The last page is turned, the story finished and I feel that usual thrill of discovery every book-lover longs to repeat, over and over until each careful phrase, every last word is wrung dry of feeling. Such is the power some books have over me and is how I feel after reading Andrew Miller's novels. Which is why I'm reviewing them as fast as I can read them, given the time it takes to get a product accepted. I hope dooyoo allows me to carry on with this author as he just gets better and better with each novel he writes.
With Casanova he returns to the playfulness so evident in his debut novel, Ingenious Pain', despite the difference in subject matters. Normally I wouldn't start with an author's afterward, but he does explain that this book is based on Casanova's own biography, Histoire de ma Vie, written down during his last years at the castle of Count Waldstein in Dux, on the Czech/German border. He has taken one period in the life of history's greatest Lover at a time when he was approaching middle age and in need of both rest and a hiding place from the authorities. That period was England in the mid 1700's and as far as the truth goes the novel follows this faithfully. All other escapades are merely fiction, although many of the people mentioned did exist and feature prominently in the book. It's as if Miller wanted to humanize some of Casanova's wilder extravagances written as a gentle pathos, without the boastfulness so expected of this larger than life character.
The novel opens with Casanova as an old man nearing death, visited in his German retreat by a mysterious woman. Naturally this brings on reminiscences of his time in England, although we are not given the name of his visitor.
'Imagine him now: thirty-eight years of age, big chin, big nose, big eyes in a face of African tint, a guardsman's brawny chest and shoulders, stepping down the gangplank in Dover harbour..' Our introduction to the philanderer in the prime of life, yet strangely changed, going by the name of Seingalt, stepping down into the murk, the miasma that is England on a rainy summer day. Could this be the man of legend, this big Venetian gentleman, speaking hardly any English and scattering pennies to the beggar boys?
On his arrival in London he takes refuge with a past lover, Madame Cornelys, a little older, thin and plain but a shrewd businesswoman who earns her living by hosting lavish parties for the debauched and bored gentry, serving huge dinners where orgies of both food and bodies take place. Unfortunately her daughter, Sophie is about the right age to be his daughter and he has no fatherly feeling. Soon he feels obliged to rent his own house, a large mansion in Pall Mall, expensive even by today's standards. In search of a servant his business is conducted among the 'hustle, the polyglot babble, the quick clasp of hands, shake of head the clink and sniff of business.'
Hiring a young educated colored man named Jarba, he find an invaluable help in this shrewd man who speaks many languages, knows where to find the best cook in London for hire, one would think him a prodigy. Indeed, Jarba will help his master in many ways, even while seeking to better his own fortunes. This use of a servant who stays under the radar, so to speak, is a masterpiece of invention by Miller, who allows his character to reach the heights of hilarity while translating Casanova's French or Italian into English.
At first Casanova appears to be sincere in his wish not to follow his instincts and stay both sober and free from liaisons, but it isn't long before he gets bored. From there on he gets into all kinds of misadventures until he meets a 'Great Man-Shadow' on the steps of a jetty hiring a boat across the Thames. This man turns out to be Samuel Johnson, with whom he strikes up a remarkable friendship, given the man's position at court. His next acquaintance is not so fortunate. He meets up with a high-class courtesan, Marie Charpillon, whom has met previously in France. Young and beautiful she tempts him by her changeability. At one moment seductive, promising him her body, then acting coy, as if she is being sold by her family, the Augspurgher family, who owe money to Casanova. But will he keep to his vows of abstinence with this temptation dogging his every movement.
So begins the heart of the tale and a very hilarious romp through the pleasure houses and gardens of London's 'ton'. Could the reprobate be bested at his own game, or has he finally found a real love? In an attempt to get her out of his head he plays at various new identities, a labourer first, then a poet, a writer, a country gentleman. Through this his faithful manservant Jarba, suffers both mental and physical hardship, while Johnson is a friend in need.
Miller's characters are always flamboyant but he really does pull out all the stops with his dazzling interpretation of Casanova. I can't imagine an author more suited to write about such a man, so I was mentally expecting a lavish charcterisation with plenty of panache and ribaldry. Instead I found a man somewhat chastened by his past excesses, a tired man who wants nothing better than to eat well, sleep well and enjoy his books. The real character was much like this, according to some historians. He did talk his way into women's (and sometime men's) beds with incredible charm. He lied, cheated and conned people out of fortunes and gave them great pleasure whilst doing it. However, he was well educated, spoke both French and Italian fluently, he did write both poetry and was known as writing a musical score for Don Giovanni. He also cooked for himself and was an herbalist, using some techniques that were way before their time.
Miller gives him a lighter side, though there is plenty of pathos and self-pity amongst the boasting and devil-may-care attitude. He gives his other characters plenty of interest, so the reader feels a part of their world. I wouldn't expect to feel pity for such characters, but I did. I sometimes found myself thinking, ' oh no, don't do that,' or, 'she's taking him for a ride.' I felt quite emotional about some parts and laughed out loud at others. Jarba, the manservant could be a modern-day Jeeves to Worcester. Marie Charpillon is annoying at times, one hopes her downfall will be worth waiting for. Samuel Johnson, the lexicographer (Miller's word), is an essential addition to the story and provides the reader with some of Casanova's better dialogue.
This is a superb novel, a scintillating tale of one man's hope of redemption at a low point in his life and a different kind of love story. Miller's prose dazzles and it's well nigh impossible to fault. He keeps in character throughout, with descriptions of place, people and decoration that is faultless in its attention to detail. Descriptive excellence is one of Miller's strengths and period correctness allows the writer to give the reader an insight into the language, mores and debauchery of the times. Wry, witty, sometimes whimsical, but always highly readable, this is a novel that cannot fail to please. I should no longer be halted in my reading by a turn of phrase, but it happens often. I'll leave you with an example that sums up a great deal.
They left the window, left the shutters undone and returned to their wines, filling their mouths with the sweetness of a summer sixteen years past. Outside the city, this bruised honeycomb of a town was waking up, inventing itself from the mist of the dawn, its citizens sticky with dreams.'
Amazon price £7.19. Mine was a library copy but I hope to add this to my own library.
©Lisa Fuller 2011.