Friday, September 30, 2011

The naming of things

The October 3 New Yorker features an article by John Colapinto about a firm that specializes in coming up with names for new products for corporations. The article is interesting in that way that New Yorker articles about businesspeople tend to be: they tell you things you didn't know, nearly all of which confirm your baseline impression that you're glad you're not working in the world of big business.

This article, however, has one moment of sheer genius. Colapinto tells of a wide-ranging effort by the Ford Motor Company in 1957 to come up with the perfect name for a new mid-price car--and he reveals that Henry Ford wrote to, of all people, Marianne Moore to ask if she had any ideas. And Moore wrote back! Colapinto describes Moore's response perfectly:
Moore responded with a list of names that demonstrated a serene distance from the commercial marketplace: among them were Intelligent Bullet, Utopian Turtletop, Bullet Coisone, Pastelogram, Mongoose Civique, and Andante con Moto.
It's no surprise that Moore chose some animal names; I'd like to see the whole list--maybe there's hedgehog or two on there. Unsurprisingly, Ford didn't take Moore up on any of her suggestions . . . instead they named the car the Edsel.

I would suggest that car companies looking for ideas today turn not to poet's imaginations, but to their actual names. Imagine a stately town car called an Eliot; a beast of a motorcycle named Lord Rochester; a convertible called the Herrick. Detroit, I'm reachable at the e-mail address in the sidebar if you want more.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Anticipation, tacit knowledge, and singularity. And baseball.

{Photo by rocketlass.]

In a new novel built around baseball, The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach describes one of his protagonists, slick-fielding shortstop Henry Skrimshander, as he crouches at his position and gets ready for the pitch:
In one motion he yanked his navy cap with its harpoon-skewered W toward his eyes and dropped into a feline crouch, thighs parallel to the field, glove brushing the dirt. He looked low to the ground, but light on his feet, more afloat than entrenched. The pitch was fouled back, but not before he had taken two full steps to his left, toward the place where he anticipated the ball to be headed. None of the other infielders had moved an inch.
Skrimshander is a defensive prodigy, his instincts easily outstripping those of his peers, but even a poor player knows that jump. Without conscious thought or analysis, years of playing and watching coalesce in some tiny sense, the moment the ball leaves the pitcher's hand and begins to describe its trajectory, of where it will cross the plate--and whether, if met by a bat and sent screaming back at us, it will come to our left or our right. And before we even realize it, we get a half-step head start to the spot in space where we can intercept it. It's a manifestation of the tacit, and on those rare occasions these days when I still get to roam the outfield, it brings me palpable joy, this reminder that there are things I know that I don't, moment to moment, know I know.

Tonight's the last night of the baseball season. After six months of daily engagement--listening to games on the radio, checking box scores, sitting with my usual seatmates at Wrigley Field--the 162-game season has come to down to one last, crucial game for the team I have followed since boyhood, the St. Louis Cardinals. They enter tonight tied with the Atlanta Braves for the Wild Card in the National League, the last open playoff slot. A win would guarantee them at least a shot at a winner-take-all play-off game tomorrow, while a win coupled with a Braves loss would complete a remarkable month that has seen them climb back from 10.5 games out, as they played their best baseball of the year and took advantage of a historic collapse by the Braves.

The greatest pleasure of sports is, of course, that no one knows what will happen in any given game. But greatly enhancing that pleasure is that we know so much else that we bring to this one night. We follow players and careers and teams and stories from year to year and decade to decade, seeing minute variations on countless familiar situations, most melting into the mass but a few standing stark, unforgettable. We know, from nearly 150 years of professional baseball, what's common and uncommon, rare and unprecedented, implausible and impossible. If you'd asked me in August if this Cardinals team could possibly play well enough to have this final game matter, I would have said it was impossible, and, given where they stood then, history would have buttressed my argument. Yet here we are, and no one knows what's next.

