Tag Archives: seduction

A Slight Misunderstanding by Prosper Mérimée

I found Prosper Mérimée’s A Slight Misunderstanding thanks to Max at Pechorin’s Journal. This is a fairly simple story, deceptively so, of Julie de Chaverny, a beautiful, bored society woman who makes a fatal error. The title indicates that the error is ‘a slight misunderstanding’ and while it’s certainly true that the events which unfold occur due to a misunderstanding, this leads to a phenomenal error in judgment. This error mirrors the complications of love affairs in which those involved fail–deliberately or otherwise–to discuss their real intentions. Through this story, Mérimée shows just how exquisitely easy it is to misinterpret events and the actions of others.

Here’s society beauty, Julie de Chaverny married 6 years before:

Julie de Chaverny had now known for approximately the last five years and months that it was not only impossible to love her husband but difficult even to feel any respect for him. Not that her husband was offensive, nor was he either foolish or stupid. And yet perhaps he was something of all three. Looking back, she might have recalled having once liked him; now, he bored her. She found everything about him repellent: the way he ate, the way he drank his coffee, the way he spoke, set her nerves on edge. They hardly ever saw or spoke to each other except at the table; but as they dined together a number of times a week, this was quite enough to keep her aversion alive.

So much for married bliss. Mérimée’s insertion in the passage of the words “she might have recalled having once liked him” adds the element of the muddying of time and also a strong sense of ennui. There’s also the idea that Julie perhaps no longer wishes to remember the relationship for what it once seemed to be.  The craft of this 1833 novella shows strongly in its first paragraph. It’s easy to imagine Chaverny slurping his soup and being generally annoying at the dining table, and certainly his presence and possibly his manners serve to remind Julie of just how much she dislikes the man she married.

This state of affairs is buoyed by Chaverny’s constant love affairs with other women, and Julie…well Julie has her flirtations.

Young, beautiful and married to a man whom she disliked, one may imagine that she was bound to be surrounded by much admiration which was far from disinterested.

Julie’s flirtations are rather innocent. She enjoys admiration, but she has no intention of becoming any man’s mistress. That’s too bad for Major de Chateaufort, a handsome young officer who sniffs Julie’s marital distress and is determined to make her his mistress. Chateaufort hangs around Julie like a dog expecting his dinner, and just as he seems to be making progress in the affair, Darcy, a man from Julie’s pre-marriage days enters the picture….

There are a couple of scenes which capture the awkwardness of the De Chavernys’ relationship. In one scene, at the end of a long evening, Chaverny is caught unawares by the prospect of sharing the carriage home with his wife–no easy task apparently, as “the prospect of being alone with her for twenty minutes was alarming.” This really is a marvellous moment and Mérimée takes full advantage of it–including another significant carriage scene later. That same night, Chaverny even hints at sex, but Julie has a million ways of slipping out of his grasp and silencing any fleeting interest her husband may feel for her.

Mérimée shows how society plays a role is pushing Julie into Darcy’s path. This is an interesting contrast to Wharton’s Age of Innocence where we see society taking an active role in keeping Countess Olenska and Newland Archer apart. What happens to Julie and how she reacts to her old lover is the bulk of this story, and I was reminded of Louise de Vilmorin’s Madame de–another lost society woman who’s much more delicate and sensitive than she first appears.

A Slight Misunderstanding is a jewel of a story–no argument from this reader, but beyond the delight of reading it, I also considered the problem of intention and mis-communication. It’s bad enough these days, but love affairs must have been so much more complicated in the past–how could one discuss one’s intentions or interest if it was considered impolite?

Translated by Douglas Parmée

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Filed under Fiction, Mérimée Prosper

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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Filed under Casanova, Non Fiction

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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Filed under Non Fiction, Zweig Stefan