When Giacomo Casanova, the Venetian patrician now exiled to Dux in Bohemia, completed the memoirs of his life as a lover and adventurer he was almost 75 years old.
This is the correct age to write your memoirs. By the time you have reached retirement, the wife has gone off with the TV repairman, and the children have left the nest, one is ready to choose a more profitable occupation and pick up one’s pen.
But let me not digress. For the purpose of this present piece is not to speak about my own philosophy of life, but to give you, gentle reader, an idea of this wonderful book that has just been published in New York and London in the Everyman edition and has been beautifully translated from the French by William Trask.
“Translated from the French?” I hear you ask. Yes, despite the fact that Casanova was Italian, he chose to write in French. It was, he believed, a more precise language to convey his ideas about the events of his colourful life. His manuscript, unpublished at his death, was picked up by the Germans, given a rough translation which did a cosmetic job on the more purple passages and added bits and pieces to conform to the moral views of the time. This outrage has now been corrected, and the new English translation and the present abridgement, which limits the text to a mere 1429 pages with index and notes, is most welcome.
This work is not a literary masterpiece. If you are expecting the lyricism and grace of Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu you may be disappointed. Unlike Proust’s masterpiece, which captures the interior of his mind and gives the reader the recollection of his feelings, the present work is a sociological document. It is what happened to an adventurer in a colourful moment of historical time.
Casanova’s memoir is presented in a straight-forward style. There is little recourse to the literary devices of metaphor, simile, or poetic language. It may also lack the visual, tactile and olfactory qualities of say, Dickens’ prose, but the pictures it paints are captivating and sharp. This social document should be compulsory reading for every historian interested in the 18th century in Italy, that delightful period of the Age of Reason there.
What was the nature of Casanova’s fascinating life?
It may surprise you to read that at the time of the Inquisition, when being burnt alive was frequent in both Spain and elsewhere for minor deviations from the faith, that the young Casanova was influenced by the rational views of the Enlightenment and questioned the beliefs of his local priest who was in change of his education. Doctor Gozzi was extremely strict in the matter of religion, says Casanova. Everything was an article of faith for him. “The Flood had been universal; before the disaster, men had lived for a thousand years, God talked with them, Noah had built the ark in a hundred years, and the earth, suspended in air, remained motionless at the centre of the universe, which God had created out of nothing.” When the young pupil questioned these certainties, he was told he was a fool.
Casanova was no fool when it came to strategies for seducing women, although his first love, Bettina, the sister of his tutor and a few years Casanova’s elder, was the one who led the way, teaching the as yet naïve and innocent lad some of the basic practical fundamentals of l’amour.
Casanova, who titled himself the Chevalier de Seingalt despite his non-aristocratic birth, soon rose in the ranks of the aristocratic men-about-town. With the proceeds from his gambling at the casino – which, he tells us was his main source of income – he managed to keep his head above water. When he fled to France after escaping from the Doge’s prison in Venice, which I will discuss in a moment, he went on to establish the first French National State Lottery in Paris to provide money for Louis XIV to fight wars. He received a cut of the proceeds. The Church and the powerful also made use of the talents of tall, charming, Casanova, and the epithets ‘spy’ and ‘informer’ apply to the dark side of his activities. Yet he was generous in distributing his ill-gotten gains to both his friends and to those in need.
Love affairs do not dominate the story. However, there are electrifying highlights. One of these, vivid, gripping, and amusing, is the account of his love affair with a countess, the Marquise d’Urfe, a rich, mean, rather stupid woman. She liked mystery and she fell like the proverbial stone for Casanova’s demonstrations of magic. These were of the cabala type, aimed at turning metals into gold with incantations, signs, and chemical solutions. Like a tribal magician from the heart of Africa, Casanova would expel evil spirits from his rich woman friends, anointing them with various unguents (which of course, required them to undress somewhat) and pronouncing spells over their naked bodies. The laws of nature then took over.
Women of all ranks fell for the charm of our Venetian lover, for he was also a criminal in many ways, and as recent televisions programs remind us, criminals have a fascinating for some women. Such women are attracted to big, bad men, and Casanova filled the bill to a T. What made his particularly attractive was his daring escape from the dank, dark, lead-coated prison near the Doge’s palace, a prison that, like the famous American prison at Alcatraz, is not well known for successful escapees who live to tell the tale.
The episode of Casanova’s escape from the Doge’s prison at Venice is one of the highlights of the book.
Satire Casanova lover