Reading Adam Thirlwell's The Delighted States on the train home tonight, I came across a quotation from a character in Chekhov's "A Love" that seemed apt:
What seems to explain one instance doesn't fit a dozen others. It's best to interpret each instance separately, in my view, without trying to generalise. We must isolate each individual case, as doctors say.
Everything in our universe, is singular, different, and while it's impossible to go through our lives every day without letting that knowledge give way to simple sanity's requirement that we categorize, generalize, and gloss over, it's good to be reminded once in a while of the reality. There's never been a Cardinals team like this Cardinals team; this game has never happened before. Let's play ball.

Monday, September 26, 2011


On the way back Sunday from a weekend in St. Louis, where we had gone to watch a baseball game--participating, in a way, in an activity from olden days--the sign for the town of Lincoln, Illinois tempted us off Interstate 55. For Lincoln is where William Maxwell was born, and it seems wrong to pass, again and again, a place that figures prominently in the work of a favorite writer without pausing to simultaneously pay homage and see, and imagine with, the remnants of the early twentieth-century town whose streets a young Maxwell walked.

The town looks like any number of Illinois small towns, including the one I grew up in: a courthouse anchoring a town square surrounded by a mix of local businesses and ghostly empty storefronts; quiet, tree-lined streets lined with a mix of large, century old wood-frame mansions and smaller, midcentury houses; a small park, functionless since the end of the days of the local brass band; quiet, deep, fundamental quiet.

Maxwell, in Ancestors (1971), wrote of Lincoln:
At the point at which I began to have a general working knowledge of persons, places, and things--that is to say, about 1912--Lincoln was a modestly flourishing county seat that seemed to have been there forever. It was not even very old, though it did have the air of being deeper in the shadow of the past than many of the towns around it. Nothing of any historical importance had ever happened there, or has to this day.
Forty years later, I suspect that closing statement remains true.

We didn't succeed in finding the Maxwell home, where I have since been told there is a plaque, but we did climb the steps of the lovely Carnegie Library that opened in 1903--clearly architectural kin to the one I grew up patronizing--to which a young Maxwell walked to get books. And on this autumn day, under a stirringly beautiful blue sky dotted with puffy clouds, that, and the quiet, was enough. One of the qualities of Maxwell's novels and stories that keeps me coming back to them again and again is the way they seem to effortlessly bridge that gap between the prewar world--especially the prewar rural world, which was almost incomprehensibly isolated--and our contemporary, connected urban lives. Being in Lincoln, even as the occasional SUV rolled by, drew the connection close.

Elsewhere in Ancestors, Maxwell writes of his father:
In his old age my father enchanted the Rotary Club with a speech which he titled "Memories of Lincoln Way Back When." Being rather proud of this success, he presented me with a carbon copy of the notes he spoke from.

He began by describing the town in his boyhood in the 1880s--the, for the most part, unpaved streets, the original courthouse and the hitching posts all around the courthouse square, the horse fountains, the volunteer fire department, the coal-oil lamps in the houses, and the outside privies. At this time the town of Lincoln was less than forty years old. Up and down the streets of the happy past my father went, locating defunct hotels and dancing academies, banks that had changed their names or failed, dry goods stores, livery stables, boarding houses, barber shops (colored and white), saloons, meat markets, jewelers, gents' furnishings, greenhouses, ice houses, brickyards and coal mines, the collar factory and the shooting gallery.
Nostalgia has always been with us, and when you stand on the streets of Lincoln you can't escape more than a century of it. It's part of Maxwell's genius that nostalgia has little, perhaps no, part in his work; rather, he writes of loss, and time, and the way we work and work and work against their partnership.

Friday, September 23, 2011

The problems of the workplace

{Photo by rocketlass.}

Candice Millard, author of River of Doubt, one of my favorite books about Teddy Roosevelt (which is saying something), has a new book out on James Garfield, Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President. I'm enough of a history dilettante to admit that Garfield was mostly a blank spot for me--had a beard, was an abolitionist, got assassinated by Charles Giteau--until I read Adam Goodheart's 1861 this summer. In Goodheart's hands, Garfield is unforgettable: a passionately idealistic teacher at (and, at 26, president of!) a small Ohio college, essentially drafted into a political career, in which he somehow seems to have remained enthusiastic, serious, and intellectual.

