A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
This is an utterly beguiling book. I have all at the same time been thrilled, charmed, amused and seduced by the adventures of Mr Newhouse (anglicised) across the civilised heart of 18th century Europe. And my response here is both to the details of this one man’s life, who was at various times “a violinist, soldier, alchemist, faith-healer and even librarian, and originally trained to be a priest”, and also to the manner in which Mr Kelly tells it. Being something of a theatre lover, I particularly enjoyed the way the book was laid out; Casanova’s life is divided into five main acts, each with several scenes and interspersed with the odd intermezzo, the latter of which looks at topics such as our hero’s attitude to travel, sex, and food, and how that sits with contemporary manners. All good stuff and it fits perfectly with the fact that Casanova was born into a theatrical family and loved the theatre. At heart he was always an actor.
I wondered for a while how to approach reviewing such a marvellous book and in the end this is what I decided; there are several main themes and issues that arise (if I dare use that word even) throughout Casanova’s biography, so I think it would be helpful if I looked at each of them in turn.
Casanova in love
Let’s get this straight from the outset. I have to tell you Casanova isn’t shy. Neither is he exclusively straight, nor entirely against selling his body for money or favours. But nor is he the worst offender on the block in terms of his sexual encounters with women; contemporary writers James Boswell and John Wilkes record more in number of such encounters. In fact, according to his own memoirs and to the record, Casanova’s attitude to women is really rather modern; although uncomfortable with the concept of being in love, Casanova keeps a surprising number of his lovers as friends even after his affairs with them have finished. And he was always more interested in affairs than a simple one-night stand. He also showed unusual compassion and generosity at times when women came to him whilst needing help – for instance, supporting those in financial difficulties or helping either with abortions or with secret birthing arrangements for the unmarried, in cases where the child was not his.
In truth, however, and much like many other young men (if given the opportunity) Casanova does drink deep of the sexual enticements on offer for a travelling man, which is what in essence he is. He loses his virginity with not one, but two women with whom he continues a threesome relationship until one of them marries and the other becomes a nun; he takes part in orgies, foursomes, love triangles, voyeurism and he has relationships both with his niece (which was not necessarily seen as a terrible thing at the time) and his daughter, the latter partly to enable her to bear a child even though her elderly husband was impotent. As you can see, it’s a pretty exciting life between the sheets.
Our man on the road can be gloriously bitchy too. When his wooing of a London courtesan goes rather horribly wrong, he buys a parrot, trains it to say “Mademoiselle Charpillon is more of a whore than even her mother” and then puts it in the London Royal Exchange before leaving in a huff for the continent. Now that’s style.
Casanova as adventurer
Casanova is certainly not dull. Born in Venice, he eventually travels all over Europe, visiting Paris, St Petersburg, London, Prague, Dresden, Amsterdam, Vienna and Istanbul at a time when travel was not at all easy. Indeed, he comes across as the sort of man who could never settle – either with one woman for long, or in any one place either. He possessed a restless spirit. Some of that constant journeying is voluntary, and some of it is not. Not only that but he trades secrets and is at one stage involved in spying activities. There’s a marvellous section where he’s put in prison by the Venetian inquisition for alleged religious shadiness, and it turns out not to be the short, sharp shock he hoped it would be. Not to be defeated, he spends several months digging a hole in the floor in order to escape. Unfortunately, on the eve of the day he’s planned to get out, a friend (possibly one of his trio of elderly male lovers/friends who had previously taken him under their wing, Gawd bless them) manages to have him moved to a nicer cell. When the guard discovers the hole in the floor, Casanova blackmails him not to reveal anything, as of course it’s the guard who has inadvertently given him the tools to try for freedom. Casanova then finds himself in a cell with a false ceiling, next door to a renegade priest. He and the priest spend a further couple of months making another hole large enough in the ceiling in order to escape. They do so on an evening when the whole of Venice is at a party, there’s a glorious moment or two where our man at the front is hanging by his fingertips from the roof above the Rio di Palazzo ninety feet below, and then the two of them spend the night in the Venetian offices of the Inquisition before sauntering out in the morning, having been released by a servant who assumes they’ve been accidentally locked in. Wonderful. However, it doesn’t end there. While the whole city are out searching for the two escapees, Casanova spends the next night sleeping in the house of a local police chief, whose maidservant lets him in even though nobody is there as they are all out looking for Casanova and some priest. He considers it’s probably the safest place to be. He’s right. Honestly, you couldn’t make it up. It’s so wonderfully and adventurously perfect that Casanova dines out on the story for years. Good for him.
