Tag Archives: 18th century

Benjamin Franklin: The Naughty Bits

Years ago I came across a peculiar little pamphlet “privately printed” for the Frankliniana Society in 1929 and “strictly limited to 500 copies.”  Written by Benjamin Franklin (whose mug appears on the front of the $100 bill), it’s titled Franklin on Marriage, and someone, rather rudely, stamped “ON SEX” across the front cover. Is that a warning or an enticement? Tut, tut. 

Anyway, in the first piece written in 1745, Franklin, who it turns out, was both a bit of a raver and a humourist writes “Advice to a Young Man on the Choice of a Mistress.” Franklin argues that “marriage is the proper remedy,” for “violent natural inclinations,” but failing that, he advises the young man to get himself an old mistress rather than a young one, and these are his reasons:

1. Because they have more Knowledge of the World, & their Minds are better stor’d with Observations, their Conversation is more improving, & more lastingly agreeable.

2. Because when Women cease to be handsome they study to be good. To maintain their Influence over men, they supply the Diminution of Beauty by an Augmentation of Utility. They learn to do a thousand Services small & great, & are the most tender and useful of Friends when you are sick. Thus they continue amiable. And hence there is hardly such a thing to be found as an old Woman who is not a good Woman.

3. Because there is no Hazard of Children, which irregularly produced may be attended with much Inconvenience.

4. Because through more Experience they are more prudent and discreet in conducting an Intrigue to prevent Suspicion. The Commerce with them is  therefore safer with regard to your Reputation. And with regard to theirs, if the Affair should happen to be known, considerate People might be rather inclined to excuse an old Woman, who would kindly take care of a young man, for  his Manners by her good counsels, & prevent ruining his Health and Fortune among mercenary Prostitutes.

5. Because in every Animal that walks upright, the Deficiency of the fluids that fill the Muscles appears first in the highest Part. The Face first grows lank and wrinkled; then the Neck; then the Breast and Arms; the lower Parts continuing and plump as ever: so that covering all above with a Basket, and regarding only what is below the Girdle, it is impossible of two Women to tell an old one from a young one. And as in the dark all Cats are grey, the Pleasure of Corporal Enjoyment with an old Woman is at least equal, and frequently superior, every Knack being, in practice, capable of Improvement.

6. Because the Sin is less. The debauching of a Virgin may be her Ruin, and make her Life unhappy.

7. Because the Compunction is less. The having made a young Girl miserable may give you frequent bitter Reflection; none of which may attend the making an old Woman happy.

8th and lastly. They are so grateful!!

Another piece in the pamphlet addresses the issue of farting and is signed “FART-HING.”  And  that brings me to the question:  was Franklin a member of the infamous Hellfire Club or was he in attendance, as some claim, as a spy?… The latter sounds a lot like someone I knew who was caught soliciting prostitutes. He had the misfortune to solicit an undercover policewoman by mistake and argued he was innocent as he was merely conducting research about prostitutes for a term paper.  

 

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A Game of Love and Chance by Marivaux

“Have you ever seen counterfeit money? Do you know what a dud coin is? Well, I am rather like that.”

A Game of Love and Chance is the third book from Emma in our virtual gift exchange. I was surprised at the choice of a play, but also more than happy to read it. I was lucky enough to see a superb production of The Triumph of Love a few years ago, so reading another play by Marivaux brought back some good memories. I now have a collection of several Marivaux plays: The Double Inconstancy, The False Servant, The Game of Love and Chance, Careless Vows, The Feigned Inconstancy and five one-act pieces. My edition is from Methuen World Classics, and it has the peculiar feature of including the cast members, so for A Game of Love and Chance, my copy states that this translation, from John Walters was commissioned by the Nuffield Theatre, Southampton, and was first performed on Feb. 20, 1986. Then comes the cast list of actors for this particular production.

