The Duel by Casanova

I couldn’t decide what to read next and then there on the shelf I discovered Casanova’s The Duel. My copy is from Hesperus Press, and its 100 plus pages includes Casanova’s novella The Duel as well as an excerpt from his memoirs. The excerpt covers the same material Casanova fictionalized for the novella. This ‘duel’ selection is then the same incident viewed from two angles.

Tim Parks  (recently discovered thanks to Max at Pechorin’s Journal) writes the foreword, and translator J.G. Nichols writes the introduction.  Nichols discusses the functions of dueling and argues that it served multiple purposes–revenge, and a “more or less controlled outlet for violence.” Nichols notes that duels also maintained and reinforced the existing social order as duelling could only take place between equals. Parks’ discussion of duels includes the irresistible elements of absurdity and idealism, so while Parks and Nichols cover the same material, they both see the material from different angles–rather as Casanova did when he fictionalized the episode.

For the reader, Parks’ introduction places the story in the context of Casanova’s adventurous life. He’d been arrested and thrown in a “stifling, rat-infested cell beneath the roof of the Doges’ Palace.” Left to languish, Casanova had no definitive sentence. He escaped and became an “outlaw” about to begin a life of exile. Casanova’s novella, based on a real-life incident describes the main character of The Duel in the third person, The Venetian. Both Parks and Nichols find this significant as it emphasizes Casanova’s sense of exile. For the purposes of the story, it also emphasizes his foreignness. Most of the novella takes place in Poland, and the fact that the protagonist, The Venetian (the thinly veiled Casanova) is foreign plays a large role in the story’s action.

Given the title, it’s clear that the story is centered on a duel. The duel is sparked by the most trivial of causes–in other words it was simply an excuse for a fight. The tale is set in Poland, and the Venetian is initially very well-received there. Soon he’s hanging out with the Polish court sporting his Roman Order of Knighthood which is “rather the worse for wear.”  Trouble appears in the form of a certain Venetian ballerina who’s the mistress of Branicki, the Grand Butler to the Crown, and a “friend to the king.”  The ballerina, who has a coterie of admirers, notes that the Venetian favours another ballerina, and so with no small degree of vexation, she instigates a duel between the Venetian and Branicki.  In order to satisfy his mistress’s demands, Branicki does as he’s told and picks a fight with the Venetian. Then arrangements for the duel take place.

The pre-duel details make fascinating reading. At first there’s the outrage, the insults, and then a duel of words. The Venetian wants to use swords on the following day, but Branicki insists on pistols that afternoon. Once the duel is agreed upon, the participants slide into excessive politeness as they almost try to outdo each other on the issue of consideration.  Here’s the Venetian:

Pistols are too dangerous. It could happen that to my great grief I had the misfortune to kill you, and equally you might, against your will, perhaps without hating me very much, kill me. Therefore no pistols. With a sword in my hand I hope that I shall not chance to wound you mortally, and a few drops of your blood would be ample compensation to me for the affront with which you have sullied me. Similarly, I shall do my best to protect myself, so that you will only manage to prick me lightly, and that small amount of my blood will suffice to cleanse me from the ugly stain with which you have blackened me. In conclusion, remember that you have given me the choice of weapons. I have chosen the sword, and I wish to fight only with the sword, and I have the right to maintain that it is no longer your place to refuse it.

Branicki, who has earlier told the Venetian that he is “aware of the tricks your nation gets up to,” is the sneaky one here. He’s an expert shot and by begging a favour of the Venetian, Branicki manipulates his opponent into the polite selection: pistols.

A large portion of the novella is given to the details of the duel–the arrangements, the duel and its aftermath. The very best parts of the story occur when we are allowed to see the thought processes  & philosophy of the Venetian beneath all the trappings of polite society. He waxes on regarding the trivial yet crucial details of court life– including the rules regarding the discourse of monarchs. It’s clear that while Casanova possesses a finite understanding of the subtleties of court life and is a master of etiquette and protocol, underneath the smiles and the flattery, he’s primarily a sardonic observer who notes the vapid conversations, the hypocrisies of polite behaviour, and the  uses of vain, absurd flattery. At one point, for example, the Venetian weighs his options regarding the duel and extrapolates the consequences of each choice. He is advised to do  “much or nothing.” While he opts to do “much,” he is not driven by passion or outrage–only calculation. The Venetian describes Honour as an “imaginary good,” and yet he realises at the same time that his welcome at the courts of Europe depends upon such nonsense.

The book’s second section, the excerpt from Casanova’s memoirs gives a first person account of the same duel and later details how he is no longer welcome in Poland. This section also describes a period in which Casanova stayed at a Polish inn. He negotiates the purchase of the virginity of a peasant girl for 100 florins:

The matter was concluded the same day after supper. Afterwards, she made off like a thief. I heard her father had been obliged to beat her to make her obey. 

