MARGINALIA ON CASANOVA is the first English translation of Hungarian novelist Miklós Szentkuthy’s commentary on the German edition of a French memoir written by a Venetian librarian, Giacomo Casanova, in the 1790s. Casanova’s original memoir, Histoire de ma vie jusqu’à l’an 1797, is housed at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris and signed “Jacques Casanova de Seingalt” (since Casanova came to prefer the French “Jacques” to “Giacomo,” and simply liked the sound of “de Seingalt”). TheHistoire was unpublished in its author’s lifetime, and the manuscript was partially destroyed when Casanova died — “nobly enough,” according to his friend the Prince de Ligne — in 1798. It first went to press in the 1820s as Aus den Memoiren des Venetianers Jacob Casanova de Seingalt, a German translation totaling over 6,000 pages in 12 volumes.
There was no complete French edition of the Histoire until the 1960s, and it was the German text that Szentkuthy relied on, in 1938, when he decided to write the singular commentary that he published in Budapest the following year. Szentkuthy’s “commentary” is possibly better classified as a novel; he himself considered it the first volume of Szentkuthy’s recherché, pan-European opus, the 10-volume Szent Orpheus breviáriuma (St. Orpheus Breviary). Marginalia on Casanova is a dazzling English rendering by Tim Wilkinson, of Szentkuthy’s 1939 book, and also Szentkuthy’s English debut. (The other volumes of the Breviary — with titles like Black Renaissance,Europa Minor and In the Footsteps of Eurydice — will, I hope, be forthcoming from Contra Mundum Press soon.)
Miklós Szentkuthy — born Miklós Pfisterer, in 1908 — introduced himself to Budapest’s literary circles in 1934 with a self-published novel, Prae, and he remained a provocative figure until his death in 1988. Szentkuthy is still referred to as the “sacred monster” of Hungarian letters, and the expression is apt. His huge output — foremost, the “Romanesque cathedral” that is the Breviary — is at once speculative and manneristic, hyper-erotic and hyper-religious, bleary eyed and clear-sighted.
Szentkuthy’s ambition was medieval: to produce a catalogus rerum, “an index of all entities.” His method is “Hellenistic-rococo”: he writes spirited variations on the letter of the canon. His syntax and affect are irreverently modernist, yet there is nothing programmatic about his avant-gardism, and what he wrote of Casanova holds true of him as well: “the muck of literary programme is not allowed to dirty his white cuffs.” In the Marginalia, “metaphysical facts,” “factual truths,” and deliriums are calculated to transect “with the epic grace of an apoplectic fit.” It is not accidental, then, that he was thrilled by the expression of the15th-century polymath, Nicolas of Cusa — echoed by Romantics like Novalis and Coleridge — that the essence of all things is a coincidentia oppositorum: a “coincidence of opposites.” Szentkuthy is, himself, such a coincidence.