The plot of A Game of Love and Chance is as follows:

Monsier Orgon wants his daughter, Silvia to marry Dorante, the son of an acquaintance.This is, rather importantly, an arranged marriage–but an arranged marriage with conditions. Orgon wants Silvia to meet Dorante and see if he pleases her. Silvia, however, has recently had a rather unpleasant experience of seeing a wife in tears and she realises that a man can show one face to the world while his wife sees the ‘real’ side. She gives her servant, Lisette, an example:

And then there’s Leander. People are happy with him when they see him, are they not? Well, let me tell you, at home he is a man who says not a word, neither laughs nor scolds–a frozen, solitary, unapproachable soul. His wife does not know him, she has no dealings with his mind. She is married only to a shape who emerges from an inner room to come to table, and withers all around him with a chilling apathy and torpor. Now there’s an entertaining husband for you! 

So Sylvia devises a plan. She decides to pose as her servant Lisette as she wants to be able to gauge Dorante’s true character. Is there a better way to see the ‘real’ person than to pose as (or to really be) a perceived social inferior?  

There’s a catch. Dorante has decided to do the same thing, so he switches places with his valet Harlequin. Subsequently, Harlequin courts Lisette (thinking that she’s the wealthy Silvia), and Dorante falls in love with Silvia (thinking she’s the lowly maidservant). Of course this is all very clever as then we see that Dorante’s motivated not by venal concerns but by love–whereas Harlequin thinks he’s going to land a rich wife and change his fortunes. The best part has to be that the audience is on the joke–along with Sylvia’s father, Orgon.

The dialogue is fast-paced and very witty. Here’s Harlequin and Lisette:

Lisette: I find it hard to believe that it hurts you so much to wait, Monsieur. You are only pretending impatience out of gallantry. You have barely arrived here, your love cannot be very strong. At the most, it can only be in its infancy.

Harlequin: You are mistaken, oh wonder of our age! A love such as ours does not stay long in the cradle. My love was born at your first glance, your second gave him strength, and the third made him a big boy. Let us try to marry him off as soon as possible. Look after him, since you are his mother.

Lisette: Do you find him mistreated then? Is he so forsaken?

Harlequin: Until he is fixed up, just give him your lovely white hand to keep him amused.

Is it just my dirty mind, or is there a sexual connotation there?

I didn’t care for some of the updated language. Perhaps it worked better on the stage. Here’s the arrival of Harlequin posing as Dorante:

Harlequin: A servant out there told me to come in here. He said my pa-in-law and my missus would be informed.

Silvia: you mean Monsieur Orgon and his daughter, I suppose, Sir?

Harlequin: Well, yes, my pa-in-law and my missus, as good as. I’ve come to wed, and they’re waiting for me so they can get married. It’s all agreed. we’ve only to go through with the ceremony, and that’s a mere trifle.

In the French version, Harlequin uses the term beau père instead.

One of things that struck me as I read the play is how much it reminded me of Shakespeare for its idea of the mixed up couples, but the informative intro to my copy states that Marivaux plays  “have an average of six main roles, with a minimum of five and a maximum of ten.” Just guessing here, but the Shakepeare plays seem to have a higher average number of characters. Another thing that was apparent in the play is of course the innate snobbery that the upper class couple Dorante and Silvia are capable of a higher sort of love while Harlequin and Lisette’s relationship is much more earthy. The laughs seem to be generated by Harlequin and Lisette rather than their upper class counterparts, so is Marivaux also saying that the servants enjoy life more?

Thanks Emma. I enjoyed this and since I have a free French version on the kindle, I’ll try reading it in French–although I think the translation I have includes some creative liberties.

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Lenz by George Büchner

I admit that I’d never heard of Lenz–Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz (1751-1792) until this review copy from Archipelago Books . Wikipedia identifies Lenz as a Baltic German writer of the Sturm und Drang movement. Here comes a slight digression….what is it with these artists who slotted into significant literary movements? Did they feel as though they had to live the very essence of the movement they were part of? Take the Sturm und Drang movement, for example. Lenz is one of those authors who fall under the movement’s umbrella, and his life appears to be an embodiment of the movement. Of course, this sets the mind off thinking about Oscar Wilde and the Decadents, Charles Bukowski and Transgressive Fiction, Byron and the Romantics etc… There’s a lot here to chew on, but back to Lenz.