Casanova as a man of letters
In my ignorance, I had no idea how prolific a writer the great man was. Not only do we have his The History of My Life, which he wrote later in his life with incredibly detailed recall and with the instinct of a true raconteur, but he also wrote 42 books including a five-volume science-fiction novel, as well as a good number of plays, letters, poetry, philosophical and mathematical treatises. From the book, I get the feeling that writing somehow made sense of his life, and he spent a considerable time attempting to get publishers to take him seriously. Ah well, we’ve all been there. Some of us still are, goddammit. He did have some small success (though, naturally, not as much as he would have liked) and of course he provided important input for the libretto of Mozart’s opera, Don Giovanni, through his friendship with the librettist, Da Ponte. The character of Don Giovanni himself is partially based on Casanova, so even if we don’t necessarily think of our man as a writer now, the image of him is part of our European cultural inheritance. As the son of an actress, he might have appreciated that.
Casanova as a dedicated foodie
As a committed man of the senses, food is an essential part of the Casanova experience. Even in the middle of love-making, he remembers and notes later what food was eaten before, during and after sex. In this respect, food becomes an essential part of the game of seduction. Casanova would, I suspect, have thoroughly enjoyed the kitchen experience of Nigella Lawson. In fact, in The History of My Life, we find the following passage at a place where Casanova is about to have sex with what Mr Kelly calls “a highly experienced voluptuary”:
I commented to her on all the food but I found everything excellent; game, sturgeon, truffles, oysters, and perfect wines. I only reproached [the cook] with having forgotten to set out hard-boiled eggs, anchovies and prepared vinegars on a dish, to make a salad … I also said I wanted to have bitter oranges to give flavour to the punch and that I wanted rum not arrack.
It is also partly through his food writings that we now have such a clear idea of what people ate in the 18th century, how it was cooked, where they ate it and what they thought about it. It’s a part of the understanding of an historical era that we don’t often see, and therefore all the more valuable as a record of culinary (and other) behaviour.
Casanova’s final years
When Casanova grew older, he began to suffer from more frequent bouts of depression (an illness which he tended to fall into when a love affair finished), this time probably brought on by sexual disease – it was likely that he suffered from syphilis towards the end of his life. At one point, and again whilst in London (what is it about that city?) he tried to commit suicide from the newly built Westminster Bridge, even going so far as to fill his pockets with lead shot. However he was rescued by a passing English acquaintance who suggested a day of wine and women, beef and Yorkshire pudding as a cure for heartache. Indeed, never let it be said that we English don’t know a thing or two about cheering people up. In any case, it worked and Casanova lived on.
That said, the question crossed my mind as to whether Casanova might indeed have outlived himself (he died embittered and away from his beloved Venice when he was 73 years old). Should he have been like Lord Byron who died when he was only 36 years, a victim of his own self-created heroism? Or is it better that Casanova lived on, beyond the height of his sexual powers, and wrote down his master work, The History of My Life, so we might better know the man and his times? I’m not sure. I still can’t make my mind up about that one. But what I do know is this: if Casanova were alive now and in his heyday before the bitterness set in, he’d be on Facebook and MySpace, and a keen follower of Twitter with, no doubt, some tweets to die for … As he himself wrote, “The thing is to dazzle.” He’d be both a blogger and a celebrity. A charming and forceful one, and one that made you feel that life could be good and whatever was round the corner was probably worth waiting for. I for one can’t imagine any epitaph I’d rather have.
Ian Kelly writes this biography with style, charm, humour, clarity and a pleasingly light touch. So, did this book make me fall in love with Casanova? Well, I think you might have been able to guess that by now. Did it enable me to set this complex, witty, erudite and most fascinating man full-square in the context of his century and enable me to start sifting the truth from the myth? Absolutely yes. Did it make me think about life and how we interpret it in the stories we tell about ourselves and each other, both spoken or written? Oh yes. In such a way that I’m still thinking about it. Here’s Ian Kelly’s almost final analysis:
Casanova cast himself as messiah and lead actor, lover, sex-god and principal protagonist but also lead fall-guy, comedian, fraudster, grifter and dupe. The psychological scarring that seems to have obliged him to address every human encounter, and especially his sexual ones, as a performance and then a re-creation of a sensual universe, a redramatisation in memoir, is audacious, touching and, in its way, inspiring. His modernity is at its freshest in his ability to laugh at himself, and to dissect some difference between what he was and how he appeared to be. As a biographer, or autobiographer, one could not aspire higher.
Really, I can’t think of a better recommendation to read this book. Like the man himself, it’s in a class of its own.
Casanova by Ian Kelly (Hodder, 2009), ISBN: 978-0-340-92215-6
[Anne is dazzled by Casanova’s style and wonders if she ought to get out the hard-boiled eggs and anchovies and create some flavour of her own one day ... To avoid this startling prospect, please click here.]