Posts Tagged ‘Italy’

Casanova’s Return to Venice

17 September 2016

Casanova's Return to Venice. Arthur SchnitzlerCasanova’s Return to Venice by Arthur Schnitzler

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ageing, weary, his money gone, Casanova is travelling to Venice, to ask its overlords to forgive his past misadventures there, so that he can live out the rest of his days in “the city of his youth… enshrined in all the charms of memory”.

He is no longer handsome. “His power over his fellows, over women no less than over men, had vanished. Only where he evoked memories could his words, his voice, his glance, still conjure… His day was done!” But such self-admissions surge up against his narcissism, creating great turmoil in his heart. Intellectually he fancies himself the equal or superior to Voltaire, against whom he is preparing a polemic. But he remains addicted to sexual conquest and can’t settle calmly into the life of the mind.

A chance meeting on the road leads him into the lives of a group of local people, creating a forum in which the tensions of his inner life play out. There is his amiable and generous host Olivo; his hostess Amalia, hot to resume an old liaison with Casanova; their 13 year old daughter. There is a playful aristocratic Marchesa and her husband the Marchese, who is enraged at being openly cuckolded by the coolly insolent young soldier Lorenzi. There is the calm and lovely young Marcolina, focused on intellectual pursuits. This group spend two days and nights together, in gardens, bedrooms, at dinners and at the gambling table.

Spoiler alert

The charms of Amalia are stale to Casanova, who tries to put her off by emphasising his own physical decay. It is Marcolina who he must have: Marcolina, who holds the youth and beauty that he has lost. She offers him a dignified friendship across the generational and gender divide, with gentle intellectual sparring between equals, but she recoils at every glimpse of his lust. In fact she is sending him into a confused frenzy of despair, self-deceiving hope, and desperate calculation.

At their introduction, Casanova and Lorenzi “exchanged glances of cold aloofness that seemed to offer assurances of mutual dislike”; but moments later Casanova was staggered by the sense that his own youthful persona stood before him. He is temporarily soothed when he learns that Marcolina has rejected Lorenzi’s offer of marriage, but when he discovers they have a secret relationship the blood rushes to his head.

In the end, it is only by literally taking over Lorenzi’s identity – impersonating him in the dark – that Casanova beds Marcolina. But this “return to youth” is pitiful: when she realises what has happened she feels loathing and disgust, then deep sorrow. His second return to youth, in the form of Venice, is also pathetic: he is only allowed back as a police spy, reporting on hot headed young men of the kind that he once was.

Casanova also manages to rape Amalia’s 13 year old daughter. The girl does not show any distress during or after the event, rather she is excited and conspiratorial. Casanova cynically reflects that he managed to have grandmother, mother and daughter. The incident seems designed to throw further light on his character, but it may overshadow the rest of the story for many modern readers.

Most of the text is a close observation of Casanova’s state of mind. During the climatic events in Olivo’s house it shifts style, and feels more like one of Schnitzler’s plays recast into novelistic form.

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Italian Fever

22 May 2011

Italian Fever : a Novel  by Valerie Martin. London : Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2004. 259 pp.

‘DV’ is a famous US novelist now based in Italy. Lucy is his assistant back in New York, annoyed at the success of his punishingly bad prose. But DV dies in the prologue, while walking at night; there are hints of supernatural involvement. She studies photos of his corpse and sees signs of torment before the end. And there is the disappearance of DV’s lover to account for. Lucy is sent to Italy to settle his business affairs.

With irony and black humour the book takes us through ghost-worlds, deadness, hell, relationships, womanhood, beauty, and art.

Spoiler alert

Near DV’s house in Tuscany Lucy encounters a faintly sinister family of aristocrats: the elegant but feeble-looking Antonio, his mother, his fiery but elderly father. Lucy seeks evidence of their involvement in DV’s death and the disappearance and possible demise of his lover Catherine.

The blonde lovely Catherine, however, is far from done. It turns out that she had indulged DV’s swooning only until she’d learnt that his money was all locked up by ex-wives. Upon learning that, she turned on him with a ridicule that lashed him to the core. This chastisement scoured out DV’s smugness and self-obsession, and set him on the road to better writing, as Lucy discovers in his final ms. Catherine herself learned nothing from their encounter; she simply moved on to set other hearts afire.

Catherine is an artist. She captured DV’s longing and hurt in a quick, mocking sketch. What she really wants is a man to support her painting, and a shop to sell it in. She tells Lucy she has never loved, and generally seems to personify the cold side of art. But while Catherine justifies all in the name of her creative work, she ultimately appears mediocre and petulant to Lucy.

Exposure to Catherine’s charm turns Lucy toward self-reflection. Lucy does not have hardened views on sexual politics that one would expect from a modern-day woman in the publishing industry. Modest, competent, genuine, she is without cunning, brilliance or glamour, and discovers she has no sense of herself as an object of desire. Like DV she is a sucker for charisma. So she is a sucker for the gentlemanly and handsome Massimo, who nurses her through a fever. He is elegant and solicitous, yet ultimately after money and position, all his beauty exterior, like Catherine’s; her love was another fever – a fall into hell, into love, into disorientation.

In contrast to Massimo is Antonio, the unspunky aristocrat who turns out to be sensitive and considerate.

Art stirs longing, but also pain. DV’s ghost labours endlessly at his writing desk. Antonio longed to paint but found it beyond him, though he never lost his reverence for fine works.

Ghosts play their role as symbols of human passions, or events that are stalled, unresolved. The ghost that lures DV to his death was a man killed by a jealous brother. DV as a ghost calls for Lucy to give him some human recognition of his suffering, and when she does, he is at last freed from torment.

In keeping with his artlessness, DV’s fall into hell took the form of a stumble into a cracked septic tank. Only in his suffering does he attain dignity.

DV and Lucy ‘had both fallen in love with beauty, and beauty had briefly toyed with them. But beauty was invioliable, like great art; it both excited and resisted the passion for possession’.