Lenz is composed of the 1839 novella Lenz by Georg Büchner, Mr. L ... by Johann Friedrich Oberlin, and an excerpt concerning Lenz from Goethe’s Poetry and Truth. According to translator Richard Sieburth, Büchner’s Lenz is “an experiment in speculative biography.” Lenz, the son of a minister, rejected the study of theology and instead turned to literature. He then left his studies to become a “tutor” to the two young barons von Kleist and followed them to a number of garrisons. Later, he made friends with Goethe and became part of a group of young writers. A period of some literary success followed, but Lenz’s relationship with Goethe turned sour, and at Goethe’s instigation, Lenz was thrown out of the Weimar court. The translator’s afterword goes into some detail about the incidents that took place, but to give a hint: the trouble erupts over a woman.

Lenz begins with our main character, Lenz, wandering on the mountains. A simple walk turns into a monumental, epic journey, and we are privy to Lenz’s increasingly fragmented thoughts. It’s not immediately apparent, but becomes so as the story plays out, that Lenz is on the fringes of a total mental meltdown:

Everything seemed so small, so near, so wet, he would have liked to set the earth down behind an oven, he could not grasp why it took so much time to clamber down a slope, to reach a distant point; he was convinced he could cover it all with a pair of strides. Only sometimes when the storm tossed the clouds into the valleys and they floated upwards through the woods and voices awakened on the rocks, like far-echoing thunder at first and the approaching in strong gusts, sounding as if they wanted to chant the praises of the earth in their wild rejoicing, and the clouds galloped by like the wild whinnying horses and the sunshine shot through them and emerged and drew its glinting sword on the snowfields so that a bright blinding light knifed over the peaks into the valleys; or sometimes when the storms drove the clouds downwards and tore a light-blue lake into them and the sound of the wind died away and then like the murmur of a lullaby or pealing bells rose up again from the depths of ravines and tips of fir trees and a faint reddishness climbed into the deep blue and small clouds drifted by on silver wings and all the mountain peaks, sharp and firm, glinted and gleamed far across the countryside, he would feel something tearing at his chest, he would stand there, gasping, body bent forward, eyes and mouth open wide, he was convinced he could draw the storm into himself, he stretched out and lay over the earth, he burrowed into the universe, it was a pleasure that gave him pain

That passage captures the beauty of nature–its violence and its peace, and through the sentence structure we also see Lenz’s erratic state of mind. But this scene is nothing compared to what awaits. An Alsatian pastor takes Lenz in to his home, and it’s there that Lenz unravels. The novella is a fictionalised account of the three weeks Lenz spent with Oberlin.

The second part of this volume, Mr. L  is an extract from the diary written by Johann Friedrich Oberlin, the pastor who took on more than he planned when he took Lenz into his home. Oberlin chronicles three weeks of hell with Lenz throwing himself out of the window, trying to drown himself and getting way too familiar with a pair of scissors.

The third section’s matter-of-factness, written by Goethe, is in stark contrast to Lenz’s wildly irrational behaviour:

One is aware of that species of self-torture which, in the absence of any external or social constraints, was then the order of the dat, afflicting precisely those possessed of the most exceptional minds. Things that torment ordinary people only in passing and which, because unengaged in self-contemplation, they seek to banish from their thoughts, were instead acutely registered and observed by the better sort, and set down in books and diaries.

….

Of all the full- or half-time idlers intent on digging into their inmost depths, Lenz excelled in cultivating and perpetuating this state of conflict, and thus he suffered in general from that tendency of the age to which the depiction of Werther was meant to put a stop; but he was cut from a different cloth, which set him apart from all the others, whom one had to admit were throughly open, decent creatures. He, by contrast, had a decided propensity for intrigue, indeed, for intrigue pure and simple, without any particular goal in view, be it reasonable, personal, or attainable; on the contrary, he was always concocting some twisted scheme, whose very contortions were enough to keep him wholly entertained. In this way, throughout his life his fancies played him for a rascal, his loves were as imaginary as his hates, he juggled his ideas and feelings at whim, so that he would always have something to do. By these topsy-turvy means, he would attempt to impart reality to his sympathies and antipathies, and then would himself destroy this creation again; and so he was never of use to anybody he loved, nor did he ever do harm to anybody he hated, and in general he seemed only to sin in order to punish himself, only to intrigue in order to graft some new fiction onto an old one.

