Whenever anyone summarizes W.G. Sebald’s Vertigo, they usually paraphrase his American publisher New Directions and mention the “restless literary ghosts” that Sebald pursues in the book: Stendhal, Casanova, and Kafka. I’m a little surprised how long it took me to ask: What’s wrong with this list? Stendhal, Casanova, Kafka? Why is Casanova in that triumvirate? Giacomo Casanova (1725-1798), whose name has become has become a noun meaning “a man who engages in promiscuous love affairs” (Shorter OED 5th ed.), doesn’t immediately seem to fit into the Sebald pantheon.
So I went back this week and re-read the second chapter of Vertigo, called All’estero.In October 1980, Sebald’s narrator travels from Vienna to Venice, whereupon he starts to read the sections on Venice from Franz Grillparzer’s Italian Diary. On reading Grillparzer’s comments about the Doge’s palace, the narrator notes that
the resolutions passed here by the Council of State must surely be mysterious, immutable, and harsh, [Grillparzer] observed, calling the palace an enigma in stone. The nature of that enigma was apparently dread, and for as long as he was in Venice Grillparzer could not shake off a sense of the uncanny. Trained in the law himself, he dwelt on that palace where the legal authorities resided and in the inmost cavern of which , as he put it, the Invisible Principle brooded. (page 54)
Sebald’s narrator then shifts to “one of the victims of Venetian justice,” Casanova, who spent more than a year imprisoned there. (In 1788, Casanova published his memoir of imprisonment and escape.)
Casanova considered the limits of human reason. He established that, while it might be rare for a man to be driven insane, little was required to tip the balance. All that was needed was a slight shift, and nothing would be as it formerly was. In these deliberations, Casanova likened a lucid mind to a glass, which does not break of its own accord. Yet how easily it is shattered. One wrong move is all that it takes… It was soon apparent that the condemned in that gaol were honorable persons to a man, but for reasons which were known only to their Excellencies, and were not disclosed to the detainees, they had had to be removed from society. When the tribunal seized a criminal, it was already convinced of his guilt. After all, the rules by which the tribunal proceeded were underwritten by senators elected from among the most capable and virtuous of men. Casanova realised that he would have to come to terms with the fact that the standards which now applied were those of the legal system of the Republic rather than of his own sense of justice. (pages 56-7)
On reading this paragraph, which runs to more than four pages, I realized that Sebald seems to be suggesting the Republic of Venice as a kind of precursor to the “untouchable organization”(1) of Kafka’s The Castle or perhaps the legal bureaucracy of The Trial. One obvious difference is that Giacomo C. manages to escape the Doge’s prison while there is no escape for the land surveyor K. or the clerk Joseph K. I don’t think there is any way to read this brief section of Vertigo and not see strong Kafkaesque connotations.
Almost as if to reinforce the parallel Sebald draws between Casanova and Kafka, the same chapter of Vertigo continues with the narrator’s return visit to Venice seven years later. But rather than stay in Venice, the narrator immediately decides to follow in the footsteps of Kafka who visited Lake Garda in 1913. There, reading newspapers in a hotel, the narrator:
came across a report which did have a special meaning for me. It was a brief preview of a play that was due to be performed the next day in Bolzano. [pages 96-7]
The play is not named, but a photograph embedded in the text shows that its subject is Casanova, while Bolzano is the city in which Casanova first reappeared after escaping prison in Venice. Sebald’s pursuit of Kafka, at least momentarily, led him once again to Casanova. [Recommended reading: Sandor Marai’s Casanova in Bolzano.]
One final note on Sebald’s interest in Casanova. In Austerlitz, Austerlitz dreams of Casanova, “the old roué“, serving out the end of his days as the librarian in Count Waldenstein’s castle in Dux (now in the Czech Republic). [pages 202-3]
Federico Fellini, Il Teatro Di Dresda, lithograph, ca. 1968. Fellini, who directed Fellini’s Casanova (1976), depicts Casanova on the stage of the Dresden Theater. In 1752, not long before his imprisonment in Venice, Casanova translated the libretto to Rameau’s opera Zoroastro for its performance in Dresden.
Note (1). W.G. Sebald, “The Law of Ignominy: Authority, Messianism and Exile in the Castle.” In Franz Kuna, Ed. On Kafka: Semi-Centenary Perspectives. London: Elek Books, 1976, p. 42.