I'm only a few pages into Millard's book, but this passage, describing a presentation at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, seemed like the right way to close out a long, busy workweek:
Admiring a sturdy saw meant for amputations, one surgeon asked rhetorically, "Who has not experienced the annoyance, in the middle of an operation, of the saw breaking or becoming wedged in the bone so tightly as to be disengaged with difficulty?"
With that, let us all remember to be grateful that we're living now, with all the distractions and irritations and problems of the present, rather than in the, well, sawbones era.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Four from the office

As I've noted before, I usually try to keep my life as a blogger and my life as the promotions director of the University of Chicago Press separate. This blog is, after all, something I write on my own time about my life as a reader, and while my reading definitely informs the work I do at the office, they're separate worlds, and, by design, the blog reflects that.

But occasionally they overlap--and this is a very good week for that. So, with apologies for seeming to be shilling for my employers, four notes about Chicago books that I've had a hand in and am thus particularly excited about:

1 The fifth Parker novel, The Score, is the free e-book of the month from Chicago for September--and this time, like with the Anthony Powell giveaway back in December, it's free not just from the Press directly, but also from all the major e-book retailers. I've been writing about Richard Stark ever since I first started reading the Parker novels nearly four years ago; being part of bringing these novels back into print has been one of the things I'm most proud of in a twelve-year career in publishing.

The Score is a great place to start reading Parker: it's one of the most exciting books in the series, but it's also got a lightness of tone that's unusual and welcoming--there's none of the gaspingly brutal violence of, say, Plunder Squad here. I'm confident that the thousands of people who download this freebie won't need much convincing to move from that to one of the other nineteen Parkers that Chicago now has available. If you need more convincing, check out my many posts about Stark in the archives, or visit Ethan Iverson's checklist of Donald Westlake's complete oeuvre.

2 George Pelecanos's new novel, The Cut, features a character who teaches literature to public high school students in DC . . . and one of the books on his syllabus is Stark's The Hunter. After reading aloud the opening page, he asks the students what the description of Parker, all hands and shoulders and implicit violence, makes them feel:
"Way his hands are swinging," said another, "it's like he don't care about nothin."

"He doesn't belong in that suit," said William Rogers, aka Moony.

"Exactly," said Leo. "The suit doesn't fit him, both literally and metaphorically. It's a costume to him. He'd be more comfortable walking naked through a jungle. The Parker books are crime novels, but they're also about a man whose physicality stands in contrast to a working world that, at the time, had become increasingly mechanized and deskbound."

"I don't get what you're sayin, Mr. Lucas."

"Parker is a man of action. He's defined by what he does rather than what he says."
Later, in a touch I suspect Westlake would have appreciated, when the teacher asks the class what they liked about the book, a kid pipes up, "It's short."

3 Another book I had a hand in returning to print has just arrived in bookstores, and it couldn't be more different from Stark's work: Francoise Sagan's A Certain Smile. Sagan's second novel (after the explosively successful Bonjour Tristesse), it is, I think, better than her famous debut: its characters are more convincingly imagined, its prose--full of quotably pithy lines--more stripped-down, its world-weariness feeling a tad more earned. In the Economist, Molly Young called it "a popsicle of a book," and that's not far off, if you can imagine a popsicle leavened with a delectable dash or two of bitters. As autumn draws in, what better way to spend some time than sighing over the prematurely cynical love affairs of a beautiful young French student? Lay in a stock of Gauloises and enjoy!

4 And, fnally, what is perhaps the book I'm most excited about this fall, Dmitry Samarov's Hack: Stories from a Chicago Cab, should be showing up in bookstores everywhere any day now. I've been a fan for a few years now of Dmitry's blog about the people he meets and the strange things he sees while driving a cab, and I'm pleased to have played a part in transforming that blog into a book. If you're fascinated by urban life, and you've always wondered about that slice of it that only cabbies see, this is the book for you: it's full of wonderful (and some horrible) anecdotes and unforgettable images of people with their guard down, revealing things to this stranger behind the wheel that, you sense, they don't even tell their closest friends. It's an amazing book, and it's powered by Dmitry's deep empathy: up against people at their worst day after day, he somehow keeps from being crushed. Indeed, what makes his stories stand out is that even as he marvels at oddity he never loses sight of the fact that it's human oddity, and thus worthy of our forbearance and care.

