Epic poem, biography, literary criticism, historical romance—in A Gift, David Slavitt presents the fascinating life of Mozart’s librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte, one of history’s great unknowns, a man blessed—and cursed—by his conviction that within him lay the capacity for literary greatness.
A gift, but a terrible burden.
This is what God would demand, if there
were a god;
this is your authentic self, your talent,
your spirit’s heritage.
Educated in the church, the young da Ponte carouses in Venice, flees Italy, and finds himself in Austria, trying to establish a career in the theater. Under the tepid patronage of Joseph II of Austria, he turns out libretti for Salieri and learns the “whorey tricks” of writing on demand: “Adaptation, translation, theft.” Then, on the brink of despair, he encounters Mozart—boorish, crude, preferring crude farce to literary grace. Still, the partnership thrives with The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, CosO fan Tutte. But good luck is not to be trusted, and “misfortune is not reliable either.”
Despite his brilliant gift, success eludes da Ponte. Ever gullible, ever generous, he is destined to accumulate others’ debts, to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, to be forgotten. Da Ponte lives out his life in the fledgling United States, a life plagued by sickness, debt, and the implacably looming specter of failure.
Slavitt has created a lovely, heartening book, one that reminds us that untested faith is no faith at all. Alight with muted passion, A Gift chronicles a man’s refusal to despair despite the growing awareness that nothing awaits but poverty and ignominy—“that this ill-fitting garment is what the wardrobe holds.”
David R. Slavitt has published more than one hundred books, including The Seven Deadly Sins and Other Poems, Change of Address, and William Henry Harrison and Other Poems. Born in White Plains, New York, and educated at Andover, Yale, and Columbia, Slavitt has worked at Newsweek and has taught at Temple University, Columbia, the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, and Bennington College.
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