#GermanLitMonth and #NovNov: Casanova’s Homecoming

Arthur Schnitzler: Casanovas Heimfahrt. This novella has been translated into English but is not easily available (you can get it via CreateSpace or second-hand). And yes, virtually all of my German Lit Month books are novellas, so that I can complete two challenges at once.

I read this a long, long time ago, in my teens, but when I reread it last week for #GermanLiteratureMonth, I realised that I had actually mistaken it for Mozart on the Road to Prague by Eduard Mörike (which I had also read before). So naturally, I was expecting a wistful meditation on art and mortality and instead got a much more insalubrious piece of work.

Yet I think there is far more about mortality and hubris in this novella than one might initially think, and it’s not coincidental that it was written at the end of the First World War, a war which reduced Austria from an empire to an insignificant landlocked country with an oversized capital city.

It’s 1778, Casanova is 53 and hanging about in Mantua, waiting for his home town of Venice to pardon him and allow him to return after a 25 year exile. He comes across an old friend, Olivo, whom he helped to get married 15-20 years ago, who is eager to invite him to his house. Olivo has done well for himself, he has three daughters, a thriving farm, and he seems happy and content. Everything that Casanova, for all of his past glory and adventures, is clearly not. He is aging, he has to rely more and more on his reputation or on the favours of older women, rather than being able to seduce whomsoever he chooses.

He is finally persuaded to visit Olivo’s estate, with the hidden thought that he might seduce his young niece Marcolina. However, the niece is a bluestocking, far more interested in her studies of mathematics than in this lecherous old man. Casanova suspects she is not quite as virginal as her aunt (somewhat infatuated with Casanova herself) makes her out to be, and she seems indeed to be in love with the dashing young soldier Lorenzi. Casanova recognises something of his own younger self in the charisma and insouciance of Lorenzi – so of course he hates him on sight and plans a diabolical trick to blackmail the soldier and seduce Marcolina.

So far, so typically Casanova, the man who cannot curb his sexual appetites (but of course imagines that he is in love with almost every woman he seduces). But there is more nuance here: for the profligate rake has started to worry about his legacy – in particular, he wants to write a polemical paper against Voltaire and wants to consult Marcolina about it – a first for him, to recognise a woman’s intelligence and ask for her opinion. Secondly, he is being invited back to Venice, but with a mission to spy on potential rebels and freethinkers, which angers and disgusts him.

Casanova is clearly at a turning point in his life, suffering a bit of an identity crisis. No longer rich, no longer sought after, the younger generation no longer know about his legendary deeds. There is one passage in which he almost regrets that he didn’t pursue anything in life seriously enough: he should have spent more time with writing and philosophy, he should not have wasted his talents as a financier or diplomat, but he threw it all away whenever a woman showed up. But he then realises that he doesn’t regret frittering away his time and energies on women – that he has lived his life like no one else. However, he only really seems to come alive when he starts talking about the past with his hosts (and often embellishing things – which may have given him the impulse to write his memoirs).

Just when you think that Casanova might be learning something in his old age, that he might be redeeming himself, he veers back onto the well-trodden path of vice, greed and selfishness. There is a particularly nasty thread there where he seduces the thirteen-year-old daughter of his host, simply because she happens to be there. Of course, he ends up accepting the job as an informer too.

A stroke of inspired casting here: Alain Delon as the aging Casanova in the 1992 film version.

Casanova’s memoirs were translated into German for the first time in 1913 and Schnitzler was fascinated by them. With a little help from Freud and other psychologists popular at the time, he saw Casanova as a narcissist who cannot really relate with the world, because the world itself does not interest him other than as an extension of himself, a place filled with people that he wants to dominate. Schnitzler also wrote a comedy about Casanova, entitled The Sisters or Casanova in Spa, which was not at all well received. I am unable to find any information about how this novella was received at the time – although I suspect that after Reigen, he was considered a controversial writer anyway.

15 thoughts on “#GermanLitMonth and #NovNov: Casanova’s Homecoming”

  1. This sounds a very interesting character study, and one that could be quite depressing. That he doesn’t really reflect on his regrets and behaves the same way, but with more desperation as his charms wane, is so bleak. Alain Delon is perfect casting, I agree!

  2. You’ve reminded me of how little of Schnitzler’s work I’ve actually read, which is something I ought to remedy in the future… As others have said, I can understand why Alain Delon was cast in the film adaptation as it’s a very juicy part for him!

  3. Ilsa Barea, the English translator, suggests it had some success in her afterword. But 1918 would have been a tough year to bring out a book in Austria.

    I’ve got the Pushkin Press reprint of 1998. I hadn’t realized it was out of print, which is a pity. Casanova in this (as in life, I guess) is pretty detestable, and yet…

  4. I haven’t read much Schnitzler but I must admit you make this sound interesting – Casanova fascinates and horrifies in equal measure. I’ve just read anther German novella by a younger writer who was also affected by the end of the First World War, Alexander Lernet-Holenia.

  5. What an amusing confusion.

    Casanova, in the story, is 53; the Casanova-like author was 56 when he wrote it.

    I just glanced at Schnitzler’s bibliography. Here we see the beginning of his late, amazing, novella period.

    1. Yes, many critics did observe the coincidence in terms of age… it is certainly a book written with middle-aged melancholy, and perhaps I appreciated it less when I read it as a teenager.

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