Category Archives: Casanova

The History of My Life by Casanova Vol. I

“I was all my life the victim of my senses”

Casanova’s memoirs have sat on my shelf for an indecent number of years. I bought the complete set (6 books total–each containing 2 volumes of memoirs) after a strong recommendation, and it didn’t take much arm-twisting as I have a weakness for memoirs. So 2011 was the year I finally picked up the first volume after whetting my appetite with some literary foreplay about The Great Lover.

Casanova (1725-1798) wrote the memoirs  beginning in 1789 while serving as the librarian for Count Waldstein at his castle at Dux in Bohemia. I’ll be honest and say that it’s not really clear how much is true and how much is fabricated. This is a concern with any memoir, of course, but in Casanova’s memoirs the issue of truth raises its head at almost every turn.

Volume I begins aptly with Casanova’s ancestry, his birth in 1725, his claim to nobility, his unremarkable childhood and ends in 1744. The first pages introduce the influence of women on Casanova’s life and also his strange health problems. He suffered from hemorrhages–a matter of no small concern especially since Casanova’s father died quite young from an abscess of the brain. Casanova’s parents were actors, and Casanova spends some time detailing his ancestry.

After his father’s death, the theatre-owning Grimani brothers became the family’s “protectors” or patrons. The plan was that Casanova would have a career in the church and he was sent to the University of Padua with that goal in mind. After three years at the University of Padua, Casanova received “minor orders” and became a “young ecclesiastic.” A further taste of the ecclesiastical life buried any illusions of a career in the church, and by the time the first volume ends, Casanova has literary aspirations.

This first volume shows Casanova in embryo. He still has a lot to learn about women, and for this reader, the most interesting aspects of this volume of the memoirs are to be found in the lessons Casanova learns. He’s a quick study when it comes to women, and a single incident is very easily converted into a lasting attitude towards the female sex.

One important lesson comes in the shape of Angela, a young woman Casanova becomes obsessed with. She plays a game of fast and loose and drives Casanova wild. In the meantime, her two friends, Nanetta and Marta make it perfectly clear that they are willing to comply even if their fickle friend isn’t. The lesson here for Casanova (and it takes him some time to stop panting after Angela) : enjoy the delights of the women who offer themselves and don’t waste time on the ones who tease beyond a reasonable amount of time.

In another significant episode, he’s driven to distraction by Lucia, a young servant girl who visits his room and sprawls on his bed. While they engage in a many a round of foreplay, the relationship is not consummated. This is something that Casanova rues much later when he learns that the girl ran off with a scoundrel, so he reasons that he ‘saved’ her for nothing. This is an important lesson for Casanova: why scruple against having sex with someone as who knows if they will still be there on the morrow? Here’s Casanova after receiving the news that Lucia has run off with another man:

As downcast as these decent people, I buried myself in the woods to ruminate my grief. I spent two hours in the most various reflections, some of them sound, others unsound, but all beginning with if. If I had arrived, as I might easily have done, a week earlier, my loving Lucia would have confided everything to me and I should have prevented this murder. If I had proceeded with her as I did with Nanetta and Marta, I should not have left her in the aroused state which must have been the chief cause of her yielding to the scoundrel’s desires. If she had not known me before she met the courier, her still innocent soul would not have listened to him. I was in despair at being forced to admit that I was the agent of the infamous seducer, that I had worked on his behalf.

While Casanova appears to blame himself for warming up Lucia, he comes to an interesting conclusion:

It is certain that if I had known where to look for her with any likelihood of finding her, I should have set off immediately. Before I knew of the disaster which had overtaken Lucia, I was proud, in my vanity, that I had been virtuous enough to leave her a virgin; and now I repented in shame of my stupid restraint. I promised myself that in future I would behave more wisely as far as restraint was concerned.

It’s impossible to read this volume without being struck that everything in Casanova’s world operates on favours. It’s the original ‘who-you-know’ scenario, and this is a system first seen in Casanova’s childhood and carried through to his old age. In this first volume, we see him passing from patron to patron as he begins to shape into the bon vivant, practiced seducer & the great storyteller.

I’ll admit that I initially found the beginning slow going but the pace picked up after Casanova left his childhood behind. This is not a fast read as the text is so dense with many quotable nuggets I wanted to reread. Some of the sex episodes were tedious–especially the one in which Casanova recounts a certain amount of coercion in a rather distasteful episode with the bride of a tenant-farmer. He recounts seizing the bride in a chaise during a thunderstorm and “clasp[ing] her by the buttocks” he carries  “off the most complete victory that ever a skillful swordsman won.” While Casanova has sneakily rearranged his breeches in order to achieve this, there is no mention of the woman’s undergarments, so it seems that there is some exaggeration here in order to create the illusion of a smoothly seamless and rapid seduction.

There are many wonderful quotes here, and it is difficult to select just a few to give a taste of the memoirs. Here’s one I particularly liked:

 You will laugh when you discover that I often had no scruples about deceiving nitwits and scoundrels and fools when I found it necessary. As for women, this sort of reciprocal deceit cancels itself out, for when love enters in, both parties are usually dupes.

And another quote that captured my imagination:

A quarter of an hour after my arrival, the murmur of water struck by the oars of a gondola coming in to the landing announced the prodigal Marchese.

It’s impossible to read this volume and not comment on the fantastic notion of Casanova serving the Church of Rome. Of course, he would have had plenty of earlier examples set for him–the Medicis and the Borgias leap to mind. He is such unsuitable raw material. Apart from his love of the sensual, he lacks humility and is insulted by the notion that he must humble himself before ‘superiors.’ Casanova seems to slip easily into a life of nimble wit and entertain his patrons, but he balks at the notion of obedience and subjugation. He is horrified at the idea of penury and obscurity, and it’s clear that when he thinks of a career in the church, he imagines an ambitious, meteoric rise to power. He probably would have been very happy if he could have become a cardinal and skip all the necessary steps to get to that point. He notes:

I had only six more months to spend in Venice awaiting the prelate, who was perhaps to set me on the road to the Papacy. Such were my castles in Spain.

Also in this volume, it’s quite clear that Casanova’s weakness for women is for women in general (at one point he waxes on about the beauty of women’s feet), but he does discriminate against ugly women at least at this stage in his life. We also see his ruinous gambling habit and his nose for intrigue. I’m including here a wonderful quote that rings of sincerity:

Having observed that I have all my life acted more from the force of feeling than from my reflections, I have concluded that my conduct has depended more on my character than on my mind, after a long struggle between them in which I have alternately found myself with too little intelligence for my character and too little character for my intelligence.

 Translated by Willard R. Trask

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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.

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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….

 

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Filed under Casanova, Non Fiction, Zweig Stefan