Dmitry will be appearing at a number of venues in Chicago this fall, including a launch party on October 1 at the Rainbo where I'll be one of the many readers (and certainly the least famous). And if you're on Twitter, definitely follow him: you'll get plenty of late-night stories of unusual fares.

Publishing's a job, like any other. But once in a while, you simply feel lucky to be a part of it. With these books, that's definitely where I stand.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Shelves and shelves and shelves

After a week in which work swamped all else, and my only time for reading was my daily L and bus ride, it was comforting to encounter the following passage in Dorothy Dunnett's Checkmate:
When, presently, Philippa set wide the great double doors of the library, the curator was not in the chamber. The night sky, indigo through the thirteen dormer windows, looked down upon the tiered ranks of fretted shelves, twelve on each side, which held the nine hundred manuscripts lovingly collected by Charles, and the five hundred Greek works left by King Henri's father, along with the others brought him from abroad by his collectors, and looked after him by Bude. Go tell my wife, that curator had said without looking up from his book, when fire broke out and raged through his lodgings. Go tell my wife. I do not concern myself with domestic matters.

It's not the absorption that heartened me, but the numbers: that was the royal library of the King of France in 1557, and it had fewer volumes by far than my own. I am endlessly fortunate, and that reminder leavens the sense--always bubbling up after a week of little reading--that I'm falling behind, failing to get to books I've brought home and very much want to dive into. The surfeit is itself a blessing, and one best met by gratitude and patience.

That thought sent me to Borges's essay on blindness from Seven Nights. He writes of his appointment as director of the Argentine National Library,

I received the nomination at the end of 1955. I was in charge of, I was told, a million books. Later I found out it was nine hundred thousand--a number that's more than enough. (And perhaps nine hundred thousand seems more like a million.)

Little by little I cam to realize the the strange irony of events. I had always imagined Paradise as a kind of library. Others think of a garden or of a palace. There I was, the center, in a way, of nine hundred thousand books in various languages, but I found I could barely make out the title pages and the spines. . . . I remembered a sentence from Rudolf Steiner, in his books on anthroposophy, which was the name he gave to his theosophy. He said that when something ends, we must think that something begins. His advice is salutory, but the execution is difficult, for we only know what we have lost, not what we will gain. We have a very precise image--an image at times shameless--of what we have lost, but we are ignorant of what may follow or replace it.
Borges's philosophical take is helpful. More restorative, perhaps, was a rainy autumn Sunday of sipping cider, sitting by the fire, and reading for hours. It's reminded me that no sensible reader is on a quest for completeness; this is an endless task. In The Library at Night, Alberto Manguel describes it well:
{M]ore than anything else, the LIbrary of Alexandria was a place of memory, of necessarily imperfect memory. . . . Honouring Alexandria's remote purpose, all subsequent libraries, however ambitious, have acknowledged this piecemeal pnemonic function. The existence of any library, even mine, allows readers a sense of what their craft is truly about, a craft that struggles against the stringencies of time by bringing fragments of the past into their present. It grants them a glimpse, however secret or distant, into the minds of other human beings, and allows them a certain knowledge of their own condition through the stories stored here for their perusal. Above all, it tells readers that their craft consists of the power to remember, actively, through the prompt of the page, selected moments of the human experience.
The task is endless, and so are the satisfactions.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Quarterly Conversation turns 25!

