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Our Man in the Eighteenth Century?

History of My Life

by Giacomo Casanova, by Chevalier de Seingalt, translated with an Introduction by Willard R. Trask
Harcourt, 679 pp., $7.50

Casanova’s Histoire de ma vie is one of the most exhilarating of narratives; it is also one of the most mystifying. Like some enormous bird, the last of its fantastic species, the Histoire comes to us encrusted with scars yet still proudly levitating in a hostile atmosphere, still holding its own against those who would ensnare and bring it down. The scars are the many doubts cast upon the winged monster by biographers and critics. They have had reason to doubt it: the book is a strange bird.

What degree, or what kind, of veracity can be expected of the author of a narrative so full of improbable incidents? Hasn’t Casanova exploited the credulousness of posterity just as in the Histoire itself he admits, indeed boasts, of having exploited that of the Countess D’Urfé when, claiming to possess occult powers and a helpful oracle named Paralis, he undertook to realize her urgent dream of being reborn as a boy? No court of law would fail to discredit him as a witness on the grounds of his own testimony. Again, was old Casanova in fact the author of the Histoire, admittedly a masterpiece of its kind; or was the true author, as someone once suggested, that lover of hoaxes, impersonations, and pseudonyms, Stendhal? And what about the authenticity of the very text of the Histoire? Could authority be granted to any of the several versions in which the work used to circulate, since those versions showed striking differences?

True, there exists and international band of literary detectives called “Casanovites.” They are, and have long been, intent on establishing what one of them, the British writer J. Rives Childs, has called Casanova’s “essential veracity.” But surely this is a question-begging term in itself; and the discouraging result of the Casanovite researches is that by documenting certain of Casanova’s movements and activities, and affixing actual names to several of his heroines (to whom he gave false names or initials), they have incidentally reminded us of the vast reaches of Casanova’s experience that remain unverified and are possibly unverifiable by their very nature. It is one thing to come up with police records or contemporary newspapers proving that Casanova was actually present in a certain city at more or less the same date at which he claims to have been in that city. But it rarely follows that what he claims to have done in that city is established. More frustrating still are the attempted identifications of the several women. There is the French woman whom Casanova calls Henriette; she is one of his most believable heroines; on arriving with Casanova at Geneva, where they are about to part, she memorializes the sad, inevitable event by inscribing with a diamond on the windowpane of their hotel room: “Henriette tu aussi oublieras.” By consulting genealogies and resorting to a good many dubious postulates, the French authority, Charles Samaran, has “identified” Henriette as a certain lady of the Provencal gentry. But since nothing whatever is known about the lady that would connect her with Casanova or afford her a personality, whether or not consonant with Henriette’s personality, the attempted identification remains as fruitless in its results as it is tenuous in its logic.* Yet the Histoire has kept aloft, in however nameless a void. It is still read by thousands in a variety of dubious texts and unconscionable abridgments, although Casanova himself seems to be less of a culture hero to the advanced public at present than he was a quarter of a century ago.

ONE QUITE GRATUITOUS SOURCE of Casanovan mystification has, however, been recently removed, that of the text. We now have the initial installment of an excellent English translation by Willard Trask of the first authentic text of the Histoire ever to be published. The entire text, in the French in which Casanova wrote it, is contained in six sumptuous volumes with notes, a chronology, and a superb 180-page index. These volumes first saw light in Europe during the years 1960-62. The “Edition intégrale,” as it is called, was the jointly executed project of a French firm, the Librarie Plon, and a German firm, F. A. Brockhaus. The ancient Brockhaus company has been in possession of Casanova’s original manuscript ever since it first came into their hands, in 1821, some twenty-three years after Casanova’s death. How the manuscript survived, with only slight damage, the menaces of time, war, thievery, and the malversations of editors is a romance in itself. Considering, however, the fabulous nature of the Histoire, Mr. Trask is to be congratulated for the sobriety with which, in his Introduction, he has told this tale of the manuscript’s adventures. It is also to his credit that he has revealed the mutilations suffered by all previous French texts—and naturally carried over into all translations—without crying up in the expected Madison Avenue manner the advantages of the new text. He doesn’t have to crow; the many examples he gives of the damage wrought on the Histoire by former editors and publishers crow for themselves.

It was one Jean Laforgue, a French professor resident in Germany, to whom the Brockhaus company first entrusted the editing of the manuscript, in the 1820s. Laforgue undertook to correct Casanova’s sometimes unidiomatic French. (Italian, or as he liked to say, Venetian, was of course his native language.) The same editor also bowdlerized the text as he was obliged to do if the Histoire was to be published at all in those years, or for many years to come. Less pardonably, he supplied clarifications and motivations when he thought the action as recounted by Casanova was obscure. Still worse, he toned down Casanova’s anti-Revolutionary sentiments to make them accord with his own more or less Jacobin sentiments. Several decades ago, it became widely known that the existing texts were all largely derived from Laforgue’s and were all consequently unreliable, and that the original manuscript lay virtually out of reach in the Brockhaus vaults. This knowledge naturally discouraged interested scholars. From responsible scholarship Casanova got little attention; and since such scholarship when it is applied to worthwhile subjects often unites with good criticism to revive or keep alive the figures of the past, Casanova, lacking such efforts in his behalf, has tended to recede into a semi-Limbo, having been replaced as an eighteenth-century hero by other figures—Boswell, Horace Walpole, Diderot, Rousseau, even the Marquis de Sade—who have been better researched, documented, textualized, or at least existentialized.

