A running commentary on Casanova, with all manner of aperçus in a freely flowing essayistic style that nonetheless bears evidence of considerable erudition.
Among Anglophone readers, Miklós Szentkuthy (1908–1988) was a relatively little-known (though highly prolific) Hungarian writer. Thanks to the recent efforts of Contra Mundum Press and translator Tim Wilkinson, who has done an admirable job in translating Szentkuthy’s ornate Rococo prose, this unfortunate situation now looks to be in a state of happy reversal.
This volume, the first of six in a series entitled St. Orpheus Breviary, was first published in 1939. As the title suggests, this first volume styles itself as a series of commentaries based upon the very voluminous memoirs of Giocomo Casanova (1725–1795). While a slight acquaintance with the events of Casanova’s life may enhance the reader’s enjoyment of the text, it is by no means absolutely necessary to its perusal. Szentkuthy weaves into his running commentary on Casanova all manner of aperçus in a freely flowing essayistic style that nonetheless bears evidence of considerable erudition.
In one sense, Casanova is evoked as a kind of emblem, a trope whose universality extends beyond the temporal boundaries of the late Baroque. The “guiding light” of the volume is, of course, Orpheus himself. Orpheus, however, has throughout the ages spawned many spiritual progenies, including Abelard, Don Juan and Andrew Marvell, all of whom make their appearance at one point or another in the book. All of them gourmands of the “fairer” sex—or, to put it more bluntly, womanizers—who not only womanized, but wrote and reflected upon their amorous adventures. To this Szentkuthy adds his own meditations on the female erotic:
53. The ‘Balkan impromptu’ has already taken place, now only the comfortably doled out details can come – indeed, are coming: a lovely Greek slave-girl. Is it not marvellous that slave-girls still existed in the 18th century? If a maid is heaven then a slave-girl must be seventh heaven. A great lover can always be recognized from the fact that he has no sense of the individuality of women, of human liberty, of life having an end in itself…That is why the final object is the slave girl, who can be placed any which way like an object…In Casanova’s day for travellers to the Balkans that was not a pipe-dream but a tourist item. (p. 96–97)
One could of course make the observation here that the proliferation of “slave-girls who can be arranged like objects” as a regular “tourist item” has by no means diminished for the traveller willing to go beyond Europe’s borders (not to mention the staggeringly high number of women illegally smuggled into Europe from literally every corner of the globe, who are then forced into slave labour in brothels across the continent).
Be that as it may, Szentkuthy’s erotic meditations are simultaneously interwoven with his endless fascination and love for the late 18th century. The passages in which he evokes the spaces of the mid-to-late 18th century, the spaces in which seduction, flirting, and love-making take place, are small gems of aesthetic analysis. These sections form a true homage to this ornate, overwrought age, as Szentkuthy’s unfailing sense for the tactile and the tangible leads him to consider the accessories and the backdrop of seduction:
25. I already broached the topic of candles, but wide-branched candelabras, chandeliers, and forests of wax reflected four or five times over in mirrors deserve a separate section. These haloes of light and fire sparkle, redden, and turn to ashes around Casanova’s head like the red-hot crown of iron on the head of György Dózsa. (p. 72)
The visual mise en abîme evoked here is echoed throughout the text, Szentkuthy’s commentaries receding into the distance like a corresponding series of rooms in a Rococo French chateau.
In another passage, he contrasts the salon to the cabinet:
111. Signor Barbaro, a Venetian potentate, leads into his ‘cabinet’ a young Countess with whom he wishes to speak intimately. ‘Cabinets’ were places just as crucial in that century as were salons. There were no private & social lives – those are useless, scholarly jargonistic nonentities: there were salons, as one place, and there were cabinets, as another room or place.
Anyone who frequented Italian or French palaces always came across, among the large chambers and spacious rooms, fantastic and ridiculous little holes with flush doors and wainscoting–similar cross between a closet, a light well, and a Byzantine reliquary with its enigmatic intimations of prayer, sin – these were the sanctuaries of private life where the up-to-the-minute crises of the souls of the age were played out. Were there worthier sites for such souls than these one-foot-square roomlets – would not the whole human body become immediately confessional if it were stuck away with another in such a lair, with its whiff of perversion and intimacy? That is precisely the irresistible and non-compulsoriness the way one straightaway chemically perceptibly, without transition, becomes oneself and a sincere only-soul and tearful only-confession: that was the secret of these opium dens. The soul is: a milieu – in that kind of cabinet it is not the long-existing soul which opens up but the non-existent soul is born within a trice only again to become non-existent the moment it steps out of there....The whole face of Europe would be different if the ‘cabinet’ had been retained – inter alia the shameful interlude of ‘psychology’ could have been completely sidestepped. (pp. 235–236)
Szentkuthy’s analogy between the ‘cabinet’—a space where intimacy can be expressed, is expressed despite the bearers of those emotions—and the confessional in a Catholic church is brilliant. At the same time, he manages to get in a dig at early 20th century modernity, which not surprisingly he views as barren, bereft and sterile.
Theatres in that era were three things: musical virtuosity, or in other words, an Orpheum or music hall worthy of the name of Orpheus; a gambling den; and lastly (this is what raises the point) a row of theatre boxes, or in other words, floating salons for passing through, where, of course, anything was possible in the dark.
Casanova spent every evening in theatre boxes: not in theatres but in boxes. This is once again a characteristically 18th century unification of the mythical caves of Venus and the modern salon, just as important as ballrooms or eternal Venice. (p. 224)
Szentkuthy’s essayistic digressions (which actually form the body of the entire book), with their playful tone of rationalized libertarianism, naturally put the reader in mind of another great Central European novelist-essayist, Milan Kundera. In one sense, Kundera might actually seem to be the greater misogynist (no female character in any of his works ever comes off well), but he shares with Szentkuthy the fact that he too deployed a calculated literary libertarianism against a dreary and barren regime (in his case, the total suffocation of post-1968 ‘normalized’ Czechoslovakia). At the same time, in his endless self-interruptions, Szentkuthy uncannily almost seems like an earlier incarnation of Péter Esterházy (even in his copious use of quotations), and thus the designation of “the first Hungarian post-modernist” seems fully justified.
It is to be hoped that the other volumes in the series St. Orpheus Breviary will themselves see the light of day. The scattering of Szentkuthy’s brilliant aperçus throughout the text make reading the book a pleasure. At the same time, the publication of a work such as this helps to fill in the inevitable huge gaps in the availability of important Hungarian works of literature in English translation.
Miklós Szentkuthy: Marginalia on Casanova: St. Orpheus Breviary, Vol. I, trans. Tim Wilkinson, Contra Mundum Press, New York, 2012
Tags: Miklós Szentkuthy