Monday, July 27, 2009

Casanova: The Story of My Life (Nom de Gare)

Well, do I really need to introduce this? The memoirs of Casanova, legendary lover, seducer, picaro, swashbuckler, man-about-Europe... this was all I'd hoped for, and more.

First, a qualification. I've read the Penguin Classics edition, which is a translation from the French by Stephen Sartarelli and Sophie Hawkes, and at 500-something pages much abridged from Casanova's original 12 volumes. Does this mean I've really read it? Not really; not properly. But if this was a kind of tasting plate, I highly recommend it. This was on my list because I ended up with a copy several years ago, when I was doing some post-graduate study in 18th-century English lit. I never got around to reading it, but it was one of those Albatrossy books on my shelves -- it was going to hang around my neck and torment me unless I at least attempted it.

And oh, would I have been the poorer if I hadn't. It's wonderful. Casanova is funny, self-deprecating, life-loving, sassy. He's writing as an oldish man looking back on his adventures; he gives us the whole story of his life, from his parenthood and young boyhood on. He's Venetian, but writes in French, having spent many years in Parisian high-society (French was the 'literary' language of his day, we learn; writing in it establishes his cultured credentials). As a young man with more wit and invention than money or connections, he follows his nose around Europe, taking the reader on an unpredictable, helter-skelter trip through many countries and many social circles. He might be hanging out with a dodgy travelling theatre company one month, mixing with ancien-regime French royalty the next, then joining the army, escaping from prison or living in Turkey discussing God and Islam a few weeks later.

As you might expect, sex and romance are central to Casanova's adventures. He starts with the lover stuff very young -- by his early teens, he's seducing young women and honing his technique. His impulsive interest in women, flirtation and seduction is a recurring theme -- but it's by no means the only one. I'd describe him as frank when it's called for, but not terribly bawdy or gratuitious or pornographic. There were a few moments when I felt very aware of my modern feminist convictions. When, as a teenager, he sleeps with a 12-year-old, I couldn't not be outraged. When a group of aggressive, drunken men "convince" a lone, cornered women to sleep with all of them, Casanova's light-hearted claim that she enjoyed it rang hollow. These moments are few, and didn't spoil the book for me -- but that doesn't mean they should be discounted. Aside from the pleasure of Casanova's company and its literary merits, this contrast between our approach to sex and his is part of the book's interest. I'd venture to say that we're more enlightened in many ways -- but not necessarliy in all ways. Casanova's views about single-parenthood, homosexuality, cross-dressing and women's enjoyment of their own sexuality all seem quite liberal, even over 200 years after he wrote. It's an interesting reminder that what we call "conservative" views about sex are often Victorian views about sex; go back another hundred years or so, and the sexual landscape was different again.

Anyhow, I highly recommend it. I dog-eared heaps of quotes, but these seem excessive after I've hogged so much space already. Just a couple of snippets for you, then:

"Economy in pleasure is not to my taste."

"They who do not love life do not deserve it."

"The chief business of my life has always been to indulge my senses; I never knew anything of greater importance. I felt myself born for the fair sex, I have ever loved it dearly, and I have been loved by it as often and as much as I could."


Anonymous said...

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