spared again. All this, as well as Casanova’s reunion with Francesca and his response to the Duke’s challenge, is spelt out at interminable length.
Embers was the work of a master of concision and irony. This is self-indulgent rant.