It can be no accident that Andrew Miller's beautifully dark novel Casanova in Love evokes both Marcello Mastroianni's film performance as the famous roue and Joseph Losey's somber movie of Don Giovanni, the opera about a fictional sex addict. Miller, a writer of haunting originality and diabolic humor, clearly draws upon such images, cultural memories, and the philosophical concerns of our own time to create a character who could exist only in the 18th century.
We first meet his Casanova near death, impoverished, in exile. Perhaps an unknown woman has come to visit as he starts to burn old love letters; perhaps she is only a fantasy in a shabby room. Either way, she is pretext for him to recall his most frustrating attempt at gallantry, a failed seduction that makes the world-famous lover the laughingstock of London society.
This is no insignificant dishonor, at least in the brooding, watery world so memorably and appropriately created for Casanova in Love. Middle-aged, wracked by near-fatal treatment for a sexually-transmitted disease, insufficient in English, and barred from his beloved Venice for various crimes and heresies, Miller's Casanova arrives in London in a disguise that no one falls for. Automatically, he begins again the familiar games of seduction and gambling. He has enough ill-gotten money for good food, fine wine, and powerful friends. Born poor but skilled at living by his wits, Casanova has cheated as many people out of their money as he has brought to bed, whether woman or boy. An illegitimate daughter, a sensible manservant, and an Italian acquaintance leaven the licentiousness, for they bring out his compassion. But when he begins to tire of sensuality and wonder about the meaning of it all, he falls into a fever of desire for a beautiful young woman, Marie Charpillon, who is his equal at games of deception and acts of unfelt passion. She is, in fact, the only woman who will ever outwit the monstrous faker, and Miller has a wonderful time, as will readers, with her teasing and playacting, her schemes and pinpricks of revenge for her gender. Hollywood actresses must be plotting to cop this role. The Charpillon, as she is called, is irresistibly maddening.
Foggy chill London, crowded and dangerous in a hundred ways, is also a major character in Casanova in Love, as is the 18th century itself. Ingeniously, Miller animates our half-remembered drawings of the period and brings to ground our romantic fantasies from film. We get filth and wit, whores and art. Only in one particular does Miller falter. He probably should not have designed Samuel Johnson as a fairly major character. The great man's work rests too augustly atop the dialogue here.
Eventually suicidal over his humiliation by Marie, Casanova is brought back to life in a grandly orchestrated climax involving the Great Flood of 1764. The Charpillon is forgotten, the restored city reanimates the myriad stories of humanity, and Casanova goes on to new adventures. By conjuring a credible historical novel from the mysteries of yearning, Miller affirms one of his major themes: the beauty and evanescence of art as both reflection and creating principle of life. Charles Flowers is the author of A Science Odyssey (William Morrow).