A life of paper

Giacomo Casanova, librarian in Dux

by Marina Sardo

Dux Castle, 11 November 1793

… And even though I try to remember, some faces from my past blur and steam up like glass lined with rain; it’s autumn, and it’s raining all the time here.
They take me by surprise almost coming from behind me, usually at night, when I try to write in the candlelight of my room. They are mostly gloomy shadows, they drank the whole amount of disillusionment and drag themselves just from force of habit, yet they are curious to read what I write, and most of all what I write about them.
Sometimes instead, I can guess their shapes in a dark landing while I slowly climb the stairs or between the knockers of two painted doors, where they hid to watch me at their leisure and unseen.  In the dim light, the faint glimmering of the stone of a ring, the swish of a silk petticoat or a lace get caught betrays them, so they come out, almost shamefully, a little curved, with little, unruly steps. To keep up appearance, often they snigger to themselves like children caught with the hands in the jar, or they fiddle looking down at something in their hands: goggles, thimbles, little handkerchiefs creased between the teeth… these opaque ghosts come towards me and maybe they smile at me to make amends, I don’t know, all I can see is mist faces.
This castle is as gloomy as the sky looming over it. Damp oozes out of the walls and fades all tapestry that, however rich, is already one century old and gloomily old-fashioned. This absence of colour oppresses me almost more than cold and by night I stay mesmerised watching at the flames in the fireplace, almost without talking, as dazed: my heart is there, into the colour of the fire twisting and snarling up. Something melts inside me while the flame crackles.
In my youth I had been way too much blamed for not having a heart at all, and I had always defended myself with humour and sharp irony, my true specialties, besides the art of love. But today I don’t know what to think anymore, in this Bohemian exile I feel my heart as something utterly turned off or frozen, which only the flame of a great bonfire could unfreeze. Or a metaphorical stake. But stakes are out of fashion since a hundred years ago and I am too since at least thirty years ago, and then, as usual, I’m guilty of an excess of imagination, my greatest sin.
Actually, in this beautiful castle where I’m hosted, my old heart simply became of paper: it turned yellow, fragile, and totally penned with an outdated handwriting, as refined as the most ancient volumes in this library, and no ideal fire could help it anymore; it would make it crumple in a moment, instead, and then it would happily turn it into a pile of ashes.
Yesterday in the evening, at the end of a whist game, this curious thought came to torment me, along with a deathly ennui and a poor digestion of a capon with a German potato salad. Our good chaplain, certainly moved to pity by the funereal face I guess I had, tried to lighten up the atmosphere and asked me about my job, this endless writing of memories that distracts me and torments me (as he says), and that keeps me alive (as I add).
“You invented a new life, dear sir, a new life among paper and on paper” he told me with his excessive affability. “Now, if you were a librarian like others, enough tedious and pedantic to take care of 40.000 volumes and write the biography of the Waldstein family or the life or the dear count at most, the matter would be closed; but since it’s about you… and your own memories, then I wonder…”
“Sir, please, the life of a futile person like me isn’t worth your concern…” I interrupted him to make him stop, and I was about to add a little but substantial ‘here’ to the phrase, but I couldn’t since he started lavishing the old, trite clichés people have been telling about me during forty years, closing with some stupid questions, typical of pests who like literature: “Oh, no! Don’t say that! That is a heresy, dear Casanova, and half Europe would agree with me! Such Christian modesty is honourable of you, but when someone has a past like yours and has lived such an extraordinary life, it seems a little curious, that’s what I mean, yes, a little curious to talk like that, and maybe to write too. I often wonder, you know, how much you write about your life, and most of all, dear sir, if soon or later we’ll have the honour to read a brief synopsis or something really exciting, as true as possible to the real life, or maybe some ineffable literary work born from your majesty’s memories.”
“As soon as I finish it – God willing –, sir, you will read nothing more than a life of paper, as you could expect from any good memoirs! I don’t think there is nothing left to say about it, and since I see that monsieur de Bouffle has winning cards in his hands, I am pleased to wish you a good night.”
I suddenly stood up to go away and change scenery – My room, oh, my room up there! – and if I set my playmates free from my depressing presence, free to count points and speak behind my back about my character worsening more and more, it was essentially because of another of those sudden and frequent attacks of (senile?) madness that lead me to create open-eyed ghosts and to pin them as butterflies on my papers, on these memoirs that aren’t meant to interpret myself, but just to…
Enough! Everything bothers me by now, even reflection, maybe.
So I go upstairs, very annoyed with myself, mostly for getting annoyed. “What happened to my laissez-faire?” I think. “A moody, introverted and prickly adolescent (but – alas! – decrepit looking): here’s what I’m becoming because of old age, along with that insolent scoundrel of the butler and the bloody servitude of this house!”
And in this powerless fury, here they are, in the darkest spot of the landing, my ghosts are waiting for me. This time they seem to be two ladies in dark and shimmering silk dresses: is that my little Teresa, the one who maybe smiles at me with her michievous gracefulness? And if… if by miracle that vague but shining face was my unforgettable Henriette?
It’s utterly useless to try to take them by the waist or seize those pale hands that sometimes dare to brush against my cheek, I know it from experience, because these shadows of mine are would cleverly vanish through my fingers in no time; I’ll have to strive patiently to the second flight of stairs and then, once in my room, I’ll sit at my desk, dip my pen into the ink, and get back embroidering with black ink countless words on the page, to make them magically appear again, eager to know what and how I’m writing about them behind my back and happy to sweetly refresh my memory.
And once again I can smell the fragrances from my past, and I can recreate on paper those faces otherwise blurred, and once again I love them, and loving them again I take revenge over my real, crumpled life and I turn my back on it, I catch my breath… and write, and write, in this cosy corner of a depressing castle, where food is really good, however.
Who cares if I am cutting little figures out of paper? I live in paper.