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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Casanova in Bolzano
(Conversations in Bolzano)

Márai Sándor

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To purchase Casanova in Bolzano

Title: Casanova in Bolzano
Author: Márai Sándor
Genre: Novel
Written: 1940 (Eng. 2004)
Length: 294 pages
Original in: Hungarian
Availability: Casanova in Bolzano - US
Conversations in Bolzano - UK
Casanova in Bolzano - Canada
La Conversation de Bolzano - France
Die Gräfin von Parma - Deutschland
  • Hungarian title: Vendégjáték Bolzanóban
  • Translated by George Szirtes
  • US title: Casanova in Bolzano
  • UK title: Conversations in Bolzano
  • But hey, it's been published three times in German -- as: Ein Herr aus Venedig (1943), Begegnung in Bolzano (1950), and, in a revised translation, as Die Gräfin von Parma (2002)

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Our Assessment:

B : more talk than action, decent character-study

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 25/3/2003 Niklas Bender
The Guardian B 6/11/2004 Elena Seymenliyska
The Independent . 26/11/2004 Paul Bailey
Independent on Sunday . 14/11/2004 Stevie Davies
London Rev. of Books . 21/10/2004 Adam Phillips
The NY Times Book Rev. . 5/12/2004 Richard Lourie
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction A+ Summer/2005 Michael Pinker
San Francisco Chronicle A 28/11/2004 Chandrahas Choudhury
The Spectator . 6/11/2004 John de Falbe
Sunday Times . 7/11/2004 Alex Clark
The Telegraph . 12/12/2004 David Robson
The Telegraph . 12/12/2004 Julian Evans
TLS . 19/11/2004 Jonathan Keates
The Washington Post A 7/11/2004 Craig Nova

  Review Consensus:

  Mixed feelings, but some very impressed

  From the Reviews:
  • "Márais seltsam altertümlich, fast bombastisch wirkenden Monologe verlieren so nicht an Bedeutung, gewinnen aber im Wechselspiel die Leichtigkeit eines Maskenballs." - Niklas Bender, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "But while Embers is deeply moving in its economy of phrasing and gesture, Conversations is a little too overblown and melodramatic to be genuinely affecting. (....) (T)he tone remains the same -- didactic and declamatory. These are not conversations, they are soliloquies, and they go on for page after breathless page. They are none the less engaging, eloquent soliloquies, which gain momentum as the characters struggle to define what they understand as love." - Elena Seymenliyska, The Guardian

  • "At times I thought I was reading "Monologues in Bolzano", but only fleetingly. As in Embers, there are tantalising surprises in store, with Father Balbi having the last, full-bellied laugh. The translation, by George Szirtes, is a constant pleasure." - Paul Bailey, The Independent

  • "The stilted and precious theatricality of the writing is not helped by the curious tic according to which Márai (to great purpose in Embers) favoured a technique of dialogue by one-sided monologue. The prolix dulness of the allegory stands in contrast to the lean writing of the masterpiece, Embers." - Stevie Davies, Independent on Sunday

  • "Conversations in Bolzano is a book about love because it is a book about Fascism." - Adam Phillips, London Review of Books

  • "(T)his novel of exquisite slowness and refreshing oddity" - Richard Lourie, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Márai’s stunning portrait of a celebrity confronting his bubble of reputation is a tour-de-force not to be missed." - Michael Pinker, Review of Contemporary Fiction

  • "Out of this deliciously unstable set of elements Marai fashions a marvelous denouement, one that we feel expresses the truth about the natures of each of the characters without shortchanging any." - Chandrahas Choudhury, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Whether this amounts to a defence of bourgeois values or not, Conversations in Bolzano is primarily an elaborate investigation of the different kinds of love. There is a romantic element, but the ideas are more Nietzsche than Heyer. Readers who enjoyed Embers will not be put off by the news that almost the entire novel takes place in Casanova’s room at the inn, and that it consists of tortuous, serpentine conversations." - John de Falbe, The Spectator

  • "Marai’s Casanova is a fascinating and richly achieved creation: repellently vain and careless of others, unnervingly well adapted to the use and abuse of kindness and generosity, equipped with an apparent hotline to his victims’ weaknesses. And yet he also displays an acute self-knowledge that is almost insanely fatiguing and an innate compassion that he strives to suppress" - Alex Clark, Sunday Times

  • "Conversations in Bolzano is not an entirely satisfying piece. Márai is prone to long-windedness, and one passage in particular, in which the Duke analyses a four-word sentence in excruciating detail, can only be recommended to hard-line Proustians. But there is an elegance in the storytelling, a readiness to engage with big moral themes, that proclaim a master at work." - David Robson, The Telegraph

