originally written 17/07/2010
This is another book I randomly picked up in the library because it looked like a decent read and I was in the mood for fiction. It was actually a pretty pertinent choice as it was an adventure/pastiche/murder mystery of the 18th century of Casanova and Voltaire. To tell the truth, the Venice it presented owed more to City of Vice than the RTD Casanova; instead of a handsome, winsome, slightly awkward but boyishly charming David Tennant as the main character, we had Ludovico, a castrato opera singer and lackey, who could never be accepted by the mainstream as a suitable hero for a work of historical TV fiction. And in this version, Casanova is a real jerk. Who’s to say he wasn’t? I have a soft spot for the historical Casanova, having read several books about him and his time period and one biography. While Williams captures him passably well in tone, adventures, charms, and faults, he is pretty unforgiving in his portrayal: he accuses him of fabricating his famous escape from the Leads, among other untruths.
A reader with a half a brain would have surmised from the first few pages that the novel, though it never admits to it, gives as one of his main characters Voltaire (though he goes under the nom de guerre Monsieur Arouet). Even the ending tries to throw us off the scent; we are meant to suspect that “the butler did it,” but in a cynicism keeping entirely with the satirical tone of the whole, Williams makes us suspect the unreliable narrator in the same breath he denies any linkage between Monsieur Arouet and Voltaire.
The sordid plot has much to do with Freemasonry (the pseudo-magic that wouldn’t have been out of place either in the recent Sherlock Holmes or From Hell); forged paintings also figure largely, which was a bit of an unexpected delight considering I had recently seen the National Gallery’s exhibition Close Examination: Fakes, Mistakes and Discoveries. While Ludovico is a sympathetic narrator due to his outcast state (certainly he never asked to be made a eunuch!), and draws attention to the double standards of the State and religion in 18th century Venice, his cipher as purely narrative is occasionally grating. Nevertheless, he is a memorable and entertaining character.
“A Venetian Entertainment” is the book’s subtitle. This is because it combines a pastiche of 18th century writing styles and expectations of different genres—the erotica “from” Casanova’s memoirs is undoubtedly in keeping with the Great Lover’s style, but seems quite flagrant compared to the rest of the material. There is tragi-comedy throughout, and the murder mystery, while coming to a logical conclusion, is a lot more full-bodied than your traditional, run-of-the-mill, serialized historical mysteries (see Silent as the Grave, for example). There is no doubt whatsoever that Williams has done his research, and all of the details feel authentic without being obtrusive. The women of the story are always seen through the filter of male gaze (and Ludovico’s, who sometimes characterizes himself as “womanly,” sometimes not)—though there is one letter that is given fully to a woman’s voice. This is all keeping with the fact that the women of the period and place seem to have some freedom yet are very much dependents of the men, yet I still wished I could have known the female characters more fully, even if the mystery somewhat depended on their opacity. The mode of storytelling worked in its use of made-up letters from several of the characters to each other, which is definitely a relic of the epistolary 18th century.
I think I would read more about Ludovico and his travels after Venice, but I also think the book is very much a self-contained project.