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the Complete Review
the complete review - non/fiction

Marginalia on Casanova

Szentkuthy Miklós

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To purchase Marginalia on Casanova

Title: Marginalia on Casanova
Author: Szentkuthy Miklós
Genre: Non/fiction
Written: 1939 (Eng. 2012)
Length: 302 pages
Original in: Hungarian
Availability: Marginalia on Casanova - US
Marginalia on Casanova - UK
Marginalia on Casanova - Canada
En marge de Casanova - France
A propósito de Casanova - España
  • St. Orpheus Breviary I
  • Hungarian title: Széljegyzetek Casanovához
  • Translated by Tim Wilkinson
  • With an Introduction by Zéno Bianu: Boudoir and Theology
  • With an Afterword by Mária Tompa

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Our Assessment:

A- : fascinating philosophical-fictional exposition

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 4/1/2013 Nicholas Lezard

  From the Reviews:
  • "What we have here is thought turned into something so sensuous it almost becomes erotic: this is the clever point that the book makes, that Casanova was not at all just the serial seducer we have decided he is, but a philosopher, in whose every action we see a principle of thought. (...) A huge salute to the translator here; Tim Wilkinson's capture and then retransmission of nuance is awe-inspiring. This could not have been translated by someone with anything less than a brilliant English prose style (.....) I find it enchanting: vertiginous and elusive, but worth the effort, because right. Some others might well make a noise like a retired colonel, and consign it to Pseuds' Corner." - Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian

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:

       Marginalia on Casanova is the first volume in Szentkuthy Miklós' unusual, decades-spanning 'St.Orpheus Breviary'. Mária Tompa's Afterword quotes from Szentkuthy's own planned prospectus-text , where he describes it as "interlocking essay series" ("which will appear quarterly" ...) and explains that:

