Magazine article The Spectator

The Old Rake Reinvented

Magazine article The Spectator

The Old Rake Reinvented

Article excerpt

The old rake reinvented Katie Grant CASANOVA by Andrew Miller Sceptre, 14.99, pp. 277

This full-bodied yet razor-sharp novel begins, like many of Casanova's attempted conquests, with a recognisable trick. Casanova, an old man, is turning the physical memories of his life into ashes. A mysterious visitor is announced, a woman. Her arrival prompts him to recall a visit he made to London in 1763. An old trick this may be, but it is still a good one.

Casanova unfolds as no simple historical tale relying on wigs, bodices and carriages to take us back in time. Period detail, which so often reveals only that the writer has commendably and carefully studied a contemporary portrait, in Miller's hands takes us into the heart of 18th-century London so that we can almost smell and touch it.

Miller uses unusual observations to strike, startle and engage the reader. Men turned out the sides of their hats to protect their wigs from the rain and the evening hour is gauged by whether the night-soil men have been. The description of the building of Blackfriars Bridge - `air spanned by stone' - is breathtaking. Miller's London lives and breathes, its fetid atmosphere almost making the reader itch.

The physical inconveniences of old age are heartbreakingly chronicled with equally meticulous attention. A young stud grown old is a pitiable sight and Miller subtly invokes our sympathy through highlighting the most humiliating manifestations. The scene in which Casanova is described behind the screen on his pot will make many old men weep with recognition.

These remarkable descriptions make an intricate backdrop for the series of sophisticated relationships through which Miller exposes his subject inside and out: Casanova and his body, Casanova and his black servant, Casanova and his alter ego, the Chevalier de Seingalt, Casanova and women, be they daughters or lovers, Casanova and Goudar, who plays the part of the devil, Casanova and Venice, grown beloved to him now that he is barred from it. …

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