Magazine article The Spectator

Conversations in Bolzano

Magazine article The Spectator

Conversations in Bolzano

Article excerpt

Casanova puts his case CONVERSATIONS IN BOLZANO by Sándor Márai Viking, £14.99, pp. 294, ISBN 0670915343 £12.99 (plus £2.25 p&p) 0870 800 4848

One of the strangest successes of recent publishing must be Sándor Márai's Embers. First published in Budapest in 1942, it was unknown to the English-speaking world until four years ago, when it became a bestseller. In despair because his work had lapsed into obscurity, its author committed suicide in 1989 in San Diego. He never knew of the collapse of the communists who had driven him away from Hungary 40 years earlier.

Martin Seymour-Smith devoted just 14 lines to Márai in his Guide to Modem World Literature (1985): Márai 'resolutely tried to keep his writing apart from his polities'; he was 'an able defender of bourgeois society . . . an interesting if not a profound writer'. The many readers who enjoyed Embers might say, why should he write about politics? It was love that he wrote about so well, and what's wrong with that as a novelist's theme?

Conversations in Bolzano is concerned with Casanova's escape from prison in Venice in 1758. Arriving in Bolzano, he becomes involved in a bizarre sparring match with the aged Duke of Parma. Some years before, the Duke exiled Casanova for making advances towards his young wife, Francesca, and swore to kill him if he ever reappeared. Now Casanova has set foot on the Duke's territory again, but the situation is not so straightforward as the Duke imagined because Francesca is in love with Casanova. The Duke visits the great seducer with a curious proposal to 'cure' her.

Like Embers, this is a love triangle, imagined and described with lavish intensity. But knowing Márai's background - it is given on the dustjacket - some moving political undertones are hard to escape. 'There is nothing quite as dangerous as a man who will not yield to despotism', we are told. …

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