(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In 1993, a brilliant, genre-defying book entitled The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony was published in the United States, the first of Italian author and publisher Roberto Calasso’s works to be translated into English. Ostensibly a simple compendium of Greek myths, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony (originally published as Le nozze di Cadmo e Armonia, 1988) was in fact an imaginative reworking of these familiar stories. Calasso’s erudition was astonishing. He seemed to have read everything, ferreted out the most obscure variations of each tale, and consulted the scholarly exegeses of long-forgotten commentators. By means of a simple juxtaposition of related stories, Calasso coaxed new meanings from his material. He infused the ancient myths with an unmistakable sense of immediacy, so that the reader believed that this strange world of rape and revenge was in fact quite like our own.

Although universally praised by critics, Calasso’s book was impossible to classify. Academic in format, with bibliographic references to the major works of scholarship from antiquity to the 1990’s, it was nevertheless clearly not a typical dissertation. Calasso made no attempt to argue his points rationally. Instead he merely hinted at new readings and allowed the spatial organization of materials to suggest previously unnoticed parallels and counterpoints. On the other hand, a mosaic of extracts from mythological dictionaries with no discernible plot or clearly defined protagonist hardly qualifies as a novel. The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony seemed to belong to a new, poorly defined fictional genre.

Although The Ruin of Kasch was published in the United States in 1994, in a translation by William Weaver and Stephen Sartarelli, it was actually written five years before The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony and appeared in Italy in 1983. While the two works have narrative and structural similarities, The Ruin of Kasch is clearly a preliminary attempt at a form that came to perfection only in the later book.

The principal subject of The Ruin of Kasch is the career of French statesman and diplomat Charles-Maurice, Duc de Talleyrand Périgord (1754-1838), known simply as Talleyrand. It would be misleading, however, to describe the work as a biography, fictional or otherwise. No attempt is made to trace the course of Talleyrand’s life, to analyze his political decisions, or even to identify his friends and enemies. Instead Calasso records only a handful of emblematic incidents from Talleyrand’s long career, revealing “snapshots” that capture him with notable celebrities of the time, such as Napoleon or Madame Recamier, as if French history were a series of convenient “photo-ops.”

Talleyrand has always been a controversial figure for historians. He is often regarded as an opportunist, an unprincipled, immoral sycophant who allied himself with whatever group was currently in power. Certainly, there is much to support this view. Before the Revolution, Talleyrand was an ordained priest who, apart from frequent dalliances with society women, devoted himself to defending the church’s traditional rights and privileges, including its extensive landholdings and its exemption from taxes. As a reward for these effective lobbying efforts, Talleyrand was appointed a bishop in 1788, on the very eve of the Revolution. At the historic national assembly convened in 1789, Talleyrand—sensing a drastic change in public opinion regarding the church—argued for nationalization of the church’s property, a complete reversal of his previous position. This action made him a revolutionary hero but also led to his immediate excommunication. Thereafter he devoted himself to secular politics.

Talleyrand wisely spent the dangerous years of the Terror in England and the United States, eventually returning to France to negotiate treaties in the wake of Napoleon’s various military campaigns and enriching himself with bribes in the process. Later this former friend of the Revolution assisted Napoleon in his bid to become emperor, then secretly allied himself with Russia and Austria against the empire and was instrumental in restoring the Bourbon monarchy. Toward the end of his life, he switched sides yet again, siding with liberal forces against Charles X, and was appointed ambassador to England in the bourgeois era that followed.

One of the attractions of this period of French history, for Calasso as well as most other historians, is that within a few short decades the country went through almost every form of government imaginable: from the monarchy of Louis XV to the revolutionary republic of Danton, from the Directory to the protofascist empire, and finally to a restoration of monarchy. The French Revolution is seen, by both its champions and its critics, as the beginning of the modern era. Clearly, it is the Revolution’s contemporary relevance that most appeals to Calasso.

At the center of the book, both physically and symbolically, is the parable of the ruin of the city of Kasch, the source of the book’s title. As described in anthropologist Leo Frobenius’ writings, Kasch was an ancient city ruled by a succession of kings. Astrologers studied the stars each night to discover the precise moment when the reigning king should be put to death and a new king appointed. Then a storyteller arrived in the city; so entertaining was he that the astrologers neglected their nightly watch to hear his...

(The entire section is 2238 words.)