Zweig on Casanova

“No real man, therefore, I repeat, can read Casanova’s memoirs in certain moods without feeling envious, without feeling himself to be a bungler as compared with this master of the art of life. Often–again and again and again–one would rather be Casanova than be Goethe, Michelangelo, or Balzac.”

I’m reading Stefan Zweig’s Casanova: A Study in Self-Portraiture, and I came across this quote today. Is it true, I wonder? My first response is to say I’d rather be Balzac. Balzac didn’t have a particularly easy life, and he died far too young, but those books….who wouldn’t want to be the author of La Comédie Humaine? Perhaps I’ll have a different opinion after I read Casanova’s memoirs….




Filed under Casanova, Non Fiction, Zweig Stefan

14 responses to “Zweig on Casanova

  1. But was Balzac aware that people like you and me would marvel at his books two centuries after he wrote them?
    I’m curious to read if you change your mind after reading the memoirs.

    Would Zweig have said the same thing if he had known Picasso?
    I’d rather be Picasso than Balzac. Picasso had everything. He was a genius, he had a long life, his paintings have reached immortality and he was famous and rich during his lifetime.

  2. Choosing to be Balzac (out of Zweig’s four selections) was based solely on the posterity notion. Zweig seemed to lean towards Goethe.

    One of the reasons I read Zweig’s book was to see what Zweig said about Casanova (and he has some fairly strong opinions) and then decide whether or not I agree after I have read the memoirs.

  3. Don’t you think the quote was more about their respective ability to enjoy life, or to take advantage of what life can give? (What’s the English equivalent to “jouir”? I can’t find a satisfaying translation for this verb)

    I have another question –I tend to be Mrs 20 questions… Why not read the memoirs first, so you already have your opinion when you read Zweig’s book?

  4. I think “in certain moods” is key.

    I have read some of the memoirs, and I found them superbly well written and often extremely witty.

    But, and it’s an important but, it’s not all elegant seductions and daring adventures. In one episode Casanova cons an old woman out of her savings. He convinces her he can return her youth through magic, sleeps with her and has a young naked assistant present so that he can look at her while he has sex with the old woman. All to defraud her.

    It’s hard to read that and to envy him. But, and it’s another important but, there are other episodes where there’s such a joy in living it is hard not to envy it.

    The memoirs are spectacular, and Casanova definitely had a life rich in adventure and incident. That said, it’s only in certain moods it tempts, in others it can all look desperately sad.

  5. I read the Zweig book as a warming up exercise to the memoirs. One of the points Zweig makes is that life changes dramatically for Casanova when he ages. Suddenly it’s not that easy to get women to swoon when he breathes on them.

    I’m curious to see just how much I agree or disagree with Zweig’s opinion.

    Thanks, Max, for your input. That is a gloomy episode….

  6. Book Around The Corner:

    Several reasons why I read the Zweig book first. I had it here on the shelf and I’ve had to move it several times to get to other titles. Each time I picked it up, I put it back with regret. I wanted to read it.

    The memoirs will take me quite some time to read as I will read them in-between other books. The Zweig book is quite short.

    I wanted to get Zweig’s opinion and then see if I disagree or agree with him. From Max’s post, I think that Casanova wasn’t quite as Zweig presents him.

    I am currently going through a curiosity phase when it comes to biography.

    Anyway, all reasons that contributed to selecting the Zweig book before the memoirs.

  7. leroyhunter

    As Max says, the “certain moods” point in Zweig’s quote seems particularly important. While his 3 artists are unquestionably geniuses, they were also to a greater or lesser extent tormented and scorned during their lives. So, rhetorically: Who wouldn’t want a life of uninterrupted ease and indulgence instead? Seems like that’s a sentiment we would all “often” agree with. I don’t get the sense Zweig is setting up an unbridgable contrast between the artists and the buccaneer.

  8. His main point (without the text in front of me) is that a person who has a spiritual dimension will tend to have a better old age–Goethe was his example for that. Conversely, he said that Casanova’s glory days petered out after age 40.

  9. Actually, that has a certain ring of truth to me, though it’s a while since I’ve read the memoirs (and I’ve not read them in full).

  10. Sorry Max, what has the ring of truth? Casanova’s ageing?

    I’m more intrigued than ever to read the memoirs. You mention Casanova swindling a woman, and one of the points that Zweig makes is that he loved women–all women, and so he never hurt them (unlike Don Juan).

  11. His days petering out has the ring of truth for me Guy.

    Never hurting women sounds like romanticisation to me. You don’t seduce that many people and never hurt any of them, even with the best intentions, and his intentions weren’t always the best.

    • It’s a pity we can’t go and ask the women what they felt about their experiences with Casanova.

      Reminds me of Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs & then his wife’s version: The Confessions of Wanda von Sacher-Masoch. Both reviewed here if interested. The ultimate he said/she said.

  12. Perhaps it’s worth delving into other accounts of the time to see what people said. Of course, due to the subject matter, complete honesty may be out of the question.

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