The life of writer Sandor Marai has all the elements of a dramatic novel, regrettably a tragic one. Born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1900, he had established an enviable reputation in only 30-some years. His nobility, humanism and hatred for the Fascists earned him the enmity of Admiral Horthy's Hungarian regime and later the malevolence of the Communists who were to be in power. All copies of his books were destroyed, and his work was banned forever.
Disillusioned and in despair he left his beloved country, first to find sanctuary in Italy and then in the United States. In 1989 he took his own life never knowing of democracy's return to his native land. Some five years later three of his works were found in French translations. In 2001 we were privileged to have the first English translation of one of his novels, Embers. It was published to great acclaim, as I feel certain that Casanova in Bolzano will be received.
In an opening author's note Marai makes it clear that the only actual event in this story is Casanova's escape from an unspeakably horrid cell in Venice's ducal palace in 1796. What follows is totally fiction - ah, but what fiction it is.
With the assistance of a defrocked priest, Balbi, Casanova makes his way to an Italian village, Bolzano. Once there he demands and is given the finest rooms by an innkeeper who at first distrusts the pair because of their ragged appearances and lack of luggage. But Marai has given Casanova a silver tongue, one which commands, influences, and, of course, woos.
Bolzano is far from what most would consider a safe haven because some years before Casanova had dueled with the duke of Parma for the love of Francesca, then a 15-year-old girl. The Duke got the better of Casanova but did not take his life, rather making him promise never to see Francesca again.
Now, the duke is an old man and has come upon a note Francesca has written to her former lover asking to see him. She, too, has changed over the years. Married to the Duke she is no longer a susceptible teenager but a rather willful woman. Will the two meet?
Throughout his richly told tale Marai treats readers to painterly details and ruminations pertaining to the human condition - desire, honor, love, duty. Here is a novelist whose life was far too short, yet he speaks to us as if he were alive today. And his voice is sublime.
- Gail Cooke