Conversations in Bolzano
GIACOMO Casanova (1725-98) is one of those historical figures known for being known and not much else. Spy, diplomat, writer, adventurer, violinist, actor and businessman, he was a jack-of-all-trades and master of only one: love. And his mastery of the art of love was dubious too, distinguished by quantity rather than quality. In his History of My Life, not published in full until 1966, he claims to have adventured with 122 women.
Casanova’s life was a speckled, seedy affair. He trained as a priest one day and contracted VD the next; he translated German opera into Italian and helped to set up the French state lottery. One minute he was shagging the parlour maid, the next he was spying for Louis XV.
After escaping from a year’s incarceration under the Doge’s roof in Venice, Casanova made his way to Paris where he settled down to society and to business. But in Conversations in Bolzano, a hitherto ‘lost’ novel by the Hungarian author Sandor Marai (who died in 1989), Casanova goes to Bolzano rather than Paris in order to settle a particularly pressing affair of the heart.
Bolzano is the scene of a duel that took place five years earlier between himself and the Duke of Parma over the beautiful 15-year-old Francesca. The duke won and married her, but not before honourably carrying the wounded Casanova to hospital in Venice and, of course, promising his death if he ever returned to Bolzano.
A perfectly juicy storyline; yet Marai spends a good part of the book on the lust between our hero and Teresa, a servant girl at the inn he stays at on his return to Bolzano. The Teresa affair segues into several embarrassingly grandiose outpourings on love.
We learn that Casanova is capable of recognising any one of the hundreds of women he’s seduced, even at a crowded masked ball. So when the Francesca-duke plot emerges two-thirds of the way through, there’s little thunder left for it. Nevertheless, Marai still manages to give Francesca a very lengthy chance to describe the extent of her love for Casanova, which climaxes in the profoundly meaningless: "I am life, my love."
Perhaps the biggest challenge facing Marai was to expound on love meaningfully, avoiding wild gesticulations in panting but empty prose. Casanova was not afraid to spell out the L-word, but Marai should have been more careful with it and others like it - "life", "happiness", "truth" and the cheap binaries "nothing and everything", "the man and the woman". Marai’s undisciplined use of these heavyweights is artless and irritating.
The best novels achieve universal meaning through a tight story and a well-conceived vision. Conversations in Bolzano, as its talky title hints, lacks all three. Maybe the novel was ‘lost’ because Marai hid it out of shame. One thing is for sure: it never should have been found.