The name "Orpheus" expresses the underlying conceptual tone: Orpheus wandering in the underworld is an eternal symbol of the brain straying among the dark secrets of reality. The aim of the work is, firstly, to portray the reality of nature and history with ever more extreme precision, and, secondly, to display through variations in the history of the European mind an observer's every uncertainty, the fickleness of emotions, the tragic sterility of thought & philosophical systems.
       First printed in 1939, but, Tompa reports, immediately impounded, "so that it never reached bookshops", Marginalia on Casanova was followed by several more volumes Szentkuthy wrote during World War II -- with the author then again returning to the larger project of the St. Orpheus Breviary beginning in the 1970s, ultimately bringing the total to ten (the last unfinished). (While a significant part of his œuvre, it does not nearly represent his entire life-work; he wrote several other novels and a large variety of similarly difficult-to-classify works.)
       Marginalia on Casanova is, in fact, less marginalia than a full-fledged reading of Casanova -- the diaries, to be sure, but also the man, and the times. The memoirs are central, and Szentkuthy can't get away from them (following them closely in how he structures his own book), but he understands:
     Casanova is life, not literature (though his book, his book ...), 'he is' and he is not fantasizing.
      Marginalia on Casanova is also a personal book, as Szentkuthy uses Casanova for personal reflection; indeed, the Casanova he presents is, as he admits, one: "whom I am styling, if need be forcibly, to my own Orphean image".
       Using the massive History of my Life (over 4500 pages in the six-volume Willard Trask translation -- though Szentkuthy relies on (and quotes from) the German translation), Szentkuthy takes Casanova as a starting point. The choice may, on the basis of reputation, surprise, but Szentkuthy sees and takes Casanova rather differently -- arguing:
     Casanova is many things but specifically not a libertine, someone hungrily on the look-out for any cheap pleasure.
      And he makes clear that from his standpoint:
one must continually emphasize that Casanova is the Brunelleschi of love, not its Rubens.
       Instead, he makes a case for the idea that: "Casanova is not an adventure so much as thought". Indeed:
We are now at the very essence of Casanova, his before-and-after-all-else intellectual character. This whole life (or, to be more exact: book about the life) could only be pulled off by having a thought functioning in it, not some dream or physical desire. A swindler could not have been so successful, only a philosopher.
       It is this thread that Szentkuthy reaches for and tries to untangle -- or wrap around the rest. He is fascinated by Casanova's mind, and sees the carnal simply as one manifestation of that. So too for Szentkuthy:
Casanova is a furioso of raison, the Orlando of logical loves
       The events and observations he finds in Casanova's memoir inspire Szentkuthy to his own flights of fancy, as well as to a variety of interpretation and philosophizing. Love is central, sex a (more complicated) part of it. Particularly fascinating is Szentkuthy's take on the times and culture, where theater boxes are not for watching what's being played on the stage, and where there were many "passionate literati" among the ruling class -- but where that love of and engagement with literature was:
more of a social game, an impromptu & dry philological cultivation in general, thus befitting Casanova
       Szentkuthy admits to his own "'barren' mania of descriptions" -- but, as he explains:
     I am convinced that the most monotonous fiasco of a landscape description lies closer to the natural history of logic, the truth, and intellectuality than all the philosophers from Plato to Kant.
       Presumably, part of the attraction Casanova holds is that there is, so prominently, that physical element: however one sees his philosophy, it can hardly be said to consist solely of 'dry thought', as personal action constantly offers real-world affirmation of it.
       This appeal of Casanova's more-than-words holds throughout (even as Casanova himself was reduced to words, the mono-manic/graphic super-prolix exercise that became the memoirs). Very near the end Szentkuthy admits:
     There is no greater antithesis in the world than this: to run aground in prose or to lose one's mind in dreams, to crystallize sobriety or to push the luxury or luxuries into Art Nouveau.
       Marginalia on Casanova is an odd, fascinating book -- a philosophical work, but also one of interpretation, in several layers, from eras and context, to Casanova's own words as refelection of his life, times, and deeds, and finally also as a work of self-reflection. Living in such very different times -- 1930s Hungary ! -- Szentkuthy does travel to nearby Vienna and Venice but even these descriptions seem removed from the reality of the times, and these asides are more aesthetic mind-voyages than physical ones; the bulk of the book is grounded entirely elsewhere, situated in even more distant times. Szentkuthy comments little on the present-day -- but then Casanova also allows him to focus on the timeless universals, love first and foremost among them.
       How baffling and complicated love is is also nicely conveyed in one of the passages near the end, as Szentkuthy winds his undertaking down and concludes:
Love is anyway unliveable, cannot be dogmatized about, is unrealizable,: the whole thing is just an abstract staccato moment, then possibly a second, completely independent of the first, and then again an alien third staccato, but to make a connection, a legal legato, from it is to be: narrow-minded. Love is a fraction of a fraction of a second: a constellation of color, taste, and mood; it has no antecedent, still less a future; when that mode is at an end, then everything is at an end, and has to be begun again from the beginning.
       So too, of course is art -- music, in particular, but the written word as well: always passing moments, never quite the same, even when returned to. Casanova, living always in the moment, especially for love, embodies this ideally.
       Marginalia on Casanova is not so much digressive as involuted, its arguments and observations turned and repeated in a structure that is complex, ordered, yet also strikingly creative. Rigorously argued, offering a broad and deep vision, it is also surprisingly entertaining.
       Szentkuthy suggests:
People have no idea how immeasurable the discontinuity is between the freewheeling of thoughts ad absurdum and life.
       Yet Marginalia on Casanova -- as 'freewheeling of thoughts' as any book one is likely to encounter, but grounded in (Casanova's) life -- ultimately does give a good sense of this.
       Marginalia on Casanova stands well entirely on its own, but one can't help but be curious about its place in the larger undertaking that is the St. Orpheus Breviary (and one hopes for forthcoming translations of the remaining volumes ...). It's difficult to describe just what this book is; to call it philosophical fiction or historical-literary commentary and analysis or, indeed, just marginalia, doesn't nearly do it justice. It is all this, and more; it is certainly worth engaging with.

- M.A.Orthofer, 10 November 2012

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Marginalia on Casanova: Reviews: Szentkuthy Miklós: Other books by Szentkuthy Miklós under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Hungarian author Szentkuthy Miklós lived 1908 to 1988.

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© 2012-2021 the complete review

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