Obviously when Goethe wrote this, he was long out of patience with a man he once considered his friend–or at least someone you could safely invite into your home.  This volume gives us three very different views of Lenz–all of them unhappy, all of them tortured. Lenz seems to be a truly damaged individual–although Goethe indicates that at least some of the drama was fabricated. Lenz ended up in Russia, and he died there in 1792, aged 41, homeless on a Moscow street.

A few words on this edition… In terms of quality, the book reminds me of those excellent little high-quality pocket-sized editions from Pushkin Press. The cover is made of heavy card with flaps for both front and back covers. This is a dual German-English edition which is rather wasted on me as my two years of German stagnated after the discovery of the word “vater.” But really, this volume is a gem for anyone interested in German Literature (even if, like me, you can’t speak the language).

Special thanks to Amy at The Black Sheep Dances for arranging this review copy.

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Filed under Büchner Georg, Fiction, Goethe

Betrayal by the Marquis de Sade

“O sovereign Providence, why are men’s means so limited that the only way they can ever contrive to do good is by doing a little evil!”

I went through a Marquis de Sade period years ago, but when I came across Betrayal, a title I hadn’t read and published by Hesperus Press, I couldn’t resist. After all the Marquis is everyone’s favourite pervie, and Hesperus puts together some excellent little editions. Betrayal actually contains 2 stories: The Magistrate Mocked (which clocks in at 74 pages) and Emilie de Tourville or Brotherly Cruelty which is 27 pages long. Of the two I prefer the latter. If I wanted to be nasty, I’d say I prefer Emilie de Tourville because it’s shorter, but that wouldn’t be strictly true. The style is much better, but more of that later.

The Magistrate Mocked has some of the elements of a farce, except in typical de Sade fashion, the author doesn’t understand limits, mocking (as the title suggests) ad nauseum, one of his main characters. It’s true that we don’t have much sympathy for the elderly, repugnant M. de Fontanis, “the president of the Parlement of Aix,” but de Sade’s jokes at the expense of this character become old. When the story begins an elderly Baron arranges the marriage, against her will, of his youngest daughter to the repulsive, sepulchral Fontanis:

Not many people can imagine a president of the Parlement of Aix–it is a species of beast of which people have often spoken without knowing it well: strict and unbending by profession,  and pernickety, credulous, stubborn, vain, cowardly, garrulous and stupid by character; with a beaky little face, rolling his ‘r’s like a Punchinello, commonly as thin as a rake, lanky and skinny and stinking like a corpse…It seems that all the spleen and haughtiness of all the magistrates in the kingdom has taken refuge in this temple of the Themis of Provence, to gush out as and when needed, each time that a French court has remonstrances to bring or citizens to hang. But M. de Fontanis was even worse than this rapid sketch of his compatriots would suggest. Over the gaunt, and indeed somewhat bent figure that we have just depicted, M. de Fontanis displayed a narrow occiput, not very low and rising to a distinct eminence, adorned by a yellow forehead magisterially covered by a multi-layered wig, of a kind that had never been seen in Paris; two rather bandy legs supported, with some magnificence, this walking church-tower, from whose chest–not without some inconvenience for those nearby–there issued the exhalations of a yelping voice that poured forth, with a certain pomposity, long compliments, half-French and half-Provencal, at which he never failed to smile himself, his mouth gaping so wide that it was possible to see as far as the uvula that dangled over a blackish chasm, entirely toothless.

De Sade goes on to compare the mouth of de Fontanis to a toilet. A tasty prospect indeed for the Baron’s youngest daughter who happens to be in love with the young, handsome, Count d’Elbène, and to complicate matters, Mlle de Téroze has lost her virginity to the Count. For a moment, I expected Mlle de Téroze to flee with her lover, but de Sade has some torturous misadventures in mind for de Fontanis. 

