Before I say anything, I just want to point out that I’m turning up for Venice in February on time this year. (Thereby making up for last year’s arrival in May.). Am I redeemed?
I’m not alone in seeking redemption. Casanova is making his way back to his home city after 25 years in exile, living off the handouts of his few friends. He’s hopeful that the city council will forgive him and grant him the right to return home. The last time he was there, he broke out of prison and fled across the rooftops in a daring escape.
Since then the passage of time has humbled and chastened him …. in theory, perhaps. He’s certainly aware of the ravages of time.
See the wrinkles on my forehead, the loose folds of my neck, the crow’s feet round my eyes. and look … i have lost one of my eye teeth. look at these hands, too, Amalia. My fingers are like claws; there are yellow spots on the fingernails; the blue veins stand out. They are the hands of an old man.
Casanova paints a repulsive picture of himself and, for a while it’s possible to feel a certain sympathy with the man. After all time is a cruel master to us all. However, it soon becomes apparent that the inner man is unchanged. Aware his looks and diminishing charms can no longer win the favours of the fair, nubile and intelligent Marcolina, he resorts to deception and bribery. All’s fair in love and love for this libidinous old goat.
These pages are populated with the morally vacuous (although I must point out that such commentary is mine. Schnitzler remains the objective observer of human behaviour.) Amalia, in particular. a conquest from Casanova’s glory days, she can’t wait to get Casanova between the sheets once more. But Casanova loves the chase and prefers not to taste easy meat. Amalia’s young daughter, however …. Don’t get me started. what parent, knowing the nature of her guest, would send her young daughter to his room to remind him that it was time for dinner?
It’s hard to find anyone to admire in these pages. Amalia’s husband, Olivo, is a genuine bloke but thick with it. The cuckolded marquis is an inveterate gambler who may seem amiable but he’s utterly ruthless when his wife’s lover finds himself indebted to him. The bold and dashing Captain Lorenzi, without an ounce of loyalty in his bones, is the image of Casanova in his youth, a reminder of everything Casanova no longer is and thus a man who is to be bettered, crushed, perhaps even destroyed.
You see, Casanova is a man who is not to be thwarted, a man diminished only by time and circumstance. He is as motivated as ever by desire, money and prestige. He even gets his wish to return to Venice but the Council are very much calling the shots and there is a poetic justice in the terms they impose. His return cannot in any way be called a triumph.
In many ways this is a classic Schnitzlerian exploration of human sexual impulse. What’s new is the ageing lothario. Casanova is depicted in his mid-50’s. As was Schnitzler when he wrote this. Read as much or as little as you want into that. The historical setting was new to me in Schnitzler. Usually he set his works contemporaneously, though it’s easy to understand why he would seek to avoid describing the Europe of 1918 and in 18th century Italy he found more parallels with fin de siècle Vienna than I would ever have thought existed.