No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Thursday, January 19, 2006

#5: Casanova -- Andrew Miller

This novel was published in 1998, but might easily be taken, at first, for a novelisation of the recent TV series. Though the opening scene -- an old man, reflecting on past sins to a young woman in a draughty Bohemian castle -- is familiar, that's simply because both works draw on the same source: Casanova's sensational autobiography.

The TV series focussed on Casanova as a young man, but Miller is more interested in his stay in London. Casanova is 38 years old in 1763, approaching middle age by the standards of the time. He's come to London to reinvent himself, to escape the long arm of the Venetian Republic, to engage in a little gentlemanly spying for Louis XV. But in London he meets his match: the young, beautiful and chaste Marie Charpillon.

Chaste as far as Casanova's concerned, that is: rumour has it that she's been the mistress of more than one man. Chased by Casanova, too, in what's at first an idle flirtation but swiftly becomes a contest of wills. Casanova is forced to examine his life and himself; he undergoes a transformation more dramatic than any alias or assumed role; he becomes, by the end of the novel (and certainly by that dimly-lit framing narrative in Dux), a wiser man.

The writing is clever, playful, often downright amusing: Miller has a knack for the unexpected, the sly and thought-provoking word. Yew trees shading a country churchyard are a gang, and thus menacing: drizzle lengthens into rain; Casanova's infamous lovemaking is a riot in a girl's limbs.

'The rain had given way to a sun of chewed brass, and London, smoky Atlantis, had risen into the morning, the dome of St Paul's draped in scarves of aqueous northern light. Over the hats and the dust, through the webs of rope, he observed ... the commotion of the town, its semaphore of ladies' silks and golden sword hilts, of windows in austere buildings batting back the sunlight from rooms where who knew what agreeable, what peppery intrigues were hatching.

Yet there's much more to this novel than fine writing. There's a depth (an abyss almost) of despair, a recognition of encroaching age, a real sense of the everyday life of an ordinary man beneath an extraordinary plumage of reputation. Casanova drinks with Doctor Johnson, discusses words and women, watches in the half-light as Johnson, thinking himself unobserved, tries Casanova's coat, and smirks at his reflection. Those lapidary moments constitute a more universal, human story than the trite pursuit of virtue and the rake's eventual, unlooked-for redemption.

Oddly, when I first tackled this novel (which I bought when it came out, and left to languish on the shelf) I didn't get along with it at all: the language did nothing for me, and in fact I remember finding the first part of it a dull read. And that wasn't so very long ago: a couple of years at most, and possibly less. Not sure what that proves, except that sometimes even the finest music (to mix a metaphor) falls on deaf ears.

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