I recently read Stefan Zweig’s Casanova: A Study in Self-Portraiture. While I throughly enjoyed Zweig’s analysis of Casanova, he made some sweeping statements about Casanova’s relationships. Here’s just one section:

He has made a great many women happy, but has made no woman hysterical. From the episode of sensual adventure, they return undamaged to everyday life, to their husbands, or to their lovers, as the case may be. Not one of them commits suicide or falls into a decline. Their internal equilibrium has never been disturbed, for Casanova’s unambiguous and radically healthy passion has never touched the mainspring of their destiny. He has blown athwart them like a tropical hurricane, and after he passed they will bloom in a more ardent sensuality. He has made them glow without singeing them; has conquered them without destroying them; has seduced them without corrupting them. Precisely because his erotic assault has been confined to the resistant tissues of the epidermis, and has never reached the vulnerable depths of the soul, his conquests never lead to catastrophes. Consequently, there is nothing daimonic about Casanova as a lover; he never brings tragedy into a woman’s life. In the drama of love, the world’s stage knows no more brilliant episodist that he, but he is nothing more than an episodist. (from Casanova: A Study in Self-Portraiture by Stefan Zweig)

Well so much for that. Beautifully written but in light of the girl beaten by her father to force her submission to Casanova, it seems that at least one poor, wretched girl wasn’t thrilled by Casanova’s attentions. He’s hardly the first man of wealth to pay for a peasant girl, but this episode does add another dimension to Casanova’s amorous adventures. Did Zweig miss this section of Casanova’s memoirs?

The excerpt concludes with Casanova up to his old tricks. This time he intercepts an impoverished girl who hopes to get a position as a governess. He makes his offer:

If, instead of becoming a children’s governess, you would like to become governess to a man of honour, come and live with me. I will give you fifty écus, not per year, but per month.

The downpayment seals the deal.



Filed under Casanova, Fiction, Non Fiction

13 responses to “The Duel by Casanova

  1. Ah, but for how many months will her pay her? Methinks it might not be the bargain it looks to be! Thanks for this review Guy … I’m guessing this will be available on the Kindle so I might just check it out.

    • Casanova is in essence condemning the girl to a life of prostitution once he tires of her. I did read in the Zweig book that one of Casanova’s former lovers hit the big-time and married really well once he was done with her, but I suspect that was the exception rather than the rule.

  2. After the fascinating discussion we’ve had on Zweig’s Casanova, I was really curious to read about this.
    Thanks for the explanations on duels. I didn’t know they had to take place between men of equal status. This sheds a new light on the duel scene in The Red and the Black.
    As you had already figured out in your post on Casanova by Zweig, there was little chance that no woman had been hurt by Casanova. Or does it mean these peasant women don’t fit in the category of “women” ?

  3. The section on the duel is the part I most enjoyed in The Red and the Black. That’s the part at which I thought the novel was going to improve.

    Yes, it occurred to me too that perhaps peasant women don’t ‘count’ in the Zweig ‘all-joy-no-pain’ equation. Sad.

  4. You seem to read a lot ( LOL undertsatement ). I am looking for a duel story which takes place in a dark room. The duellists carefully listening before aiming their next shot. Any idea by whom it can be ?

  5. leroyhunter

    Is there much distinction in terms of the writing between the novella and the extract from the memoirs Guy?

    • Of the two sections, I prefer the novella. It’s very measured and I knew (thanks to the intro) exactly what was going on. The excerpt is just that–a slice taken from the middle of some larger material, and it contains a lot more names. In other words the story isn’t complete….

      At the same time I know I’ll enjoy the memoirs (which I’ll begin in the New Year). I was impressed with Casanova’s control over the story; it “feels” as though he pummelled it into shape–although I have no idea if that’s true. My impression is that he is a little more of a braggart in the excerpt (although he accuses another of that fault). Perhaps it’s just that the distancing in the novella worked so well.

  6. leroyhunter

    In the normal course of events you’d expect the memoir to have that distinct kind of quality, although I think it was intended for publication, wasn’t it? So possibly not as informal or unpolished as a private diary.

    I must admit I’m a little surprised that Casanova shows such signs of skill and control in writing the fiction version. The Hesperus package sounds pretty interesting.

    • Yes, Casanova intended the memoirs for publication (although I read that he changed his mind briefly at one point). He revised them so they are more polished than, as you say, a diary that is not meant for general consumption.

  7. I own a copy of this so must read it. I’ve only read an abridged version of the memoirs so far (Casanova’s own introduction is one of the funniest things I’ve read) but this feels right in terms of content. I had wondered at Zweig’s ideas that Casanova did no harm, that wasn’t my reading necessarily and I’m not sure therefore it was Casanova’s (after all, my impression comes from reading his words).

    He mostly did no harm, but when needs must he was perfectly capable of it. I think Zweig rather romanticised him.

    Duels have a fascination don’t they? Horrific and stupid, but inherently dramatic. Hesperus have done a nice trick here in putting together the story and the memoirs’ extract.

    Paul, it rings a bell but I can’t place it. I wish I could, it’s nagging at me and I suspect I might have read it (or simply of it) years ago but it’s not clear to me now. Good luck tracking it down.

    • The Zweig book: it’s as he gets carried away with the content. He starts on a rift and doesn’t let go.

      I am very interested in finding a book on the history of dueling if anyone could recommend one.

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