De Fontanis marries his bride and they honeymoon at the home of the bride’s sister and brother-in-law, the Marquis and the Marquise d’Olincourt. It then becomes the goal of the bride, her sister and brother-in-law, and, naturally, the lover, to ensure that the consummation of the marriage does not take place. This involves a number of horrible things happening to de Fontanis and of course, there’s the  inevitable, classic de Sade scatology with an episode of uncontrollable diarrhoea along with another episode of de Fontanis falling into a cesspool.

The second story Emilie de Tourville or Brotherly Cruelty concerns a middle-aged Count who discovers a near-dead woman in the middle of the road. He takes her home and as she slowly recovers, she tells him her story of woe: seduction, betrayal & abandonment, debauchery, and imprisonment. It’s a tragic tale along the lines of a dummied-down Clarissa, but de Sade isn’t interested in developing character and he has to push the boundaries by dragging in coincidence. This story, however, is devoid of the occasional floweriness and annoying lofty nonsense that appears in The Magistrate Mocked.

Hesperus Press elevates these stories by combining them with a marvellous introduction by translator Andrew Brown, and that’s what makes this edition so worthwhile. This introduction places the stories within the context of de Sade’s life, and Brown points out that at one point, de Sade and his handy man-servant Latour were accused of trying to poison 4 prostitutes in Marseilles. The poison was in fact sweets laced with aphrodisiac, and 2 of the prostitutes accused de Sade of sodomy and attempted poisoning. The parlement of Aix-en-Provence passed sentence of death on both Latour and de Sade. They escaped, but effigies were symbolically ‘executed’ in their place. Andrew Brown notes that these charges were later dropped. The important element here, however, is that this explains de Sade’s spleen against the legal profession, and like many writers, he executes in fiction what he could not commit in life.

The Magistrate Mocked is also valuable for the way in which de Sade, after having fictionally tortured de Fontanis with humiliation after humiliation, lays out some of his philosophy of crime and punishment through the mouths of his characters. One of de Sade’s beefs, apparently, was that prostitutes could make accusations against an aristocrat, and what’s more they could even find a sympathetic ear.

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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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Casanova: A Study in Self-Portraiture by Stefan Zweig

You know how it is. You’re reading a book or watching a film and the same name keeps popping up. Is this a cosmic signal to pick up:

a) a book written by that suddenly ubiquitous name

or

b) a book written about that person?

Everywhere I turned, there was Casanova…and this led me to decide that I should read his memoirs. They have, after all, languished on my shelf now for far too many years. But first, I decided to read Stefan Zweig’s book  Casanova: A Study in Self-Portraiture. My copy is one of those delightful Pushkin Press editions, and I’ll admit that this was part of the lure. Casanova was originally one section of the volume Adepts in Self-Portraiture along with sections on Tolstoy and Stendhal.  Zweig placed this in part of a series called Master Builders in which he “analyse[d] the distinctive types of creative will.” According to the afterword, Master Builders included Dickens, Balzac and Dostoyevsky, and the final section The Struggle with the Daimon included Holderlin, Kleist and Nietzsche. Casanova: A Study in Self-Portraiture is devoted to Zweig’s long-time correspondent, Maxim Gorky.

The pint-sized volume is not a biography of the Great Lover–instead the book is composed of a series of nine essays analyzing various aspects of Casanova’s life. At the end of the book, I wondered if Zweig liked Casanova. At times, I thought not. Zweig’s essays are threaded with hints of dislike, but then as he delves into the topic at hand, it’s almost as though he begrudgingly acknowledges–almost against his will–a sort of admiration for Casanova. Here’s the opening paragraph from the first essay, The Man and the Book:

Casanova is an exceptional instance, a chance intruder in world literature, above all because this famous charlatan has as little right in the pantheon of creative geniuses as the name of Pontius Pilate has in the Creed. His rank as an imaginative writer is as questionable as his invented title of nobility, Chevalier de Seingalt: the few verses he penned hastily between bed and the gaming table in honour of one lady or another reek of musk and academic paste…. In very truth, Casanova has as little claim to enter the company of great writers as he has to a place in the Almanach de Gotha; in both he is a parasite and an unwarrantable intruder. Nevertheless, this son of a shady actor, this unfrocked priest, this un-uniformed soldier this notorious cheat (a superintendent of police in Paris describes him in his dossier as a fameux filou), is able to ruffle it for a large part of his life among emperors and kings, and dies at last in the arms of a great nobleman, the Prince de Ligne: and, though he seems a mere pretender in the world of letters, one among many, ashes to be blown about by the winds of time, his roving shade has found a place for itself among the immortals.

