Casanova in Bolzano
By Sandor Marai
Translated, from the Hungarian, by George Szirtes
Knopf, 294 pp., $22
This historical novel is written in the overwrought style of grand opera. Even its structure, several long acts featuring extended dramatic arias, resembles the heroic theater. The central character, never directly named, is Casanova, the insatiable and invincible seducer of women.
The hero has just boldly escaped from a Venetian prison and made his way to Bolzano, the scene of his first and perhaps only real love. As a young man, he had been enamored of Francesca, then a girl of 15. Now a woman married to the powerful duke of Parma, she is eager to meet her early love. She writes him a brief letter -- ''I must see you" -- which is personally delivered by her wily husband. The husband insists on the meeting and arranges what he believes are its terms. Casanova and the duchess meet in disguise at a masked ball. Subverting the plans of both her husband and her former lover, the duchess disarms and reviles Casanova. She returns triumphantly to her husband, believing that the last laugh is hers. But Casanova has a final scene to play, ending with his own ''stomach shaking . . . full-bellied laughter."
Chicken Dreaming Corn
By Roy Hoffman
University of Georgia, 244 pp., $24.95
'' 'Chicken dreaming corn' is an expression my Romanian Jewish grandmother used to refer to the yearnings of ordinary folks for something special or extraordinary," explains Roy Hoffman in an introductory note to this evocative novel. In Hoffman's fictional world, Morris Kleinman, a striving, hardworking Jewish merchant in Mobile, Ala., is the dreamer.
As a boy in a tiny Romanian town in the early years of the 20th century, Morris experiences ''the raking need, no matter who was left behind, to move on." Abandoning his family and his first love, he sails for America, then moves from the cold of Brooklyn to the warmth of Mobile. Starting with a small store selling odds and ends, he progresses to blouses, dresses, and shoes, and then to furniture. With a faithful wife and two sons, he makes his way in the world, always putting food on the table, keeping the Jewish law, respecting his neighbors. Despite the rise of the Nazis in Europe, he returns to Romania to see his dying father. There, in the most moving part of the novel, he discovers the depth of his roots in Mobile. He understands that his refuge, and the hope of displaced peoples throughout the world, is America. Here you can taste your dreams.
Zara's Tales: Perilous Escapades in Equatorial Africa
By Peter Beard
Knopf, 158 pp., $26.95
Peter Beard is a photographer, a storyteller through pictures. His attempt here to tell stories in words seems only half-hearted. It is, at best, half successful.
The most vivid and charming story -- and the only one that truly features Zara, Beard's daughter -- describes Thaka, her stubby-legged, bristly-haired, 300-pound pet warthog. Thaka, who enjoyed a good rubdown and tummy tickle, became Zara's friend. After a vicious turf war with an intruding warthog, the wounded and bleeding Thaka disappeared. When he returned the next morning, having dressed his wounds with mud, Zara was amazed and relieved. The accompanying picture of the little girl in rubber boots affectionately leaning her cheek and chest on the ample back of the repulsive reclining warthog is worth more than the several thousand words it takes to tell the story. Other stories feature herds of rhinos, man-eating lions, and impossible-to-find striped bongos, a kind of antelope. The stories are rarely fully dramatized. They are bits of adventure, tag-ends of tales, sightings, jungle lore. But the photographs and drawings that illustrate them are astonishing. Among the routine spills is Beard's almost fatal smash-up with an elephant.
Beard writes with passionate urgency about the natural systems that are being destroyed by men, warning against the many ways in which they have upset the natural balance while trying to ''save" it.
Barbara Fisher is a freelance critic who lives in New York.