History of My Life
In the popular imagination the Venetian adventurer Giacomo Casanova (1725–1798) is, above all, a smooth operator, the archetypal “man who loved women”—even if no one today could possibly believe such a sweet talker. Or could they?
Whether Casanova really did all the things he is known for is a question that haunts critical opinion surrounding his enthralling and immensely long book, History of My Life. Over the years this upstart son of Venetian actors seems to have insinuated himself into the palaces of cardinals and the arms of courtesans, hobnobbed with famous philosophers and notorious charlatans. By the time he was fifty Casanova—a/k/a the Chevalier de Seingalt, a/k/a the occult master Paralisée Galtinarde, a/k/a the spy Antonio Pratolini—had lived in Venice, Rome, Istanbul, Corfu, Paris, Geneva, Vienna, Marseille, London, Berlin, Madrid, Moscow, Warsaw, and Trieste. Ten years later—broke, ailing, and apparently cast aside by Fortune—he accepted a sinecure as the librarian at a nobleman’s estate in Dux, a Bohemian backwater of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. There, from 1790 to 1798, as blood flowed in the streets of Paris, Casanova scribbled away, recalling happier times, largely for his own amusement and consolation. As he said in a letter:
I write thirteen hours a day which passes like thirteen minutes. What pleasure it is to recall pleasures! But what pain it is to recollect pains. I amuse myself because I do not invent. What bothers me is the necessity I am under to disguise the names for I have no right to publicize the affairs of others.
Early chapters of his story, which he wrote in French, were read by the debonair Prince de Ligne (the so-called “first gentleman of Europe”), who enthusiastically compared them to Montaigne’s essays in their frankness. But the book itself was never finished. Casanova had just reached the year 1774—and his return to Venice after nearly two decades in exile (because he was wanted for escaping from the Leads, the infamous prison in the Doge’s palace)—when he succumbed to an infection of the genito-urinary tract. (Not surprising in one who had, he said, experienced at least eleven episodes of the “pox.”) According to several witnesses, his last words were: “I have lived as a philosopher, and die as a Christian.”
The manuscript of the History then drifted into the hands of a grandnephew, who sold it in 1821 to the Leipzig publishing firm of Brockhaus, which published it in a loose German translation (1822–1828). This was followed a few years later by a French text (1826–1838), edited and reworked by a Jean Laforgue, who had been commissioned by Brockhaus to polish the occasionally Italianate diction and tone down some of its sex scenes (even though the decorous Casanova is never graphic). All subsequent translations—including the one into English by Arthur Machen (1894)—necessarily followed this nineteenth-century travesty. Not until 1960–1962 did Brockhaus, in conjunction with Plon in …