Beautifully put, and Zweig is right of course. Casanova is immortal; you don’t have to read the memoirs to know his name.  He is one of those rare historic figures whose name enters the lexicon, and if we see indefatigable sexual behaviour we can stick Casanova’s name on it. Zweig asks: was Casanova unique or special in some way, or was is some tremendous stroke of luck that made his name live forever?

Zweig comes to some marvellous conclusions about Casanova. In the essay, Home Eroticus Zweig compares Casanova to Don Juan and explores the differences. Zweig argues that Casanova loved women whereas Don Juan’s women are “victims.” “Never,” Zweig writes “like Don Juan, does he [Casanova] desire crude possession; he must have a willing surrender.” Zweig argues that Don Juan enjoyed “debasing” his victims while Casanova’s women join him in an act of liberation of the senses, “inhibitions and scruples.” Also in this chapter, Zweig discusses the lack of ‘harm’ caused by Casanova, and he states that the women who “passed the night with Casanova  do not feel they have been cheated of platonic explanations.” According to Zweig, Casanova’s peccadilloes were fairly straightforward sexual transactions with no deception; Casanova was there to give and receive pleasure.  I’m not sure I agree with that, especially since Zweig also argues that the game to Casanova was the elaborate art of seduction. Surely, in some instances at least, seduction does involve deception? I have to read the memoirs to be able to form anything other than a superficial judgement on that. But here’s a great sentence I have to include:

The path of a Goethe or a Byron is strewn with feminine wreckage.

In contrast to Goethe, Byron (and Don Juan), Zweig argues, Casanova left his lovers in a glowing, happy, and grateful post-coital state:

Casanova’s flash of earthly passion … does very little harm to their souls. He is not responsible for any shipwrecks, for any outbreaks of despair. 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.

That’s a sweeping statement there. Zweig’s argument is that Byron and Goethe misled women with words of eternal love & devotion. To Zweig, they are the destroyers and the deceivers–not Casanova–a man for whom it was all about mutual, albeit, fleeting pleasure.

One of the points Zweig makes is that Casanova was an anomaly. Zweig argues that most creative people are busy creating (often in solitude) and not off out living a life of adventure, and that those devoted to adventure do not possess the skill to describe their experiences. According to Zweig, this is a paradox:

“Men of action and men of pleasure have more experience to report than any creative artist, but they cannot tell their story; the poietes, on the other hand, must fable, for they have seldom had experiences worth reporting. Imaginative writers rarely have a biography, and men who have biographies are only in exceptional instances able to write them.”

Zweig’s paradox is solved in Casanova–a talented, amoral man who “changes countries, towns, estates, occupations, worlds, and women, as easily as he changes his shirt.” Actually I disagree with Zweig; there are examples that defy that paradox. I’d argue that Lermontov lived the short, spectacular life of an adventurer while wearing the uniform of the Tsar.

Zweig concludes that Casanova was a tremendously talented individual, but a dilettante at heart. Most of Casanova’s talents were the sort of things that got him to the homes of the wealthy set and into the knickers of the women. Zweig states Casanova was:

 Almost a savant, almost a poet, almost a philosopher, almost a gentleman. But this ‘almost’ was for Casanova the heel of Achilles. He was almost everything: a poet and yet not wholly one, a thief and yet not a professional one. He strove hard to qualify for the galleys; yet he never succeeded in attaining perfection. As universal dilettante, indeed, he was perfect, knowing an incredible amount of all the arts and the sciences; but he lacked one thing, and this lack made it impossible for him to become truly productive. He lacked will, resolution, patience.