  • "It is an eloquent tangle of emotional intensity that begins with all the sharp economy of scenes and moods that marked its predecessor. By the end, the verdict on both novel and author is more complicated." - Julian Evans, The Telegraph

  • "Sandor Marai's success, clinched by the ex-lovers' encounter en travesti at the novel's climax, lies in his fidelity both to Casanova's voice, as registered by the memoirs, and to period atmosphere. (...) What tests the reader, on the other hand, is the writer's stylistic reliance, particularly in the book's later sections, on rhetoric as a means of highlighting his themes. (...) Such formal artifice is of course true to the spirit of Casanova's age, and the grave beauty of George Szirtes's translation from Marai's Hungarian renders it more acceptable as a masking device in the long essay on desire and its fulfilment which the novel essentially constitutes." - Jonathan Keates, Times Literary Supplement

  • "(E)ntertaining and profound (.....) Marai's great gift is his ability to demonstrate his characters' qualities rather than merely describe them. (...) This sounds like the description of an opera, but the book saves itself by its drama, its language and its observations about being alive." - Craig Nova, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The American edition of Vendégjáték Bolzanóban comes with an Author's Note that begins:

     Given the appearance and behavior of my hero, the reader will no doubt identify the characteristic profile of that notorious eighteenth-century adventurer, Giacomo Casanova.
       Marai goes on to note that his: "hero bears an unfortunate resemblance" to the historic Casanova, but as he explains -- and given that he never actually uses the (in)famous name in the book -- he clearly means it to be something more than an historic novel based on the character. Hungarian readers, British readers (reading Conversations in Bolzano), French (reading La Conversation de Bolzano), etc. might get this -- but Americans have Casanova thrust in their faces in a way Marai can not have intended: the title leaves no doubt, this is a book about Casanova in Bolzano. The thinking is, surely that a 'Casanova' sells better than a 'Conversation'; still: poor show.
       It is, in fact, conversations that are as much centre-stage as the central character: as in a practise-run for Embers Marai has his characters revisit long-past times, a love-triangle not realigned but reconsidered as they talk and talk and talk.
       The central character is Giacomo. Having escaped from Venice, where he had been imprisoned for over a year, he is making his way north and stops off in Blozano -- to get his bearings and some cash and eventually travel on in style. Bolzano isn't really his kind of place, and soon enough he's wondering: "Why haven't I already left this rotten town to which nothing ties me ?"
       First and foremost, surely, it is the presence of the duke of Parma, who also happens to be in town, that leads Giacomo to linger. There's history between them: they fought a duel over a woman once, and the now-duchess of Parma, Francesca, is the rare woman he didn't entirely successfully conquer. Curious, Giacomo can't let sleeping dogs lie -- and neither can the duke, who eventually gets together with Giacomo, rehashing old times and making a somewhat surprising offer.
       It all leads to a meeting of the duchess and Giacomo -- but who will conquer whom ?
       The plot-ideas -- simmering love and jealousy, death-threats and duels, the powerful against the wily, letting go (and retrieving) the past -- are all quite fun and often appealing, but Marai's wordy approach dulls the pleasure. The duke and the duchess offer long monologues, explaining the past and present, making less for the chess game the novel is meant to be than a commentary on a chess game -- not nearly as riveting. (Odd choices, such as the sexual inversion when Giacomo and the duchess meet -- she in men's clothing, he dressed as a woman -- also make for a strange flavour.)
       Marai also casts Giacomo not as a Casanova but a writer -- a would be writer: it's his ambition and, so he claims, calling. "Writing is the greatest power there is", he claims, and excuses the fact that he hasn't really gotten down to it with the notion that he wants to have lived first. Not surprisingly, it's a burst of writing on the part of Francesca that also sets much of the plot into motion.
       It's good to see words -- spoken and especially written -- being taken so seriously, but Marai doesn't blend this ideally in his novel. If that were truly central to the story it might work, but instead much of the novel focusses (or rather: rambles) elsewhere, Marai having good fun with Giacomo and his cocky ways, from his seducing women to raising funds to playing cards. But it doesn't all fit together ideally -- well enough to make for decent entertainment, but not as well as one might have liked.
       Casanova in Bolzano is a decent character study and fairly entertaining, but ultimately too wordy for a good action-romance (and too active and romantic for a philosophical-literary work).

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Casanova in Bolzano: Reviews: Marai Sandor: Other books by Marai Sandor under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Hungarian author Márai Sándor (1900-1989) was a leading author in Hungary in the 1930s but under the Communists his work fell into utter oblivion. He left Hungary in 1948, first for Italy, then the US, where he eventually committed suicide.

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