Friday 8 August 2014

At eight a.m. in a small carpark by a busy road, people are going to work, carrying takeout coffee, adjusting headphones and other transitional objects. In their warrior boots and haircuts, they have no honour to strip, no petticoats to rustle; they aren’t intent on becoming employee of the month; there’s a gruffness about their gait; work is penury, if that, especially in the summer. I’m waiting in the car, reading Chapter 6 of Stefan Zweig’s Casanova, my last thing at night book of the moment. So early in the morning, this is practically joined-up reading.

Stefan Zweig’s Beware of Pity was at the end of the bookshelves in my parents’ house; as a child I dusted the shelves for modest payment, annually, checking each book as I went. The black cloth binding, the slow foreign surname at the end of the alphabet, the complicated title, made Zweig a severe choice I wasn’t yet ready for.

 In 1998, Pushkin Press published a new translation of Casanova, the first volume of a Zweig series. Translation is the aerodynamics of literature, propelling the reader not only from German to English, in this case, also from the 21st to the 18th century, via the 1920s and 30s, the Austria of Zweig’s origin, the Italy of his subject, and the French of his subject’s memoirs; accommodating Heath Ledger as Casanova in his beguiling, effortless youth, Peter O’Toole as the ageing Casanova, who, out of habit though with little outcome other than pathos, engages the attention of the maid as he writes his memoirs; as well as, for this reader, Moonlight Cruise, spoils of a CND jumble sale of my youth, about the man who hated women and the woman who hated men, en passant par the man who loved women.

 Chapter six of Casanova is Homo Eroticus, a comparison of Casanova and Don Juan, the bene and the malefactor, the lover and the hater of women whose lifeworks strangely resemble each other. Casanova’s memoirs are a catalogue of conquest; he stands better over the myth he generated than his amorous exploits, which, like anything else relentlessly pursued, becomes tedious and curiously unemotional. These are operas of the flesh, no more, without moral undertow or spiritual aspiration. 

Don Juan on the other hand is all tortured aspiration and warped morality. His catalogue of conquest represents the growing stock of honour he has stolen and tragedies wreaked upon women who will hate him forever.

  Don Giovanni is all I know of Don Juan. In Mozart’s music can you hear the honour and the savagery? In the evening I listen again. I don’t hear Don Juan I hear Mozart acting and Mozart from within, the savagery converted into beauty: the menace of a fugue, as we move into the end of Act 1, the grievance of Donna Elvira halfway through Act 2: he stripped me of my honour, he betrayed me, woe and vengeance.

 For many years I wanted literature to be contentless (which is easier if it’s in a language not native to you), not looking through the glass of art but at it. I have also been chastised for listening to music in the same way. Passion and how it translates into music, into beauty; that’s what I hear. A convolute way of coming to the humanity of music perhaps, but, once established, indissoluble.

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