Perhaps Bonamy Dobrée’s short biography (Casanova, New York, 1933) may be taken as a tide-mark in the rise and fall of Casanova’s reputation. For Dobrée’s too brief but shapely and humane book seems to have been the last book of any general interest on Casanova to appear in English. Certain remarks in the author’s Preface suggest that he felt scruples about working from even so up-to-date a text as the Edition la Sirène (Paris, 1924-35). His remarks are an apology in the form of a prophecy. “It is probable that we do not lose much in the rephrasing, and it is equally probable that no completely raw text will ever be published, for Casanova called things by their names, and it is odd that though humanity will accept facts, it is often horrified by words.”

AS PROPHECY Dobrée’s words have proved wrong in all particulars. The “raw text” as now published shows how extensive Laforgue’s “rephrasings” often were. On the other hand, the formerly bowdlerized or excised passages now restored turn out to be sparing in the use of “words”—words for the bodily parts and the sexual processes. And just as Casanova’s style, freed from Laforgue-isms, gains in terseness, so the scenes of sexual encounter, although they may suffer from the coyness of Casanova’s locutions—“charms” for a woman’s breasts and lower body, “my steed” for his own penis—have the advantage of including details that help to individualize the scenes and characterize the women.

In the present Englished volume there are, for example, the episodes at Corfu involving Casanova and the Signora F. On one occasion the two of them are shown “wiping” themselves off: they have engaged in some act of quasicoitus. From this and other related scenes the Signora F. emerges as a rather pitiable captive of her situation: the palace on this island outpost of the Venetian empire, her coldly acquiescent husband, her aging official lover, and the insistent young Casanova, ever the born outsider on the watch for his chance to become an insider. Whether from pride or fear or some excess of self-love the Signora F. is a “tease.” Once she deliberately though briefly exposes her “charms” to the gaping and gasping youth. Viewing the event in retrospect, Casanova writes, with what strikes me as a certain loveliness of feeling and insight: “I see her staring at herself, lost in herself…delighting in her own beauty.”

Such episodes as those concerning the Signora F. frequently involve what appear to be familiar motifs from erotic romance and fabliau. Our suspicions as to their authenticity are thus aroused, and we recall that he had probably read a lot of that literature from the Satyricon to the Decameron and beyond. Yet “life imitates art.” There is a whole mythology of the modern sleeping-car and it is not all myth. Travel is still a great aphrodisiac. In any case, a wealth of intricate circumstance and realistic detail gives at least an imaginative authority to Casanova’s erotic passages. In addition to the Signora F., there is the woman in Rome who, asked by Casonova why she sighs while pulling down her skirts as their carriage halts in front of her palace, replies simply, like Emma Bovary rather than a heroine of erotic romance, “We’re home.”

For Casanova, love-making is always an occasion for the making of a scene. Settings are carefully specified and rendered graphic. The characters are animated by appropriate forms of speech and action, and these may be understated, like the “We’re home,” or amount to a veritable beau geste, like Henriette’s words on the window-pane. Occasionally the scene is Hogarthian or Jan Steenian in its rambunctious scamperings and debris of squalor, Such is the happening in the peasant’s cottage where Casanova and Father Steffano are set upon by two lecherous hags. This is an inversion (love among the lower classes!) of Casanova’s frequently idyllic love scenes. In these idyls the pleasures of intercourse are reflected in the splendor of the surroundings: the well-upholstered rooms, the gardens and colonnades; the luminous sunlight or sudden thunderstorm. In such scenes, it could be said, the blooming Fragonard girl is really possessed amid her draperies on that marble seat under the ornamental urns and elms. Casanova was the brother of a painter and an acquaintance of Raphael, Mengs, Winckelmann, possibly Francesco Guardi.

CASANOVA’S TEMPER is far more histrionic than painterly. That part of his mind we call memory, working on what we assume to have been real events of his past, instantly sets ablaze that part of his mind we call imagination, with the result that those events are converted into the kind of scenes referred to above. This transforming of the stuff of memory into the scenario of theater commences with what he calls his earliest memory. Meanwhile he has maintained that his “organ of memory” developed only with “the beginning of my own existence as a thinking being,” that is, when he was “eight years and four months old.” Casanova’s is the classical conception of the limits of recollection; memory is an organ whose beginnings coincide with those of the faculty of reason (“a thinking being”). For the Rousseau of the Confessions, on the other hand, as for the many subsequent autobiographers in Rousseau’s tradition, memory begins not at some determinate age or date but with some happening. The happening is usually domestic, and often trifling in itself though not generally in its ultimate significance; and as a rule it is traceable to an age earlier than Casanova’s eight years and four months, if it is traceable at all. (Henry James was to maintain that his earliest memory was of seeing the column in the Place Vendôme from a carriage at the age of one!) Rousseau tracks his first memory back to what is apparently an age earlier than seven. His “uninterrupted self-consciousness” began with his father’s reading to him from the library of romances left behind by Rousseau’s dead mother. Often his father would read to him all night long until, “hearing the swallows begin to twitter, he would say, quite ashamed. ‘To bed with us; I am more of a child than yourself.”’ Rousseau’s recall is merely a glimpse, not a scene, but the glimpse brings child, father, and dead mother, books and twittering birds, into a domestic relationship of the utmost poignancy.

  1. *

    The notes supplied by Mr. Trask draw not only on the Brockhaus-Plon edition but on a German translation of that edition now in progress. He is evidently skeptical of those forced identifications for he omits from his notes to Volume Two, Chapter II the note to the same chapter in Brockhaus-Plon where Bellino-Teresa the pseudo-castrato is said to be a certain singer later well-known throughout Europe. I should add that the researches by the Casanovites have been highly rewarding as applied to Casanova’s later life and other particulars.

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