Time is short here at I've Been Reading Lately HQ this week--which is particularly frustrating because on Sunday I dove into the last of the Dorothy Dunnett novels I hadn't read, Checkmate, and once you've been sucked into Dunnett's world, there's nothing you want to do but stay there. But fortunately there's the twenty-fifth issue of the Quarterly Conversation for me to send you to. As usual, there's plenty of fascinating material there, including a love letter to Antonio Lobo Antunes by Chad Post (who just may be Antunes's biggest fan); a look at the newest of Cesar Aira's endless supply of novels to be translated into English, by Hugo Browne-Anderson, and a grappling with Robert Duncan's The H. D. Book by George Fragopoulos. That should at least keep you folks busy for a few days until things return to normal around here. Enjoy!

Monday, September 12, 2011

"As long as there is a Tolstoy in literature it is simple and gratifying to be a literary figure," or, More on Tolstoy and Chekhov

After Friday's post that set Tolstoy and Chekhov in opposition, it seems only fair to allow Chekhov to rebalance the scales a little--for Chekhov admired Tolstoy, both as a writer and as a man, like few other people. Here, in a letter to Mikhail Menshikov of January 28, 1900, he frets about reports of ill health:
Most likely Tolstoy is in good health (apart from the stones) and will live another twenty years or so. His illness frightened me and kept me in a state of tension. I dread Tolstoy's death. His death would create a vacuum in my life. To begin with, I have never loved anyone as much as him; I am an unbeliever, but of all the faiths I consider his the nearest to my heart and most suited to me. Then again, as long as there is a Tolstoy in literature it is simple and gratifying to be a literary figure; even the awareness of not having accomplished anything and not expecting to accomplish anything in the future is not so terrible because Tolstoy makes up for all of us. His career is justification for all the hopes and expectations reposed in literature. In the third place, Tolstoy stands solid as a rock, with his immense authority, and as long as he remains alive bad taste in literature, all vulgarity, be it insolent or tearful, all coarse, irascible vanities will be held at a distance, deep in the shadows. HIs moral authority alone is capable of keeping so-called literary moods and trends at a certain high level. Without him the literary world would be a flock without a shepherd or a hopeless mess.
It seems cruel that it was Chekhov who was to die first, without ever getting to read Tolstoy's late masterpiece, Hadji Murat, the posthumously published novella (worked on in secret even as he disavowed fiction) that in some sense brought him back full circle to the world of his early novel The Cossacks.

Sofia Tolstoy--whose suffering (complicated, I acknowledge, by her own complicity and problematic character) might have lessened Chekhov's devotion had he been able, as we are, to read her diaries--in general seems to have appreciated, even admired Chekhov's work. But on April 16, 1911, six months after her husband's death, when she was, it seems, still wrestling with a toxic combination of anger and loss, she wrote in her diary,
I read some Chekhov--very clever, but he sneers a lot and I don't like that.
Sneering isn't a stance I associate with Chekhov; he has too much fundamental sympathy for that. What seems more likely is that Sofia was still too wrought up by her loss to accept the sort of empathy that Chekhov extends to his characters; the rest of that day's entry, even when adjusted for Sofia's (Russian?) tendency to melodrama, is painful to read:
A fine morning, then a thunderstorm and a short, fierce shower. I haven't been crying recently--I've grown cold, my life is a matter of endurance. "To live is to submit!" according to Fet.
Which sends me to Viktor Shklovsky, epigrammatic genius of Russian critics, who in his Energy of Delusion wrote on Chekhov's short, struggling life:
It's as though in the history of literature you won't come across a story that's more moving or decent as Chekhov carrying his large family on his back.

Someone so free in his judgments, who loved Tolstoy, who strangely never noticed Dostoevsky, and who freed literature from the slavery of old forms.

That was Chekhov.
And on Karenina and Vronsky:
Were they unhappy? Was Tolstoy happy? I don't know.

I don't know what happiness means to birds, but when a flock of geese or quails fly over the ocean to their dear old nests, the nests on each side are probably identical.

They are each just as precious.

Is the goose happy after his flight from Egypt to the Arctic Sea? He is probably made for such a flight, and his stroking wing coincides with the movement of the air that carries the flock.

While searching for a path of life through the life of his novels, Tolstoy was perhaps occasionally happy.