Zweig does get a bit carried away at times. He embellishes so much that his elegance almost escapes the recognition of repetition, but it’s all so beautifully written, I didn’t mind a bit. My favourite essay is The Philosophy of Superficiality, and the title alone gives more than a hint of its subject matter. There’s so much to quote here–so much to chew over, but finally here’s one final quote to spur me on until I begin the memoirs:

What makes Casanova a genius is not the way in which he tells the story of his life, but the way in which he has lived it.

Translated by Eden and Cedar Paul

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The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia by Samuel Johnson

“Ye who listen with credulity to the whispers of fancy, and pursue with eagerness the phantoms of hope; who expect that age will perform the promises of youth, and that the deficiencies of the present day will be supplied by the morrow; attend to the history of Rasselas prince of Abissinia.”

The lists compiled by various authorities and experts on the subject on the best books ever written can be good resources for new reading material. But I am at the same time suspicious of these lists. Some of the choices seem outrageous, and then I begin to wonder why one novel doesn’t make the list while another soars to the top. Another problem I have with these sorts of lists is the fact that those who do the choosing haven’t read every single book on the planet, so how can they say what is best?

rasselasThis rhetorical question brings me to Samuel Johnson’s novella The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia. I don’t have the ego to claim that this is one of the top ten books ever written, because I’m sure it isn’t. But that said, Rasselas makes the list of my most influential reads. My well-worn copy has been re-read innumerable times; the spine is long broken, the text is heavily highlighted and the pages are falling out.

Essayist, biographer, translator and poet Johnson, whose life was fraught with poverty, ill-health, and tragedy, wrote Rasselas simply because he needed money to visit his dying mother. The novella was reportedly written over the period of one week. In many ways Rasselas could be considered as a companion to Candide, but while Candide still makes it to university reading lists, Rasselas seems sadly forgotten.

The premise of Rasselas is simple: Rasselas, a young prince, lives with his family and servants in the Happy Valley. All of his needs are met. Every want and desire is catered to. He leads a perfect life of luxury, and yet something is lacking. He begins to wonder about the world outside of the kingdom in which he lives and feeling discontent he notes:

“[T]he sounds that pleased me yesterday weary me today, and will grow yet more wearisome tomorrow. I can discover within me no power of perception which is not glutted with its proper pleasure, yet I do not feel myself delighted. Man has surely some latent sense for which this place affords no gratification, or he has some desires distinct from sense which must be satisfied before he can be happy. “

Partially to alleviate boredom through novelty, but mainly to explore the notion of what it means to be ‘happy,’ Rasselas leaves the Happy Valley with two companions for his travels: his sister, Nekayah and the philosopher, Imlac. Together they travel through the world, and have many adventures and encounters throughout the journey. These encounters create opportunities for philosophical debate amongst the travelers. At one point for example, they debate novelty and change as a necessary component for happiness:

“Such, said Nekayah, is the state of life, that none are happy but by the anticipation of change: the change itself is nothing; when we have made it, the next wish is to change again. The world is not yet exhausted; let me see something to morrow which I never saw before.”

“Variety, said Rasselas, is so necessary to content, that even the happy valley disgusted me by the reoccurence of its luxuries.”

Rasselas is a deceptively simple work, but it is packed with wisdom and insight into the human condition. Each of the situations encountered influence and shape Rasselas’s desire to understand the nature of happiness, and of course, the answers prove as elusive as happiness itself. In doggedly pursuing his desire to understand and define the quest for happiness, Rasselas and his companions explore the fundamental conditions of the human state, and while Rasselas is a deeply philosophical work, ostensibly it reads like a simple tale of travel and adventure. Although Johnon’s wonderful example of Orientalism was written in the 18th century, the philosophy is amazingly prescient, and this of course says a great deal about the immutability of the human condition.

“Poverty has, in very large cities, very different appearances: it is often concealed in splendour, and often in extravagance. It is the care of a very great part of mankind to conceal their indigence from the rest: they support themselves by temporary expedients, every day is lost in contriving for the morrow.”

“Such, says Imlac, are the effects of visonary schemes: when we first form them we know them to be absurd, but familiarise them by degrees, and in time lose sight of their folly.”

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