Miklós Szentkuthy’s MARGINALIA ON CASANOVA
Tr. by Tim Wilkinson
“Szentkuthy’s objective is not the sanctioned masterpiece, but the circus where the carnal and material origin and purpose of all art are revealed in their total nakedness. In his circus, the tent arches over all of human history and the whole of existence; Casanova treads the tightrope with Elizabeth of England, and Mozart conducts the orchestra.”
– Csaba Sík
Marginalia on Casanova, the first book of Szentkuthy’s St. Orpheus Breviary, has been translated into English for the very first time. Originally published in Hungarian in 1939, as Csaba Sík noted, St. Orpheus Breviary “represents the greatest enterprise in scope, in worth? – undertaken in the Hungarian novel.”
Marginalia on Casanova is the first volume of the St. Orpheus Breviary, Miklós Szentkuthy’s synthesis of 2,000 years of European culture. As Szentkuthy’s Virgil, St. Orpheus is an omniscient poet who guides us not through hell, but through all of recorded history, myth, religion, and literature, albeit reimagined as St. Orpheus metamorphosizes himself into kings, popes, saints, tyrants, and artists. At once pagan and Christian, Greek and Hebrew, Asian and European, St. Orpheus is a mosaic of history and mankind in one supra-person and veil, an endless series of masks and personae, humanity in its protean, futural shape, an always changing function of discourse, text, myth, and mentalité.
Through St. Orpheus’ method, disparate moments of history become synchronic, are juggled to reveal, paradoxically, mutual difference and essential similarity. “Orpheus wandering in the infernal regions,” says Szentkuthy, “is the perennial symbol of the mind lost amid the enigmas of reality. The aim of the work is, on the one hand, to represent the reality of history with the utmost possible precision, and on the other, to show, through the mutations of the European spirit, all the uncertainties of contemplative man, the transiency of emotions, and the sterility of philosophical systems.”
Marginalia on Casanova relives the despiritualization of the main protagonist’s sensual adventures, though it is less his sex life and more his intellectual mission, the sole determinant of his being, which is the focus of this mesmeric book. Through his own glittering associations and broadly spanning array of metaphors, Szentkuthy analyses and views the 18th century and its notion of homogeneity from the vantage point of the 20th century, with the full armor of someone who was, perhaps, one of the last Hungarian Europeans. While a commentary on Casanova’s memoirs, it is also Szentkuthy’s very own philosophy of love.
Passion, playfulness, irony, and a whole gamut of protean metamorphoses are what characterize Marginalia on Casanova, a work in which readers will experience both profundity and a taking to wing of essay-writing that is intellectually radiant and as sensual and provocative as a gondola ride with Casanova.