But it's impossible to create a complete novel and sometimes it's impossible to finish even a song.
Friday, I learned today, was Tolstoy's birthday. He was born 183 years ago, and we continue to read and re-read and discuss and ponder and fret about him.

Friday, September 09, 2011

A post suitable to the Friday of what has been a very long week, with too much work and not enough piano playing, but at least the right number of martinis

I originally intended to build tonight's post around a passage from the wonderfully cracked, cascading, brilliant lunacy of Marguerite Young's Miss Mackintosh, My Darling (1965), the subject of the World's Least Popular Book Club (New Members Welcome!). A passage like this, for example:
He could not be easily persuaded, he believed, even by the intoxicating, contagious madness of an angelic, lawless woman he had always compassionately, profoundly loved, one for whom he would have sacrificed his life, his own best interests, having loved her just as much as his dead brother had hated her, scorning impatiently her love, not returning it, even making light of it in a most high-handed manner, even saying she had only pretended to be insane. Perhaps Mr. Spitzter loved her even more than his brother had hated her. His brother had been insolent, a gambler, a spender of borrowed money, a quick suicide, a four-flusher with a quick come-back, a ready apology or the banal dismissal of the need for apology, very different from cautious Mr. Spitzer, who claimed never to have placed a bet on even that which he had been most certain of. His brother had been worldly, but Mr. Spitzer had always been, if he might sometimes say so, unworldly and abstruse.

Though she tormented Mr. Spitzer endlessly, sometimes implying that he did not exist, it was perhaps because, after all, in spite of the fact that she could be committed to no one, her imagination floating through unknown amplitudes, she had become grudgingly fond of him, this one faithful caller, he at least providing her a rare amusement.
The suggested searches in this 1,000-page novel at Amazon? "Suffrage captain," "great shiek," opium lady," "black king," "little shadow boxer," and "ghost buggy." (Did I mention that the book club is accepting new members? We'll waive the initiation fee!)

But then, on the bus heading home from work, a soft autumn rain plickering the windows as the gray of Lake Michigan roiled in the distance, I read this passage, from Chekhov's The Duel (1891):
"And last night, for instance, I comforted myself by thinking repeatedly: Oh, how right Tolstoy is, how unmercifully right! And this made me feel better. In point of fact, brother, he truly is a great writer! Regardless of what anyone says."

Samoylenko, having never read Tolstoy but spent each day preparing to read him, felt embarrassed and said:

"Yes, all writers write from the imagination, but he's straight from nature . . ."
Which brings to mind this passage from Chekhov's letters, sent to A. S. Suvorin on May 4, 1889:
Nature is an excellent sedative. It pacifies--that is, it makes one indifferent. And it is essential in this world to be indifferent. Only those who are indifferent are able to see things clearly, to be just and to work. Of course, I am only speaking of intelligent people of fine natures; the empty and selfish are indifferent enough any way.
Chekhov, even when he's being intentionally provocative, as seems likely here, always comes across as fundamentally decent, an opinion which has thus far been borne out by everything I've read about him. Lilian Hellman, in an introduction to a collection of Chekhov's letters, wrote,
Chekhov was a pleasant man, witty and wise and tolerant and kind, with nothing wishywashy in his kindness nor self-righteous in his tolerance, and his wit was not ill-humored. He would have seen through you, of course, as he did through everybody, but being seen through doesn't hurt too much if it's done with affection.
Tolstoy, on the other hand, was, as is well known, nearly as horrible, at least to his family, as he was brilliant. Berryman's assessment of Rilke would suit: Tolstoy was a shit. As a husband, he calls to mind the end of Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find": Tolstoy would have been a good husband, "if it had been somebody there to shoot [him] every minute of [his] life."

So for Friday, my love to Tolstoy's work, my admiration to Marguerite Young's ambition and singularity, but a seat at my bar for Chekhov, who need do nothing more than sit quietly, listening to the piano and nodding, perhaps pausing once in a while to wipe the foam from his mustache.

 Enjoy the weekend, folks.

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.