Wednesday, September 07, 2011

"No doubt this Giacomo Casanova was a most worthless and profligate scoundrel," Or, Casanova's History of My Life, "one of the great cryptograms of literature

I've mentioned a couple of times the nifty marketing gimmick that Melville House books recently used for their Art of the Novella series: on one day, they published five different novellas by five different authors, all titled The Duel. The authors are Joseph Conrad (about whose Duel I wrote a couple of weeks back), Heinrich von Kleist, Chekhov, Aleksandr Kuprin, and Casanova. The ones originally in languages other than English--all but Conrad--are newly translated, and, in a smart move designed to make the $10-12 prices seem more palatable, Melville House has also assembled a collection of bonus materials for each book online. A link in the book sends you to a PDF of what is essentially a course pack of interesting side commentary on the book: related pieces by the author, contemporary reviews, period illustrations, later writings on the author and subject. I've downloaded them all, but the only one I've spent a lot of time with is the companion to The Duel of my old favorite, Casanova, and it's full of interesting material. An 1871 issue of Littell's Living Age, informs us that "It is impossible to recommend any English person to read this book," but that, having read it, he finds that
the cynicism of corruption described as having been universal at Venice seems almost past belief. No doubt this Giacomo Casanova was a most worthless and profligate scoundrel; and it is to be expected that the account given by such a man of any society in which he had lived, would paint it under its worst aspect. Nevertheless, after all reasonable allowance has been made on this score, it is impossible to doubt that, with the exception perhaps of the latter times of the Roman Empire, the world has never seen so grossly corrupt a society as that of Venice at the time spoken of.
What's fun about this is its sense of awe and discovery; it allows us to imagine the time, not that long ago, when Casanova's memoirs were still wholly illicit and difficult to find, its revelations (and their "air of being a truthful story") shocking.
A selection from the Edinburgh Review takes us one step farther, reminding us that for many years the memoirs were
often declared to be spurious and its author set down as a myth.
But slowly the reputation of the book and its author rose, and by the time of that 1914 article,
distinguished antiquaries are engaged in annotating the voluminous pages, endeavouring to verify each statement and identify all the personages described. It is a colossal labour, for Casanova (though gifted with a remarkable memory) wrote his autobiography mainly from recollection when an old man, and consequently made many mistakes; while numbers of the characters described in his narrative are obscure individuals, or their names are disguised under a pseudonym. In this respect his memoirs may be regarded as one of the great cryptograms of literature.
All of this would be of little interest except to historians were it not that Casanova is, almost despite himself, such a compelling, even likable character. In an article for the English Illustrated Magazine in 1896, W. E. Garrett Fisher puts it well:
The rogue over whose memoirs we are willing to spend delightful hours, nor yet account them wasted, must be compact of lighter and more artistic elements. His murders must be disguised under the show of duel or vendetta, and his theft conducted over green tables or on the Great North Road. Furthermore, the fellow’s character must be what is called sympathetic; and I suppose that no one will consider it a very cynical asperity to decline sympathy with Mr. Deeming or Jonathan Wild. The rogue we care for must have the same gaiety of disposition and easiness of morality, the same cheerfulness under adversity and eagerness to make the very most of a passing blink of sunshine, that enlist immortal interest in the son of old Blas of Santillana. It is this lightness of heart and manner that enable Casanova and Cellini, Haji Baba and Gil Blas, to compel a smile by the recital of conduct that would prove no laughing matter if we met with it in real life instead of reading about it in an easy-chair.
We no more want to be with Casanova in real life than we'd actually want to be back in eighteenth-century Europe, with its disease and dirt and war and poverty. But he charms us on the page. Oh, he's horrible through and through, untrustworthy and self-dealing--but at the same time, even as he boasts, he hides so little of himself, of his failings and failures, that we almost can't help but be won over. Fisher briefly runs down some of his reasons he is so compelling:
The restless man had a thirst for information and a taste for celebrities as keen as those of Boswell, with a zest for life equal to that of Cellini and Colley Cibber rolled into one. In the course of his gambling peregrinations he came into contact with Voltaire and Crebillon, the Marquis d’Argens and the Due de Choiseul, Frederick the Great and Louis XV., Cagliostro and the Comte de St. Germain, Haller and Fontenelle. He seems to have been received by all of these on good terms, while he was hail-fellow-well-met with every strolling actor and singer by reason of his parentage. If ever there was a man who fulfilled the Masonic precept of being fellow to a prince and brother to a beggar, it was surely Casanova, as he shows himself; and, to do him justice, it was a matter of the smallest importance to him whether or not the beggar was worthy.
The Duel, which was presented as a fiction starring an unnamed Venetian when it was published in 1780 but was later placed, with little alteration, within the History of My Life, is as good a starting place as any for a Casanova skeptic: it features less than the usual amount of amorous adventure, but Casanova's character comes through clearly even so. If, after seventy pages, you still want the young Venetian, in all his honor, self-confidence, and high-flown sentiment, to win--solely in order that you can spend more time with him, then you should proceed to the History, which finds all those qualities multiplied a thousandfold.


  1. I LOVE Casanova's Memoirs: even though he may, on his own evidence, have even been a rapist (the only one of his crimes I ought not be able to forgive), he's so incredibly likeable. And that edition is a delight, with the spine image.

  2. Any aspiratiopns yourself for tackling the memoirs?

  3. I actually read the whole of the memoirs back in the summer of 1999, in one long rush. They're too long, they're disorientingly full of characters, places, and incidents, but they're hard to put down.

    It's the sort of book I find myself turning back to briefly every once in a while--to read a section more or less at random--and expect that I'll read en toto again at some point in my life.